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, a law enforcement official said Friday.
A person shooting photos discovered what looked like an arm on Thursday night, said the official with direct knowledge of the case, who was not authorized to speak publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
Police also found a torso and legs in the water, along with a dark-colored shoe and clothing resembling what 14-year-old Avonte Oquendo was wearing when he disappeared, the official said.
At daybreak Friday, police in waders searched the water while a dog sniffed the marshy terrain along the shore. Police were to launch a dive after the shoreline was thoroughly searched.
Avonte has been missing since Oct. 4, the day 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 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 remains 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 fell into the river near the school. Although the remains were found upriver, past densely-populated shoreline under the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge and 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 he spoke to Avonte’s mother, Vanessa Fontaine, around 2 a.m. He said she was considering the discovery to be just another tip until she hears something more definitive.
Perecman said the family will wait for DNA test results, and police have the teen’s father’s DNA on file. He confirmed that the jeans and size 5 1/2 sneakers found on the remains resembled what Avonte was wearing when he was last seen. But the remains were badly decomposed.
He said of Fontaine: “This has taken a significant toll on her as a human being.”
The remains were taken to the Queens County Morgue and will be examined by the medical examiner’s office to determine an identification and cause of death, and that may take several days, police said. Detectives and water units were searching for any additional evidence.
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.”