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Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Was Anyone Responsible For Avonte Oquendo's Death?

     Avonte Oquendo, an autistic 14-year-old who didn't speak, attended school in Long Island City, Queens, New York. The black, five-foot-three, 120 pound student was enrolled in the school's special needs program. He lived with his mother, Vanessa Fontaine, a social services case manager, and his four older brothers aged 19 to 29. Avonte's school sits on a busy street across from a playground, a dog run, and a jogging path that overlooks the East River.

     At 12:40 PM on October 4, 2013, a school surveillance camera caught Avonte coming out of the building with other school kids. That was the last time anyone saw him. Reacting to the missing persons report filed by his mother, dozens of New York City police officers from the 102 Precinct, aided by two helicopters, conducted a thorough search of the neighborhood.

     Following the initial surge of police activity on the case, Avonte's mother Vanessa, working out of a donated recreational vehicle parked in front of the school, oversaw the deployment of volunteer searchers and the distribution of missing person fliers.

     Vanessa Fontaine also organized candlelight vigils and rallies, raised $95,000 in reward money from anonymous donors, and appeared on several nationally broadcast television programs. While the police received hundreds of tips, nothing panned out.

     Two months after her son's disappearance, Vanessa moved her operation out of the RV and set up shop in a rented office. Thirty days after that, with still no leads on Avonte's whereabouts, activity on the case waned. There were fewer tips coming in, and only a handful of volunteers showed up each day at Vanessa's missing persons headquarters.

     The missing boy's mother filed a $25 million lawsuit against New York City's Board of Education. The plaintiff accused the staff at Avonte's school of failing to protect him.

     On Thursday night, January 16, 2014, body parts and items of clothing found near the Queens shoreline. The remains were later identified as the missing boy's. The search was over and a new phase of the case, determining Oquendo's cause and manner of death, was underway.

     In March 2014, Richard Condon, the school system's "Special Commissioner of Investigation," sent a 12-page report regarding the Oquendo case to the Queen's District Attorney's Office. The report did not allege that any crime had occurred and did not recommend that any school employee should be disciplined.

     As a criminal matter the Oquendo case was closed. Apparently the official manner of the boy's drowning went into the books as accidental. To this date no one from the school has been held accountable for the autistic teenager's fate. The lawsuit, as of April 2017, remains unresolved. 

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