The Boy Who Ran: The Life and Death of Avonte Oquendo

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Photo: Barbara Woike/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

The doctor told the mother not to worry, that the baby was only a little developmentally delayed. Some kids just do it on their own time, he said. So she brought him home and waited.

Vanessa Fontaine had the background, as a nurse and an experienced mother, to understand that something was different about Avonte. He was one year old and still not making eye contact. He’d started talking, saying “Mommy” and “Daddy,” but then just as suddenly he’d stopped saying anything at all. There were other symptoms, too. “He’d watch TV, but he wouldn’t play with toys,” she remembers. “He didn’t like any toy that I would buy him, no toy at all.”

Fontaine was the daughter of a single mother, Doris McCoy, who had saved enough working as an administrative assistant at big Wall Street firms to move her family from an apartment in the Bronx into a house in a largely Italian neighborhood in Queens. As a student, Vanessa had done well, earning A’s at JHS 141 and Middle College High School. She stayed in school, studying to become a nurse at Bronx Community College, and then worked steadily, nights at first, building up enough experience to be a medical surgical nurse, which allowed her to find a job with normal hours.

She was a teenager when she met Daniel Oquendo and just 19 when their first son, Jason, was born. Next came Anthony, Andrew, and Jovan and finally Avonte, the baby, in 1999, when she was 34. The family lived in the three-bedroom apartment in Rego Park, not far from Fontaine’s mother. She relied on her mother and the older boys to look after the little ones. Her husband would help, too, but the marriage was faltering. They’d been growing apart before Avonte was born, and the tension about his developmental problems didn’t help.

Autism was a widely known disorder by 2000, but it was not yet common enough for parents to talk about it freely or for doctors to aggressively watch for the warning signs. There were no protocols yet for early intervention, no New York State–funded therapy for developmental delays. There was only Avonte’s pediatrician, who told Fontaine not to worry.

She waited a year and a half, until Avonte was 2 and a half, and then decided she couldn’t ignore things anymore. Avonte still wasn’t talking, though he seemed to understand what others said. He would only play with his brothers, and even then getting him to engage one-on-one was almost impossible. The simplest game was a nonstarter. “He wouldn’t put the puzzle pieces together,” she says. “He wasn’t dropping them in the right holes. If there was a circle, he tried to put a square in there.”

Fontaine brought in a child-development expert to visit the apartment and watch Avonte play. The expert, in turn, referred Avonte to a no-fee hospital run by Shriners Hospitals for Children. The diagnosis came a few weeks later: Avonte was severely autistic. But Fontaine resisted the label severely from the start; she had seen children at Shriners who seemed so much worse than her son — children who hurt themselves, who were in anguish every waking moment, who could never form a word. Avonte, at least, was capable of sometimes uttering a word, though he had to be heavily prompted — told explicitly, several times, to sound it out — before he went ahead and did it. That was something, she thought. “He can say words, my son.”

Oquendo moved to Florida shortly after Avonte’s diagnosis, so Fontaine and the brothers became Avonte’s caregivers. She never sought out a community of parents with kids like Avonte and came to believe that that sort of help was almost beside the point, given how each autistic child is unique. Day to day, Avonte was happy. He smiled. He recognized his mother and brothers. There seemed to be the potential for a breakthrough any time.

When he was of pre-K age, Avonte was enrolled in the local elementary school, in an IEP, or individual education program, like every other special-needs child. His classes always had a six-to-one student-teacher ratio, plus a paraprofessional (or teaching assistant) in attendance. Fontaine says she stepped in to advocate on Avonte’s behalf when necessary, resisting any change to his IEP that would have meant less supervision. “I would never let them put him in a class with 12 students,” she says. “I blocked it.”

Avonte was not a problem at school. But he wasn’t learning much, either. He continued to struggle with his motor skills — he never tied his own shoes and couldn’t seem to bear down hard with a pencil. He couldn’t contemplate any game with complex rules, like baseball. He never wrote or did math or appeared to read a book.

But the signs were always encouraging enough to keep the family optimistic. He could button and zip, eat on his own, throw his own garbage out. He did worksheets the school gave him, and went online. Getting his attention was never a problem; he never needed medication for ADD or ADHD. He had favorite TV channels, like the Cooking Channel. He loved going to the grocery store with his mother and picking out cookies or cake or candy from the aisles. He could help cook, adding ingredients he liked and stirring them in. He loved all kinds of music — country, merengue. He wrestled with his brothers, blew out his own birthday candles.

At times, if there was something Avonte couldn’t do, Fontaine chose to believe it was simply because he didn’t want to. Play catch? “He can do it, but he doesn’t really want to,” Fontaine says. A game that doesn’t require reading, like Candyland or Chutes and Ladders? “He had those games. He didn’t like them. I think he was bored.”

It was clear to his mother, at least, that Avonte had more ability than a lot of the worst cases. He was in there somewhere, she knew it. As he got older, he still wasn’t talking, but he understood everything around him. Do you want it? Do you not want it? Pick out what you wantMore important, Avonte recognized the people he loved — smiling, responding, nuzzling. “He wasn’t a kisser,” Fontaine says. “What he used to do is give me his forehead. You’d have to say, ‘Come on, can I hug you one time?’ He never gave me his cheek. Always gave me his forehead. So, you know, you go with what you can get.”

Above all else, his favorite thing to do — more than browsing YouTube or playing music or eating candy — was to run. His daily life was regimented by necessity. His mother and brothers would walk him to and from the school bus. At school, his IEP consistently called for him to be closely supervised. And he chafed at confinement, seizing control any way he knew how and seeking out openings to forge out on his own: In 2011, his IEP singled out three behaviors: “grabbing at adults,” “going through other people’s personal belongings,” and “running in the hall.” He was described as running “all the time,” “throughout the day.” The following year, his IEP noted only some improvement: “Avonte transitions nicely from class to class. He does get excited at times and run[s] off.” 

He received medals at school for races when he was younger, and even when he was approaching high-school age, breaking off into a run was a constant temptation; his mother needed to escort him on the shortest of trips to his grandmother’s apartment four blocks away. Even his favorite game on the iPad was Temple Run, a first-person game with running and leaping and sharp turns that go on endlessly, winding through different landscapes. Running without stopping.

In September, Avonte started high school at the brand-new Riverview School in Long Island City, which was a long school-bus ride from his home in Rego Park. Construction of the building, steps from a park on the banks of the East River, had continued up until the first day of school, and no one in Avonte’s family had been to see it before he arrived. Fontaine had set a date for a parent conference later in October. When his new teacher, Julie Murray, sent home a form for families to fill out about their children, Fontaine had written explicitly, “Questions or concerns that I have include. Safety concerns – Please make sure you keep an eye out he likes to run. Need 1:1 supervisor. Will leave the building.”

It was hard to tell if Avonte liked the place. This was not just a new school but a new neighborhood, with tall fences and construction vehicles blocking much of Avonte’s view of the new park. There were unfamiliar faces all around him, including new teachers and a few hundred students, most of whom didn’t have special needs. Two other distinct schools shared space in one large, gray-bricked complex: the Academy for Careers in Television and Film and the Hunters Point Community Middle School.

The intermingling presented challenges for Avonte and, it would seem, for others. One day, another student bit Avonte on the arm. Fontaine remembers him coming home angry. When she called the school to see what happened, and asked why a child with an inclination to bite was with her child to begin with, the reply, Fontaine recalls, was that the school hadn’t looked at the other child’s IEP yet. Later on, she’d wonder if they’d missed Avonte’s IEP, too — if they knew about how he always liked to run. (Reports released last week by Richard Condon, the special commissioner of investigation for city schools, indicated that Avonte’s teacher may have told a paraprofessional that Avonte liked to run, but she hadn’t informed anyone who was with him the afternoon he actually did.)

October 4 had been a normal summer-leftover day, sunny and bright. At lunch, Avonte quietly ate by himself. As the period ended, a teacher and two paraprofessionals lined up roughly a dozen students, including Avonte, and headed down three flights of stairs to the second-floor computer lab. Avonte was towards the end of the line, but to call it a line wouldn’t be quite right. There were large gaps between clusters of children. By the time the group made it to the second floor, Avonte had managed to break away.

What happened next has been documented by the investigator’s report, the Department of Education’s own “occurrence report,” and the school’s security videos, which have been shared with Avonte’s family. Seconds after he ran off the line, Avonte emerged on the first floor. One security video shows that he came out of the stairway and looked around, seemingly out of curiosity. In front of him was the building’s front security desk where a school-safety agent was seated. Others were there, too — a father and a daughter. The daughter ran behind the desk to give the guard a hug. Avonte walked past them nonchalantly, a hand in his pocket.

The guard came out from behind the desk and was standing, talking with the father and daughter. For the briefest of moments, she was facing away from Avonte. Which was when it happened. A camera on the exterior of the building picked up the image of Avonte darting out the side entrance of the school. The sun was shining, and the scaffolding around the school cast dark shadows. Across the street, Avonte could have seen the new waterfront park, a strip of green with a grid of sidewalks, walking paths, and bike lanes, all welcoming him.

He didn’t hesitate. He jogged down the sidewalk for a few yards underneath some scaffolding, then veered left along the crosswalk and towards the park entrance, dipping out of view when he jogged behind a small truck. This was the last confirmed sighting of Avonte Oquendo alive — bounding across the street, not looking back. 

By the time the teacher and paraprofessionals in the computer lab noticed Avonte’s absence, he’d already left the building. The teacher who had led Avonte’s group from the cafeteria into the lab alerted the school’s unit coordinator that Avonte was missing, and the unit coordinator, in turn, told the assistant principal, Angela Pomo. At this point, he’d been gone for 18 minutes.

The meltdown that followed at the school was, as all the reports have shown, a succession of mixed signals and missed opportunities. First, Pomo went to the school-safety officers, asking them to search outside the building. But that never happened, because the front-desk agent who had last seen Avonte — a woman named Bernadette Perez — told Pomo twice that he had not run out the door but up the stairs, which led everyone at the school to believe that Avonte was somewhere inside. 

Next, Pomo decided the entire school building needed to be locked down and searched. The principal, Susan McNulty, was off site, so Pomo sought help from Edgar Rodriguez, the principal of the Academy for Careers in Television and Film. Rodriguez was in charge of the building that day and decided not to lock down the school, not wanting to upset his students. Instead, he offered to help organize a quieter search for Avonte upstairs.

Pomo, meanwhile, asked to review the building’s security video, but there was a delay there, too. Rodriguez said he didn’t have password access to the security video and had to call for the code. Then came more delays. The police weren’t notified until sometime close to 1:30 p.m., nearly an hour after Avonte ran. Around the same time, his principal, McNulty, returned to the school and had a moment with Perez, who repeated that she saw Avonte run up the stairs.

McNulty decided it was time to call Avonte’s mother.

“Well,” said Fontaine, fuming. “Where did he go?”

The principal said that the security guard saw him bolt up the stairs and that no one had seen him since.

“So why didn’t she go after him?” Fontaine asked.

She said he’d been running too fast.

Fontaine rushed to the school, bringing Avonte’s brother Andrew with her. The principal was fighting back tears as she let them in. The police had put the building on lockdown about an hour after Avonte was first reported missing. Inside, as officers led a search, Fontaine and Andrew each took a turn on the PA system, trying to coax Avonte to come out into the open.

Avonte’s grandmother arrived shortly after Fontaine and Andrew and had a word with Perez. “Why did you let him go?” Avonte’s grandmother asked.

“I didn’t know he was special needs,” she remembers Perez saying.

It was then — nearly two hours after Avonte disappeared — that the school realized the lockdown was meaningless and that Avonte was out in the world.

As a destination, the park isn’t much to speak of. Unless you’re a boy who has spent the last four weeks watching workers in big vehicles construct the place.

The park is near the water, which some autistic kids are attracted to, so perhaps he ran toward the water. But the shoreline in that part of the park was blocked by a fence — not a chain-link fence, but planks of wood that are more difficult to climb. So perhaps he kept running. Maybe down the block, to a hilly area, masked by shrubbery, along the mouth of Newtown Creek.

There were places for Avonte to hide there, if, in fact, he was looking to hide — to stay out of school for as long as he could. And since no one came looking for him for at least an hour, maybe more, there was nothing to keep him from staying in those little hills, wandering, running, exploring, until it got dark.

Maybe he enjoyed being on his own. Or maybe he wasn’t sure what to do. Maybe the more he ran, the less he could figure out how to get home. 

Photo: Joshua Bright/The New York Times/REdux

Fontaine remembers standing in her son’s school, a place she’d never been to before that day, and being told that everything they’d been saying about her son was wrong. He was not inside the school. He was outside somewhere and had been for two hours. She remembers being asked what she wanted to do. Maybe there was a favorite place she knew of, something she knew Avonte liked, any lead for the search.

“I want the media,” she said instead.

The school resisted. “They said, ‘We have to go through different channels before we get the media here,’” Fontaine recalls. But enough time had been wasted. “I said, ‘You know what, I’ll do it myself.’”

NBC and ABC sent reporters right away. They searched the neighborhood all night, along the waterfront, in garbage cans, in parks, under cars, and found nothing. The family kept searching. Avonte’s father came up from Florida to help, bringing Avonte’s half-brother, Daniel Oquendo Jr., with him. Good Samaritans set up tents outside the school to serve as the command station for a search. They handed out leaflets and organized volunteers. When it got colder, a New Jersey man donated a trailer that was kept parked nearby. Donations raised the award for Avonte’s discovery to $89,500. A growing number of volunteers offered to help. The police kept them at a distance, especially when some of their theories on the case started trickling into the news coverage.

The East River had been one of the most logical early places to search for Avonte. The police sent boats up and down the coast. Fontaine, for her part, couldn’t see her son bothering with the water, or with climbing a fence. “He likes the sprinklers, but not deep water,” she says. His thing is running. Always has been. As the weather grew colder, the police turned away from the water and started entertaining the possibility that Avonte had traveled by foot — running beyond the park. Maybe, as so many people feared, someone had hurt him and disposed of him.

By late October, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly was saying that about 80 detectives were on the case, many finding themselves trying to channel the interests and inclinations of a 14-year-old autistic boy. His family said Avonte loved trains, so the MTA cut off power to parts of the 7 and G lines and suspended track maintenance elsewhere so that 200 workers could search the tunnels.

Avonte was nowhere.

The poster went up everywhere; the subway announcement blasted on endless repeat. There were more than 450 leads called in to the police. Police sent bloodhounds to a location in Astoria and also questioned a boy spotted in a photograph on a train.

All the leads went nowhere.

The official word turned more fatalistic. Mayor Bloomberg called what happened “a tragedy,” and Kelly said, “We are not hopeful that we're going to find this young man alive.” The family lashed out in the media, and Kelly apologized the next day. “We certainly hope [he’s alive],” he said.

On November 15, another boy, age 8, ran out of a school to the subway but was soon spotted and brought back to school. Such a thing wouldn’t have made the news before Avonte. Now Senator Chuck Schumer and others began advocating for special-needs students to wear tracking devices.

 It had grown dark. Maybe Avonte had been running, but not so far from where he’d vanished. Maybe he was still in the hills in the untamed part of the park, a few blocks from the school, 30 feet above the river. There was nothing to keep people from slipping off the side of the park, if they were running, if they were panicked, or if they were lost. 

As the mayor and police commissioner were voicing resignation about Avonte, the family was already preparing for litigation. Days after Avonte went missing, Fontaine hired David Perecman, a plaintiff’s lawyer who specializes in personal-injury cases, and he filed a $25 million notice of claim against the city. About a week after that, Ray Kelly announced that he had viewed the security videos and spoke with the school-safety agent, Perez, and decided that Perez did not do anything wrong. Perecman blasted Kelly for circling the wagons.

Perecman has watched the videos, too, and derived a very different conclusion from Kelly’s. He’s fixated on how Perez had been looking away from Avonte when he ran out. The real tell, according to Perecman, came a few minutes after Avonte vanished, when Perez is seen walking down the hallway and shutting the door that he had escaped through (and had been left ajar, the security video reveals, for a half-hour). Even though she insisted that Avonte had gone up the stairs, it’s possible she knew she hadn’t exactly seen him go there — or anywhere. The special commissioner of investigation’s report says that Perez told an additional person that she wasn’t sure if he went up those stairs. “The story morphs,” says Perecman. (That report didn’t suggest any school employee committed a crime or should be disciplined. But its findings have been passed on to the schools chancellor and the Queens district attorney. The police have told Perecman that they’ve also interviewed Perez, but they haven’t made that interview public. The DOE isn’t commenting on the case beyond what is stated in their official occurrence report.)

As the search continued, Perecman did some research into where Avonte might have gone. Despite what Fontaine believed about Avonte not being drawn to the river outside the school, Perecman kept coming back to the water — that either Avonte did something out of character and was lured in, or that he fell from a height after dark. He called Alan Blumberg, the director of the Davidson Laboratory, a marine research facility at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken. Blumberg is one of the foremost authorities on the waters of New York: He recommended the calmest place in the Hudson to drag the plane that Chesley Sullenberger had miraculously landed in the river five years ago.

From Blumberg, Perecman learned that no matter which way the tide might have taken Avonte, he would have moved quickly, as fast as two miles per hour. It was possible that the police search started so late that he moved beyond the limits of their search area. Trying to deduce which direction Avonte’s body might have traveled was tricky, but not impossible. Blumberg told him that the currents of the East River change direction four times a day, toggling back and forth, going north, toward Long Island Sound, and south, toward New York Harbor. If Avonte fell in the water before 5 p.m. that day, his body would have drifted south; after 5 p.m., he would have drifted north. But as long as Avonte’s body remained on the surface, Blumberg said, those changes in direction might not have had much of an impact. He would go one way, then another, but after a while, Blumberg believed, he would travel more north than south — making what he calls “a small creeping motion” up the East River, past the northern reaches of Queens to the Whitestone Bridge. 

On a cold Thursday evening in January, a photography student named Natasha Shapiro was walking along the waterfront near Powells Cove, an inlet on the waterfront in College Point, Queens. The quiet stretch of shoreline has perfect views of the Manhattan skyline in one direction and the Whitestone Bridge in the other. When she noticed the skeletal remains of a left arm, her mother told her to call the police. When they arrived, they found a size 5 and a half sneaker — an Air Jordan. Hours later, they found two legs and what looked like a human jawbone, rib bones, and parts of a pelvis. The following Tuesday, January 21, the medical examiner announced that DNA in the remains matched that of Avonte Oquendo.

The medical examiner’s final report detected no evidence of foul play, but the nature of his remains makes any conclusion less than definitive. The police have yet to finalize their report on Avonte’s disappearance. Publicly, all they’ve said is they believe Avonte drowned in the East River, perhaps after falling from a height in the hilly part of the park. From there, it makes sense that his body floated first in one direction, then another, but overall north, 11 miles along the shores of the East River, to the place where he was finally found. His remains seemed to have been decomposing near Powells Cove for months. 

Two weeks ago, Daniel Jr., wrote an open letter on an autism advocacy website calling the outpouring of support “one of the most inspiring events to ever occur in my lifetime,” and stating his hope that what happened to Avonte would “be the surge that builds up enough momentum to provide a real solution to the problematic issues that this hardship has brought to our attention.” Avonte’s mother, meanwhile, doesn’t want Avonte to be a poster child for anything. “Avonte wouldn’t even know [Daniel Jr.] if you stood him next to him,” she says bitterly. “He doesn’t know what he likes, he had no connection with him.” 

She isn’t ready to derive a life-affirming lesson from what happened to her son. She won't accept the official explanation, either. No theory sustains her, and she resists every new piece of evidence and expert opinion. “He did not fall near that school and float all the way over there. Do you know how far that is?” She remembers hearing that the police had checked out College Point months ago; why didn’t Avonte turn up then? “Everything is fabricated to me," she says. "I don’t think they’re ever going to say, really, what happened. There’s no closure, there’s no answers.”

Fontaine has watched the video of Avonte leaving the school just a few times. It’s not something she wishes to replay in her mind. The thought of him putting himself in harm’s way is too much to bear. But the notion of him suffering is even worse. She prefers thinking that Avonte was out on the streets, hours, days, weeks longer than the police say was possible. Maybe he wandered through Queens. Maybe he took the subway. Whatever he did, wherever he went, she sees him running. Running without stopping.