UPDATE 12:28 p.m. EDT: The boy in the photo isn't Avonte. Read more here.
Avonte Oquendo, a 14-year-old autistic New York City teen who is nonverbal and has been missing for nearly a month, may have been spotted riding the subway this week, injecting hope that he will be found alive.
A 13-year-old train rider snapped the photo of a boy closely resembling Avonte on a Brooklyn-bound E or F train near West 4th Street on Tuesday. When he asked the look-alike if he was Avonte, the boy didn’t answer. The unidentified photographer then got off the train, Tony Herbert, president of the Brooklyn East chapter of the National Action Network, said.
Avonte’s family has seen the photo of a boy staring straight ahead and wearing a beige jacket and green khaki pants that was posted on Facebook, but they can't say with certainty that it is him.
“Yes, it’s a close likeness,” his father, Daniel Oquendo, told the New York Daily News. “We need to get a better look to really tell. If we could find the individual who took the picture, that would help big time.”
Avonte was last seen Oct. 4 leaving the Center Bouelvard School in the Long Island City section of Queens. Although he's supposed to have constant supervision at the school, that apparently wasn't the case when he ran off. His family has filed a notice of claim -- the first step toward a lawsuit -- against the city and the school system.
"We're praying it was him and there'll be an opportunity to find him," Daniel Oquendo told Newsday in reference to the new photo. "Maybe somebody just put him on the train, just to give him up. He was dressed differently, so it's obvious somebody's been taking care of him -- if that's him."
While Avonte’s mother, Vanessa Fontaine, said she isn't so sure it's Avonte, she remains optimistic that he will be found alive.
“I don’t celebrate yet, but I’m saying keep hope alive,” Fontaine told CBS New York. “There’s hope there that it may be him.”
A frantic search for Avonte has led New York City Police officers to subway tunnels and train yards because the missing mute, autistic teen has a fascination with trains. An award for information leading to Avonte’s safe return is in the high-five figures.
Avonte’s brother, Anthony Fontaine, said the family has been shown a number of photos of children who may be Avonte.
“We’ve seen a lot of photos turn out to be dead-ends and not him, but this one is like, probably the closest one,” he told CBS New York. “It’s like maybe a 65 percent chance, you know, a possibility. It fits the description a little bit. We’re hoping it’s him.”
The emergence of the photo comes a week after New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said authorities weren't optimistic that Avonte is still alive. He later apologized to the boy's family.