NYPD: School safety officer not to blame for disappearance of autistic teen
(New York) CNN — New York Police Department Commissioner Ray Kelly says he is not holding the school safety officer who was on duty when a 14-year-old autistic teen walked out of his Queens high school on October 4 responsible for the boy's disappearance.
When Avonte Oquendo approached the front door of his school the day he disappeared, the safety agent told him to go back upstairs, Kelly said Wednesday. He said surveillance video then showed Avonte turning and going down another hallway, and exiting the building from a side door.
"We have spoken to the school safety agent who was on duty at the front door," Kelly said at a news conference Wednesday. He went on to add that "we see nothing at this juncture that shows that the conduct of the school safety agent was inappropriate or that there was any misconduct involved."
The NYPD has increased search efforts for Avonte by distributing an audio recording of the boy's mother telling him he is safe and he should walk toward the flashing lights of the emergency vehicles that are combing the streets for him, said Keith Brooks, director of operations for CityWide Disaster Services.
"Avonte, this is your mother. You are safe. Walk towards the lights," the message repeats. On Wednesday, the NYPD distributed it to search agencies, including the nonprofit CityWide Disaster Services, Brooks said.
The simple message is being played from the speakers of police cars and other search vehicles like the CityWide Disaster Services mobile command center van, Brooks told CNN.
The hope is that Avonte will hear the sound of his mother's voice and approach the emergency vehicles.
On Monday, the reward for the safe return of Avonte grew to $77,500, as divers joined an ever growing number of police and rescue officers from several states who have been searching for him nonstop for over a week.
Avonte, 14, was last seen on surveillance video running out of Center Boulevard School in Long Island City on the afternoon of October 4, according to a missing persons alert from the NYPD.
Transportation officials in New York suspended overnight track maintenance on the city's transit system this past weekend as workers combed the underground network. All 468 New York City subway stations have been searched, and aviation, harbor and canine officers are mobilized and deployed periodically, the New York Police Department said.
The teenager, who is unable to communicate verbally, is fascinated by trains, his family said, and officials have shifted their search underground, a spokesman for the New York Police Department told CNN on Sunday.
Searches of train stations, tracks and tunnels were also conducted late last week, said Paul J. Fleuranges of the Metropolitan Transit Authority.
Though there are no leads, Daniel Oquendo Jr. fears his brother may have been taken. He told CNN affiliate WABC, "It hurts. It's very stressful to know that someone would take an innocent, poor, mentally disabled child and take advantage of them."
Kelly held up a missing-persons poster of Avonte at a Columbus Day parade Monday and said, "We have redoubled our efforts. We have hundreds of police officers and detectives engaged in this search. We've enlisted the help of the guardian angels society, many volunteers."
David Perecman, the Oquendo family's attorney, told CNN last week that he is looking into how Avonte was able to leave 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," he said.
Avonte's mother says the situation is "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 last week.
"This is just the hardest thing, to have your child disappear and you cannot bring him home with you," she said.
Surveillance video provided by the police department shows that no supervisor or monitor stopped the 14-year-old when he ran out of his school.
"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 police. The school is not commenting.
The Oquendo family filed a "notice of claim" Wednesday, said Perecman, marking the first step of a lawsuit against the city of New York. He declined to give further information about the claim.
Police say Avonte 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-persons 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."
Anyone with information about Avonte is asked to contact the NYPD's Crime Stoppers Hotline at 800-577-TIPS. The public can also submit tips at the Crime Stoppers website, nypdcrimestoppers.com or can text to 274637 (CRIMES), then enter TIP577.