It is Heartbreaking. “It is a sad, cold world,” Daniel Oquendo, father of Avonte Oquendo, told the Amsterdam News as he strove to come to terms the day after DNA testing revealed that the son for whom he had been searching for four months was found in the East River.
The news that New York City did not want to hear was delivered on Monday afternoon. The remains that were found along the shore of the East River in Queens are those of missing autistic teen Avonte.
Hearts are heavy. For four days, the family and the city held their collective breath for the DNA results, which the medical examiner’s office said could take weeks to come back. The results were
announced within 96 hours.
The family is obviously devastated.
Shattered by the news, and trying to balance grief and comprehension—while simultaneously trying to stay strong for his family—Oquendo, speaking with only the Amsterdam News, noted how the whole tragedy had somehow worked as a strange, unifying force.
In the concentrated search for the mute child, thousands of people scoured the city over four months, sometimes in organized large groups, sometimes as couples or individuals.
“What I saw from the people was hope for our future,” Oquendo stated. “Sometimes in life there are sacrifices made for the betterment of humanity. Unfortunately for me, it was my child. Only God can explain, although I have questioned him, but I am left empty.”
Since last week, Avonte’s mother, Vanessa Fontaine, had refused to believe that the remains found were those of her son, saying, “It’s not Avonte until it’s Avonte.”
On Tuesday, Jan. 21, when the DNA results were revealed, the family’s attorney, David Perecman, told reporters, “[Fontaine] finally just broke down … just crying and crying.”
On Tumblr, Avonte’s brother Danny Oquendo wrote, “Rest in peace, little brother. This world never deserved you. I will long for the day I can join you in paradise.”
He too thanked the people who had come out to help in the search for his brother. “The tenacity the world, especially NYC, has shown in regards to finding Avonte and spreading awareness has been unmatched in comparison to any other missing child investigation. For that, we are forever grateful to you.”
Avonte’s case gripped the city and had thousands of people—with some flying in as far as Texas and Florida—come to participate in the search for the nonverbal child. Avonte’s father told the AmNews in previous interviews that his son could not speak or write. The elder Daniel Oquendo, feeling that “someone has my son,” pleaded, “They should let him go. He can’t tell on you; he can’t speak.”
The MTA searched every tunnel in the system, and police and volunteers searched the streets, backyards and industrial and construction sites in Long Island City, Queens, near Avonte’s school. Some people even searched all over Central Park in the hopes of finding the youngster.
As late as last week—even when the medical examiner’s office was testing the DNA from the recovered body parts—subway riders heard the familiar announcement asking them to look out for the mute child, still giving a description of what he was wearing and what number to call if he was spotted. The MTA searched their 468 subway stations; there were constant announcements and posters everywhere in the system.
There were thousands of posters in stores and office windows, T-shirts and buttons with Avonte’s face and contact information on them in case he was seen. Police said that there were hundreds of leads in the case, even one where someone wrote a note about a Harlem sighting on an Avonte missing poster at the Amsterdam News uptown office. However, all leads turned up nothing.
Last Thursday, Jan. 16, a 14-year-old girl found an arm as she walked along the East River bank in College Point. Reportedly, she took a photo of it and told her mother. Police locked down the area. More body parts, including a leg, torso and a skull, were found in a stretch of water about nine miles from where Avonte was last seen on Oct. 4. A day later, police searchers found Air Jordan sneakers and a pair of jeans similar to what Avonte was wearing. But the underwear that was found apparently had not been what he was wearing.
The speculation is only adding to the confusion. The medical examiner has not stated whether foul play was involved or if the remains were part of natural decomposition.
On Oct. 4, 2013, Avonte was seen on video running out of his Center Boulevard School (also known as the Riverview School) in Long Island City, even though he was supposed to be supervised at all times due to the fact that he was a known “runner.”
A school safety officer said that she saw Avonte in the hallway and told him to go back to his classroom. She claimed that he went back upstairs, but video shows him running out of the side door of the school at 1-50 51st Ave.
Reportedly, search dogs traced him to a marsh in the river and then to a nearby subway station. But they lost his scent. Weeks later, detectives told this reporter at the makeshift headquarters the family had put up outside the school that cadaver and water cadaver dogs had searched the site, the marshes and the river.
The city’s special commissioner for investigations is on the case.
New Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said that she too was heartbroken, declaring, “As chancellor, I am determined that we learn every lesson we can from this terrible tragedy and do everything in our power to prevent incidents like this from ever occurring again.”
Back in October, Perecman filed a $25 million notice of claim. On Tuesday, the lawyer asked, “Why did it take 15 minutes for school administrators to find out? Why were police in a neighborhood precinct not alerted for about an hour? … I am convinced that had a prompt reaction occurred, had some of this cascade of errors not occurred, that the police would have been called, they would have went outside, and they would have found Avonte before this happened.
“He would be home right now. He would be wearing his Air Jordans, and they wouldn’t have been found in a river.”
Neither Mayor Bill de Blasio nor the New York City Department of Education responded to AmNews requests for comment.
Daniel Oquendo is trying to hold up for the family. He told the Amsterdam News, “I’ll be OK. With the help of family and friends, we will be OK.”