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NY river remains could be missing autistic teen

Friday - 1/17/2014, 5:40pm  ET

COLLEEN LONG
Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) -- Police were investigating whether human remains found along the East River could be those of an autistic teen who walked out of his school more than three months ago and vanished, law enforcement officials said Friday.

A 14-year-old girl shooting photos at a park discovered a left arm on Thursday, said an official with direct knowledge of the case. A second official said the girl posted a photo of an arm on Twitter and later told her mother about the discovery, who called police. Neither official was authorized divulge investigative details and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

The arm was discovered on the shore. Police also found the lower part of a torso and legs on the rocks at low tide, along with black Air Jordan sneakers, white socks and tattered denim jeans that resembled what 14-year-old Avonte Oquendo was wearing when he disappeared, the officials said. The rest of the remains have not been recovered.

At daybreak Friday, police in waders searched the water while a dog sniffed the marshy terrain along the shore. Police divers also went into the water.

Avonte has been missing since Oct. 4, when he walked out of his school toward a park overlooking the East River. His disappearance sparked a search that included hundreds of officers, marine units and volunteers.

Missing person posters were plastered on lampposts and placed on car windshields throughout the city. The teen, who did not speak, was fascinated with the subway system and Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials made announcements on trains for weeks asking for help finding him. Police checked every subway station and tunnel.

Authorities also hunted down hundreds of tips in New York City and its suburbs. Despite a few false alarms, including an image of a person snapped on a train that resembled the boy, he has not been located.

Detectives were not sure whether the remains found Thursday belonged to the missing teen. The body parts were found at least 11 miles from where he was last seen, considerably upriver and east of the park near Avonte's school.

One investigative theory was that Avonte might have fallen into the river near the school. Although the remains were found upriver, past densely-populated shoreline and the Rikers Island jail, the East River is a tidal strait with strong currents that reverse flow many times a day.

The family's lawyer, David Perecman, said Avonte's mother, Vanessa Fontaine, still holds out hope that her son is alive.

"Her initial reaction was, 'until I hear more or see more,' Perecman told reporters gathered at the waterfront area where police were searching. "She's not going to be convinced it's her son unless there's enough to convince her."

Perecman said the family will wait for DNA test results. He confirmed that that the jeans and size 5 1/2 sneakers found on the remains resembled what Avonte was wearing but said the remains were badly decomposed.

Perecman said Avonte feared the water and his family can't imagine him voluntarily entering it.

The remains were taken to a morgue, where the medical examiner's office will try to identify them and determine a cause of death, which may take several days, police said.

A reward fund for information leading to Avonte's safe return was at least $60,000, including $50,000 from an anonymous donation to the advocacy group Autism Speaks.

Avonte's family has filed a notice of claim saying they planned to sue the city, arguing that school officials allowed him to walk out of the building and waited too long to notify police that he was missing.

Former police commissioner Raymond Kelly had defended the school safety officer who last saw the boy, saying she told him to go back to his classroom and he left the hallway. The city's law department has said the case is "distressing."

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Associated Press writers Karen Matthews and Alison Barnwell contributed to this report.


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