2014-01-22 / Front Page

Tragic End

BY LIZ GOFF


Inset: Hermon A. MacNeil Park in College Point, where remains suspected to be that of Avonte Oquendo, who went missing in October of 2013, were discovered. 
Photo Jason D. Antos Inset: Hermon A. MacNeil Park in College Point, where remains suspected to be that of Avonte Oquendo, who went missing in October of 2013, were discovered. Photo Jason D. Antos Body parts found along the shore of the East River in College Point have been matched by DNA to Avonte Oquendo, the teen who went missing more than three months ago, according to the city’s chief medical examiner.

The body parts were found on January 16 in the evening, just southwest of the Bronx- Whitestone Bridge, about nine miles by waterway from where Oquendo was last seen.

For his mother, Vanessa Fontaine, her nightmare began on the afternoon of Oct. 4, 2013, when she received a phone call from administrators at the Riverview School in Long Island City who said her autistic, 14- year- old son, was missing.

Fontaine’s phone rang again in the early morning hours of January 17, when a Queens detective gave her the news she has been dreading. The voice on the phone said human remains and clothing had been discovered on a shoreline in Northeastern Queens – body parts, jeans, a striped shirt and Air Jordan sneakers that appeared to mark the end of the mother’s search for her missing son.

Family members told the Gazette the news hit Fontaine, and them, like a sledgehammer.

“Vanessa has been so strong for such a long time. She refused to believe Avonte was gone, even when she was told that the body parts had been found and that the clothes matched what he was wearing when he disappeared,” an aunt said. “It’s all just so sad.”

One of the last images of Oquendo shows the teen running out a side door at the Riverview School just after 1 p. m. on October 4. Images inside the school at 50- 01 51st Avenue show him darting along a hallway, past a front door security desk and a security guard and onto the street outside the school.

The detective who called Fontaine on January 17 said police needed her to provide a DNA sample to the city medical examiner to positively identify the remains and other items found on the waterfront near Hermon A. Mac- Neil Park in College Point.

Law enforcement sources said photography student Natasha Shapiro, 19, spotted the partial remains.

“She got on Twitter and talked about it instead of call- ing 911 right away,” the sources said. “Then she finally told her mother and they called 911.”

Police who responded to the call found a left arm and hand, two legs in size 16 black jeans, waterlogged black Air Jordan sneakers size five and a half and a gray-and-white striped shirt – all consistent with the clothing Oquendo was wearing when he went missing.

Police found the arm on a set of rocks on the shoreline, 15 to 20 feet from the legs, police said.

NYPD Crime Scene and HazMat investigators who returned to the scene on January 17 found a human jawbone, a partial pelvis and a section of rib bones, police said.

Investigators also found white, size large underwear on the remains, police said.

News of the missing teen, who was unable to communicate or care for himself, gripped the city and set off a massive search by the NYPD – and scores of volunteers who mobilized at a makeshift command center established by the family across the street from the school.

When the media reported that Oquendo was fascinated with trains, officials at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) made announcements on subways and commuter trains for weeks following his disappearance. MTA officials went so far as to halt service on the subway system three times and send maintenance crews into the tunnels to check on tips that the youth had been spotted wandering along the rails.

In a December interview with the Gazette, Fontaine disputed reports that her son’s fascination with the subways played a role in his disappearance.

“He’s like any other boy who liked to ride the subway,” Fontaine said. “Does he get excited when he goes for a ride on the subway? Yes, he does just like many other boys. But he does not have a fascination that would make him run out of the school to ride the subway.”

Fontaine said Oquendo had disappeared from the family home in Rego Park several times and was found a short time later at a local subway station.

“It’s not like what has been reported,” she said. “He was fascinated with a lot of things, not just the subway.”

Volunteers fanned out in the weeks after he disappeared, posting “missing” flyers on poles and walls throughout the city. Fontaine and Oquendo’s father, Daniel Oquendo, raced to each possible sighting of the teen, to no avail.

In a note of irony, Queens police officials sent dozens of officers into neighborhoods surrounding the Riverview School on January 16, in an all-out, continuing effort to find the teen. Police officials continued the effort on January 17, despite the discovery of the skeletal remains.

Family lawyer, David Perecman, told reporters that Fontaine gave the medical examiner’s office a DNA sample, Oquendo’s toothbrush and a hospital birth certificate bearing his footprints. The medical examiner had obtained Daniel Oquedo’s DNA in November, prior to his return to his home in Florida. He returned to Queens last Friday shortly after police recovered the remains.

Police believe Oquendo ran out of the school and into a hilly, shrubby area across the street, at the mouth of Newtown Creek. The teen, who was probably overwhelmed by the sounds of the city, stumbled in the brush, losing his way and tumbled along a steep drop into the water, police said.

“The shoreline drops off suddenly,” police sources said. “If you’re not watching, you can tumble about 30 feet, right into the East River.”

Police believe Oquendo’s body was caught up in the tide that leads to treacherous waters near Astoria Park and then traveled to the site in College Point where the remains were recovered.

Fontaine told the Gazette in the December interview that she is angry with school administrators who waited more than an hour to call 911 to report Oquendo missing.

Perecman filed a $25 million notice of claim against the city on behalf of Oquendo’s family on Oct. 9, 2013.

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