His face was known all over the city. Small for his age with innocent brown eyes and a trace of timidness in his smile, Avonte Oquendo’s story captured the hearts of the most populated city in the country.
It had been more than three months since Avonte — a 14-year-old mute autistic boy — ran out of the Riverview School in Long Island City, but the search remained steadfast, until last Thursday when an arm, two legs and a torso were found washed ashore in College Point.
Almost everyone feared the worst. The body had the same size 16 jeans and striped polo shirt from Old Navy, the size 5 1/2 Air Jordan sneakers tied tightly to the feet matched as well.
Yet Vanessa Fontaine, much like any mother in the same situation, remained unswayed.
“When I speak to her, she doesn’t want to watch the news, she doesn’t want to dig further into it,” Fontaine’s lawyer David Perecman said. “She’s just letting the days go by until she gets real evidence from the M.E.”
“It isn’t Avonte until it’s Avonte,” she told Perecman.
It was Avonte.
On Tuesday, police officers showed up at Fontaine’s door and told her the DNA tests proved the remains in the East River were indeed her son’s.
“She told me, ‘It’s Avonte, it’s Avonte. They came. It’s Avonte,’” Perecman said on Tuesday.
All the hearts of the people who had connected with Fontaine, her son and the tragedy she was going through simultaneously broke when the medical examiner’s report was released.
Fontaine, a woman who maintained a sense of composure, focus and strength throughout the ordeal, finally broke down and mourned for her son.
“I will never stop looking,” she had said in a previous interview. “Never.”
She didn’t. In one of the largest search efforts in New York City history, the NYPD and MTA deployed sniffer dogs, went through hours of surveillance footage, blanketed the streets with fliers of Avonte’s face and trekked through a number of subway stations and tunnels because of the boy’s fascination with the transit system.
Patrol cars cruised the streets playing a recording of Fontaine calling for her son.
“Avonte, this is your mother,” it said. “You are safe. Walk towards the lights.”
She knew her son was not one to approach a stranger and hoped that hearing her voice would intrigue him enough to approach any of the dozens of police cars that drove throughout the city.
With her two older sons, Fontaine set up a headquarters in Astoria where she could fold fliers, make phone calls and arrange weekly search parties.
The cause of death is unknown pending further testing but it wasn’t long after the body was found that rumors circulated. Some said he fell and drowned on his own, others hinted at foul play as he reportedly was found wearing different underwear than he’d gone to school in.
“I’m not a doctor or a scientist but where he ended up, it seems unlikely that he got there on his own,” Perecman said. “To go 11 miles north along a jagged coast line, it doesn’t make much sense to me.”
The East River, despite its name, is not a river but a tidal strait with currents that change at least four times a day depending on the tides, meaning there is a possibility that Avonte drifted along the borough’s coast.
The separation of his body is also complicated. With sharp rocks and sea life inhabiting the waters, the ligaments binding his limbs together could have very well been weakened.
Regardless, Perecman, Fontaine and Avonte’s family are looking to hold someone accountable.
According to the attorney, who said he was given footage from five out of the 20 cameras on the first floor of the school, Avonte was last seen running outside through a back door that had been unlocked for at least 13 minutes.
“I for one am good and angry,” Perecman said on Tuesday. “When you look at the videotapes, at what happened, the sheer chaos that went on in that school and to think they are taking children like this every single day, telling their parents that they’re safe, when indeed they’re not.”
He suspects there is more information left to be uncovered as the account from the school safety officer clashes with what the videos show.
“She said three times, once emphatically, that she spoke to Avonte, asked him where he was going and saw him walk up the stairs,” Perecman said. “We know this is not true. We can see in the video that this is not true.”
Allegedly, there is video of the safety officer sitting at her desk where monitors show a live feed of the hallways, meaning she may have been able to stop Avonte from running away moments after he walked out the door.
Other unanswered questions include: why did it take several minutes for Avonte’s teacher to notice he wasn’t in class when he is assigned a one-on-one monitor for the entire school day? Why did it take 15 minutes for school administrators to find out? Why were police not notified for an hour? Why was Fontaine left in the dark for about two hours?
These are questions Perecman is hoping to have answered as he announced his intention to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the city.
“I am convinced in my heart of hearts, 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 been outside, and they would have found Avonte before this happened,” the attorney said. “He would be home right now. He would be wearing his Air Jordans and they wouldn’t have been found in a river.”
Funeral arrangements have yet to be made, though a Manhattan funeral home offered to hold the service free of charge.
Fontaine has not spoken publicly since the remains were found and Perecman said she has to take time to feel grief.
“I leave Vanessa alone,” he said. “I usually communicate with her through Avonte’s grandmother because she isn’t the kind of person to wear her heart on her sleeve. She’s a strong woman.”