NYPD expanding search for missing autistic teen Avonte Oquendo to Long Island, New Jersey

Lucy Yang reports from Long Island City.
October 15, 2013 5:33:13 AM PDT
The NYPD is expanding its search beyond New York City for a 14-year-old boy with autism missing for 11 days. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said Monday that the NYPD was engaging the help of officials in New Jersey and Long Island.

On Monday, Police divers searching for 14-year old Avonte Oquendo entered the Newtown Creek, near the Long Island City school where the autistic boy went missing Oct. 4.

It is part of the frantic search for Avonte, and the NYPD is asking the public to come forward with any possible information on the boy's whereabouts.

Chief of Department Phil Banks said that if anyone thinks they see Avonte, they should call the department's hotline at 800-577-TIPS. He says they will chase down every lead.

Hundreds of officers have been searching for the teen, who does not speak. His parents say he loves trains. Police have checked all 468 train stations, every tunnel, abandoned station and bathroom.

Meanwhile, some of his family members are nervous someone has the teenager.

"If somebody does have him, release him, because he can't even tell on you. Write a note, put it in his pocket, write a note on his forehead, send him off," said Roc Conti, a cousin.

Avonte's family and dozens of volunteers were on hand in Long Island City Sunday, handing out flyers and asking everyone to keep an eye out for the missing teenager. Avonte's father, Daniel is pleading for more volunteers to come help.

Meanwhile, the reward is up to $70,000 for information leading to Avonte's safe return.

The Manhattan Children's Center, a not-for-profit private autism school, matched the $5,000 put up Wednesday by the law firm Mayerson & Associates. Then, Autism Speaks and an anonymous donor upped that reward to $70,000.

A red tent has been set up in front of the Center Boulevard School, where Oquendo disappeared from Oct. 4, to make the search more of a 24-hour operation. Volunteers, including at least one family member, are staffing it around the clock.

"We're just out here trying to give out as much information as we can to anyone that wants to help or volunteer or search for Avonte," brother Daniel Oquendo, Jr., said. "We're trying to have a family member or relative out here 24 hours a day, just in case he comes back here or anybody else wanders up here and wants to help."

Police are handing out flyers at checkpoints along the street in the search for the boy, who was last seen on surveillance video running out of the school unsupervised. They also consulted psychics and have searched those locations, including a tunnel under Tompkins Square Park, but those searches have come up empty.

"Please bring him back, don't keep him if you have him," said grandmother Doris McCoy, who is convinced someone has her grandson and that he is still alive. "Be good to him. Don't abuse him. Don't hurt him."

Police blanketed the area with flyers with the boy's picture and have been spending their days searching scaffolding, rooftops and anywhere else they could think to look.

Oquendo's family is trying to stay strong and hoping he is found soon.

"I know they're going through hours and hours of surveillance, so we're just waiting to see if they get anything from that," brother Daniel Oquendo, Jr., said. "But in the meantime, we're just going to try what we can and search, search everywhere."

The family says the boy has wandered off before, and that on previous occasions, he was found on the subway.

The family now claims that a security guard saw Oquendo leave and did nothing to stop him, and also waited a long time to inform them.

"And she said, 'I saw him and I stopped and asked him, where are you going?'" McCoy said. "'And he turned around and looked at me and just walked out.'"

The Oquendo family has filed a lawsuit against the Department of Education, but they say for now, their main focus is finding him.

"We understand that a security guard apparently knew that the child left, and despite the knowledge that child left, the school didn't notify the parent for a full hour," attorney David Perecman said. "In an hour, this poor boy could have gone who knows where."

Avonte was last seen wearing a gray striped shirt, black jeans and black sneakers. Authorities say that if you do see him, call authorities first and then follow the boy, because he may run if you approach him too quickly.