Reward up to $70,000 for missing teen with autism; lawsuit initiated
(CNN) — The reward for the safe return of a missing New York City teen with autism, Avonte Oquendo, has been raised to $70,000, thanks to an anonymous donation through Autism Speaks, according to a spokesman for the organization.
The $50,000 donation came in Friday morning and was specifically earmarked to aid the search effort for Oquendo, said C.J. Volpe, director of media relations for Autism Speaks, a national organization devoted to autism research and advocacy.
The reward was previously $20,000. Mayerson & Associates, a Manhattan law firm that represents individuals with autism, and the Manhattan’s Children Center, a nonprofit private autism school, had each pledged $5,000. Later, Oquendo’s mother’s employer, Health First, and The Perecman Firm, the law firm now representing the Oquendo family, pledged an additional $5,000 each, according to David Perecman, the family’s attorney.
“We work to keep our children safe every day, and we hope this raises awareness to getting him found,” said Abby Weiss, chief administrator of the Manhattan’s Children Center.
Gary Mayerson, the founder of the law firm bearing his name, said the status of the search and investigation may lead to the reward money being increased.
“We cannot begin to imagine what Avonte’s family is going through,” the firm said in a written statement. “Time is of the essence.”
Surveillance video shows 14-year-old Oquendo, of Queens, running out the door of Center Boulevard School in Long Island City at 12:38 p.m. on October 4. Police say he is unable to communicate verbally.
New York Police Department spokeswoman Annette Markowski told CNN that there have been no new developments in the case and the investigation continues.
The Oquendo family filed a “notice of claim” Wednesday, said Perecman, marking the first step of a civil lawsuit against the city of New York. He declined to give further information regarding the claim.
Perecman also told CNN that he is taking steps to investigate how Oquendo was able to escape school grounds unsupervised.
“Right now, we have submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the city and the various agencies involved, in order to obtain the information for us to know what occurred,” Perecman said.
However, the family remains resolute in their search for their missing son.
“I’m just doing my job as their lawyer, but the focus is on finding Avonte. That is the family’s focus,” Perecman said.
Earlier this week, Oquendo’s mother called the situation “heartbreaking.”
“I just need to find my son because he needs his family, he cannot fend for himself out there,” Vanessa Fontaine told CNN affiliate WABC.
“This is just the hardest thing to have your child disappear, and you cannot bring him home with you,” she said.
According to the surveillance video provided by the NYPD, no supervisor or monitor stopped the 14-year-old when he ran out.
“He is supposed to have one-to-one supervision at all times,” Fontaine said through tears. “He has the mental capacity of a 7- or 8-year-old.”
The New York City Department of Education issued a statement saying it is working closely with the police on the investigation.
The school is not commenting.
Police say Oquendo was last seen wearing a gray-striped shirt, black jeans and black sneakers. He is 5 feet, 3 inches tall and weighs 125 pounds.
Missing posters are being handed out and the surrounding areas are under investigation, WABC reported.
“He doesn’t know that, you know, ‘I can get hurt in the street, someone can grab me and take me.’ He doesn’t know that,” Fontaine said Monday. “He doesn’t know fear.”
Autism Speaks employees and volunteers will be joining the search effort Friday, Volpe wrote in an e-mail.
“We’re all just praying for his safe return and we want to do everything we can to support the family. People in our community are rallying together and doing what we can to ensure that he comes home,” Volpe said.
A vigil for Oquendo is expected to be held Friday night in a park across the street from his school.
Anyone with information about Oquendo is asked to contact the NYPD’s Crime Stoppers Hotline at 800-577-TIPS. The public can also submit tips at Crime Stoppers website, nypdcrimestoppers.com or text to 274637(CRIMES), then enter TIP577.
CNN’s By Laura Ly, Elizabeth Landers and Jia Guo contributed to this report.