In a sad ending to a mystery that captivated New York and fueled a family's frantic, months-long search for answers, police said Tuesday that remains found in the East River are those of Avonte Oquendo, a boy with autism who fled his school last October.
DNA confirmed that the badly decomposed remains, which a teenage girl stumbled upon while out walking last week, were the 14-year-old. No cause of death was given, and police said the investigation into Avonte's death was continuing.
The boy's disappearance captured the city's attention because of his vulnerability -- he had severe autism and did not speak -- and because of the way he was allowed to dash from his school alone despite his special needs. Surveillance cameras showed Avonte in the hallway of his Queens school on Oct. 4, then darting out the door and across the street toward a riverside park.
His family has notified the city's Department of Education that it plans to file a lawsuit against the department over Avonte's disappearance. The family's attorney, David Perecman, has said the school in Long Island City, Queens, was negligent because Avonte was able to leave the building. He also says officials waited an hour before calling Avonte's mother, Vanessa Fontaine, to tell her that her son was missing.
[Updated 3:25 p.m. PST, Jan. 21: “There were so many things that went wrong,” Perecman told reporters Tuesday afternoon. “It befuddles the mind.”
The Department of Education has refused to comment on the pending litigation, but in a statement Tuesday, city schools Chancellor Carmen Farina said she was “heartbroken” over the boy’s death.
“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,” said Farina.]
After Avonte vanished, his family maintained a 24/7 command post near his school, where volunteers gathered to help search for him and where local and some national media did almost daily reports. When the weather turned too cold to work from tents, Fontaine rented an office in Queens to continue recruiting volunteers to post fliers showing Avonte's picture and appealing for help finding him.
Because Avonte was known to like trains, the city broadcast his mother's voice through subway stations in hopes that might bring him out of hiding.
The reward for information leading to the teen reached $95,000, and hundreds of tips poured into the family and to police. None shed light on the teen's fate until Jan. 16, when a girl walking along a rocky Queens beach found a human arm.
Police found more body parts nearby, along with clothes that matched those Avonte had been wearing when he disappeared.