Tragedy Leads a Brother to Tribeca's NY Law School, and National Honor

Daniel Oquendo in a New York Law School classroom, and (inset) a flier for his brother Avonte when he went missing. Photo (Oquendo): Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib 

May. 06, 2017

For a brief few weeks in October, 2013, it was the tragedy that stole the headlines. A 14-year-old boy with autism left the side of his aide at a Long Island City public school, ran out the building's side door and vanished into the city. Within days, hundreds of "Find Avonte" posters appeared on the streets, volunteers combed neighborhoods near the school passing out flyers, the family publicly pleaded for assistance.

Helping police lead the search was Avonte Oquendo's older brother, 24-year-old Daniel Oquendo, who took a leave of absence from his job in Florida, where he worked in business development for a recycling company.

Every morning, Oquendo would meet at an ad hoc volunteer headquarters set up in front of Avonte's school. "I would try to get people to help out," he recalled. "I used my social media account, and being from New Jersey and going to the University of Maryland I knew a lot of people in the New York area. I was able to spark a lot of interest in the story. Eventually, it spread like wildfire, and the news started to pick up on it."

Last month, Oquendo, now a student at New York Law School in Tribeca, was honored as “Law Student of the Year” by National Jurist Magazine, one of 25 honorees chosen from hundreds of the country's law schools. A third-year evening student,  Oquendo was recognized for his academic excellence and, like his fellow winners, as someone who aspires to advocate for society's most vulnerable.

It was a meeting with Gary Meyerson, a Manhattan lawyer whose firm represents individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities, that Oquendo said made him start to reassess his life.

"He inspired me," Oquendo said. "I didn't know that a lawyer like him even existed."

The idea of going to law school stayed with him when he returned to work a month later. Then in January, Avonte's body was found washed up on a Queens beach.

"Once his remains were found, I started to reflect on what could have happened, what didn't happen, the should haves, the could haves," Oquendo said in an interview with the Trib. "And I started to think about the best possible way to honor his memory."

His goal, he decided, was to become a lawyer, who like Meyerson, would advocate for people with special needs both in courts and for legislation. "There should have been laws in place to prevent what happened to Avonte."

(The city passed "Avonte's Law" in 2014 and the Senate passed "Kevin and Avonte's Law" in 2016.)  

Oquendo, who is the father of two young children, maintains close to a 3.9 GPA while working during the day for an office furniture company. "There's not many minutes in a day. It's tough," he said.   

"On weekends I barrel down to study," he added. "Here and there at night too, although after putting the babies to sleep I just want to crash."

It is the desire to some day protect and improve the lives of people with special needs, Oquendo said, that drives him to work so hard.

"If you don't have a strong goal, you end up just being an average or below average student, because when you have to spend all night reading a long, boring case, it's easy to say, 'Screw it, I've learned enough, and go to sleep.' Those are the long nights when I remember why I am doing this."