UPDATE: JANUARY 25: THE HEARTBREAKING FAREWELL
Strangers who helped try to find an autistic New York City teen who walked out of his school and disappeared joined his family and friends Saturday for his funeral, somberly marking the tragic end of their three-month search.
The former Roman Catholic archbishop of New York, Cardinal Edward Egan, presided over the ceremony at the Church of Saint Joseph as 14-year-old Avonte Oquendo’s parents and brothers sat stoically in a front pew, next to a white casket holding the remains pulled from the East River last week.
Avonte Oquendo’s father Danny Oquendo kisses his son’s casket as it is prepared to leave Saint Joseph’s Church in the West Village for the burial on January 25, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Christopher Gregory/Getty Images)
“This morning we are grateful to God for Avonte Oquendo, for his life, for his courage, and for the acts of goodness and kindness that his life and his tragic disappearance evoked among us,” Egan said. “We know that he is safely in the embrace of the father in heaven and we thank that father in heaven for the years we had with him in our midst.”
Oquendo, who had a form of autism that made him nonverbal, had been missing since Oct. 4, when he walked out of his school toward a park overlooking the river. His remains were found about 11 miles from where he vanished after a massive citywide search that included extensive searches of subway tunnels and regular announcements over the PA system at subway stations.
Many of the volunteers who handed out flyers with his picture on them and helped the search effort arrived at the church Saturday to pay their respects.
Osmaira Maldonado, 28, attended the funeral with her four-year-old son Justin Hardy and introduced herself to Avonte’s mother, Vanessa Fontaine, after the service to pass along her condolences.”I guess it’s just a mother thing,” she said tearfully outside the church. “It’s so tragic I didn’t know what else to say.”
A funeral home covered the costs of the funeral and a family-only wake beforehand, where about a hundred relatives sat together in a room full of white flowers watching a slideshow of the teen’s photos.
“Nobody really wanted to speak,” said Roberto Colon, 49, whose wife’s cousin is Avonte’s mother. “We couldn’t fathom what to say.”
UPDATE: JANUARY 23: FUNERAL PLANS ANNOUNCED FOR AVONTE OQUENDO
The family of Avonte Oquendo has announced plans for his funeral.
After what became a very public case, the family is planning private services. Avonte’s remains will be cremated, and private services will be held at the Greenwich Village Funeral Home at 199 Bleecker Street on Saturday, January 25 between 9:30 and 10:30 a.m. ET, with the funeral service to follow at the Church of St. Joseph at 371 Sixth Avenue between 11 and Noon ET.
After the funeral, the family will gather for lunch at the Astoria World Manor for a luncheon celebrating Avonte’s life.
You can send condolences at the funeral home’s website by clicking this link.
BREAKING NEWS: JANUARY 21: DNA CONFIRMS REMAINS ARE THOSE OF AVONTE OQUENDO
That was all that was needed to be said as word spread over social media about the worst of all possible outcomes. The more time that passed since 14 year old Avonte Oquendo went missing on October 10, 2013 from the Riverview School in Long Island City along the East River waterfront in Queens, New York, the more everyone feared he wouldn’t be found alive.
Today, the local Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed that body parts found on the beach near Powell Cove Boulevard in College Point are those of the non-verbal autistic teen.
After an arm, a leg and lower torso were found in the area last Thursday, a New York Police Department dive unit searched through the weekend and found a skull on Monday. The cause and manner of death are still being investigated, but dismemberment was ruled out.
For the family, it was heartbreaking news as they held out hope that the remains were not those of Avonte. They previously notified the city that would be filing a lawsuit because their son had not been prevented from leaving the school where there were three teachers and 10 students in his class. The family’s lawyer said the filing would now become a wrongful death suit.
Funeral plans have not yet been announced.
UPDATE: OCTOBER 28: REWARD UP TO $95,000 and will hold at that amount | Prayer vigil held
The reward in the case of missing teenager Avonte Oquendo has now topped-out at $95,000. The family says it will not accept new contributions out of concern it may actually delay Avonte’s return. The Oquendo family said police and an attorney expressed concern that if someone is holding the boy, who will have been missing for a month next Friday, they may be waiting for the reward to increase.
Meanwhile, at a prayer vigil this past Sunday, the family thanked everyone who contributed to the reward fund and to the search effort . They are still asking for volunteers to help in the search.
NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly apologized Saturday to the Oquendo family after saying he was “not hopeful” that Avonte would be found alive. “My son is alive,” Avonte Oquendo’s mother told reporters on Friday, reacting to NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly’s comments that hope is fading that autistic teen will be found alive.”There’s no evidence that Avonte is not alive,” family attorney David Perecman said, adding he was stunned by Kelly’s remarks on Thursday night.
“I’m going to ask the commissioner not to make statements like that,” Perecman said. “The family had no idea it was coming and they were really hurt when the statement was made.” Kelly’s statement came during a brief interview with reporters.
Read more on the latest developments at ABC7 New York.
Reward grows to $70,000 as search continues for missing New York area teen
It’s the nightmare of every parent of a child with Autism – that they will wander off, even under supervised care, and go missing. That’s the real-life nightmare scenario Vanessa Fontaine is living. Her 14 year-old son Avonte Oquendo has been missing for over a week after leaving his school in Queens.
A 24 -hour command center has been set up near the Center Boulevard School in the Long Island City area of Queens where Avonte , who can’t communicate verbally, was assigned to a group of six special needs students who are supervised by one teacher and one paraprofessional.
Surveillance video shows him leaving the school on October 4th, unchallenged, and that’s got his mother very upset, saying, “I can’t watch it. I can’t see him run off like that and nobody’s running behind him to say, ‘hey kid come back here.’ There’s no one.”
Avonte’s older brother, Daniel Oquendo Jr., has told the media that it’s unusual for his brother to be out by himself and that he’s always accompanied by family outside of school.
The family is angry that 40 minutes to more than an hour went by before the police were called and that they were notified that Avonte was missing. A lawsuit is being filed against the city and the school district over the security breakdown.
In the meantime, about 100 NYPD officers are assigned to look for the missing 5-foot-3 inch tall teen who weighs 125 pounds and was last seen wearing a gray striped shirt, black jeans and black shoes. The 14 year-old has been described as ‘having the mind of a 7 year-old’, and because of his fascination with trains, all maintenance on the NYC subway station was halted to allow subway workers to search the tunnels – a search that may be expanded to the New Jersey Transit System and the Long Island Railroad (LIRR), as well as area rail yards. Police are even investigating leads from local psychics.
Over 100 people turned out for a candlelight vigil for Avonte on Friday, October 11th at Hunters Point Park in Long Island City and passed out fliers. Click on the photo below by Steve Malecki of the Queens Chronicle for more coverage of the vigil.
Autism Speaks, a New York non-profit co-founded by former NBC Chairman Bob Wright and his wife Suzanne, received an anonymous donation and contributed towards the $70,000 reward currently being offered for information leading to the safe return of Avonte.
Statement from Abled.com Co-Founder Laura Meddens
All of us at Abled® are absolutely heartbroken over the news of Avonte Oquendo’s death, and join with everyone who shares this sorrow in offering heartfelt condolences to his family.
We have covered this story from the beginning, maintaining banners on our homepage as part of our AbledALERT effort to keep Avonte’s story in the public eye in the hope that someone might see him and alert the police.
This is a tragedy that should never have happened, but as you’ll learn in our report on autistic wandering, it’s far more common than you might believe.
We hope that the information in the report will be of help to the families of children and teens with autism and that the lessons learned from Avonte’s story will help to prevent this kind of tragedy from ever happening again.
May Avonte rest in peace, and may the memories of their joyful times with him be a comfort to his family as they face the future without him.