TRIBECA — Danny Oquendo just wrapped up his second year at New York Law School and ranks first in his class of about 90 students, but his current success likely wouldn’t be possible without past heartbreak — and the guidance of an unlikely mentor.
Danny’s brother Avonte, a 14-year-old with severe autism, ran off from a Long Island City school in October 2013, triggering a widespread search up and down the East Coast. Three months later, a photography student walking along a rocky inlet in College Point found Avonte’s remains.
“Everyone copes with things in different ways, but I needed to turn this tragedy into something positive,” Danny Oquendo, now 28, said.
He had received an outpouring of support from family and close friends when Avonte vanished, but it was the actions of Gary Mayerson that really stood out.
Mayerson, a lawyer who specializes in autism cases, had read a brief article about the young Rego Park teen who was missing after fleeing the Riverview School and was outraged the case wasn’t receiving more attention.
“Why isn’t the city exploding with this?” Mayerson asked. “I thought, if this was my child or a child of someone with some privilege, there’d be all kinds of police looking for him.”
So he posted a $5,000 reward for information leading to Avonte, hoping it would bring more attention to the disappearance. Within days, it reached $100,000 as other foundations learned about what happened and donated.
“We get a call from Danny: ‘I’d like to come by and thank you for offering the reward money. I’m looking for my brother. I really appreciate it,’” Mayerson recalled.
The two met in the lawyer’s Hell’s Kitchen office that week and then went out to lunch at a nearby Italian restaurant. Over the next three months, as investigators combed the Northeast looking for Avonte, Danny and Mayerson spoke regularly about search developments and what Danny could do long term to help special-needs children like his brother.
When Avonte’s death was confirmed, Danny turned to Mayerson for advice.
He saw his brother regularly when he was younger, but he had gone to the University of Maryland on a football scholarship for college, then moved to Lakeland, Fla., to work as a business developer for a recycling company after graduating.
“I wasn’t around too often besides summer,” Danny said. “You think about all the time you could’ve spent with him.”
He decided he wanted to change careers and pursue a job in which he could make a direct impact on special-needs children, so he left Florida and moved to Jersey City, and turned to Mayerson for advice.
“I’d been contemplating law school before, but I just never felt like I wanted to make the jump in regards to how much it’d cost,” Danny said.
But the loss of Avonte made him reconsider — and Mayerson offered to help Danny apply to different schools.
Danny’s now on pace to graduate from New York Law School next spring, all while raising a 1-year-old daughter and juggling a daytime job as an account executive at an architecture and design firm.
Months after Avonte’s death, the City Council passed “Avonte’s Law,” mandating that city schools put alarms on their doors to prevent students from running away. Mayerson testified in support of it, and the bill has since been introduced nationally.
Danny hopes to help draft more legislation like it in the years ahead.
He interned with Mayerson’s office last summer, assisting in a challenging Connecticut case of an autistic boy who had been sexually abused by the nephew of a school administrator, and is set to begin his second internship with the office later this month.
“Once I met Gary and learned about what he does, I knew what field I wanted to pursue.”
The transition to law school hasn’t been as seamless as it sounds.
Danny’s made sacrifices in income, family time and sleep, among other things. He said it’s also challenging walking the halls of the school knowing that everyone is aware of his brother’s story and why he’s there. But Mayerson has stuck by his side throughout, and the two continue to speak each week to discuss Danny’s class work and study plans.
“He’s authentic, genuine and passionate,” Mayerson said. “It would be easy for him to not give back and to basically take advantage of the situation, but he’s a give-back kind of person who’s committed.”
He added that he’s gotten more from Danny than he’s given him.
“He’s taught me to trust your instincts,” Mayerson said. “There are people out there with tremendous talent who just need an opportunity.”
Danny said his goal is to work for Mayerson’s office full time when he graduates next spring.
He said that while many of his family members have distanced themselves from the tragedy, which he doesn’t fault them for, it wasn’t the approach for him.
“From day one, Avonte was the reason why I was invigorated to come to law school and to practice special-education law,” he said. “Every day I walk into this school, Avonte’s my fire to do great.”