A Sibling's Search

Terp’s Passion for the Law Is Reignited After Disabled Brother’s Death
by Chris Carroll | Photo by Rolland Smith

His LSAT score was solid; his law school applications were in the mail. But when Danny Oquendo ’08 thought about the school loan debt he was about to rack up, the criminology and criminal justice major decided to pass on a legal career after all.

Nearly five years later, the former Terp wide receiver was working as a manager at a Florida recycling company when a call from relatives shattered the comfortable life he’d been building: His half-brother Avonte, nonverbal and profoundly autistic, had run away from his special-needs school in New York and was missing.

Oquendo rushed to the city to help his family pound the pavement and lead social media publicity efforts that prompted headlines worldwide. But their efforts proved futile. More than three months later, in January 2014, a photographer walking along the East River found the body of the missing 14-year old, a victim of drowning and a system that failed him.

As he grieved, Oquendo pondered the fact that what might have saved Avonte was the thing he’d walked away from years earlier: the law.

“I realized there were things that could have been done,” he says. “Coping with this has been hard, and all my family members have coped with it differently, but with me, from the moment I learned that he had passed away, I was determined to go to law school and advocate for him, even though he’s gone.”


Today, Oquendo is a father of two who attends night classes at New York Law School (he works days at an office furniture company) and plans a career to help people like his late brother. He interned last year at a New York City law firm focused on representing autistic clients and their families. Oquendo says meeting the head of the firm, Gary Mayerson, after Avonte went missing rekindled his interest in a legal career.

Since the tragedy, he’s helped pass “Avonte’s Law,” a New York statute to protect disabled people prone to wandering by requiring door alarms, as well as more training for first responders to help them in emergencies involving lost people with mental disabilities. (The U.S. House and Senate have passed related bills to help electronically track mentally disabled individuals, though no legislation has yet been enacted.)

Oquendo’s compelling story—not to mention his near-perfect GPA—earned him a spot this year among National Jurist magazine’s roster of the top 25 law students in the United States.

“Many students—and I was like this myself in law school—aren’t very clear or focused as they feel around for their way in the world,” says Brandt Goldstein, a visiting professor at New York Law School. “Perhaps in part because of what happened to his brother, Danny has a sense of purpose and direction one normally only encounters in people many years his senior.”

After initially opting out of a legal career because of what he was afraid it would cost him, Oquendo now sees it as the best way he knows to stay close in spirit to his late brother.

“We grew up in different households, and I wasn’t there when this happened to him, and that makes it really hard,” Oquendo says. “So for all the time I missed with Avonte, this is how I’m trying to give back to him, by giving back to other children with autism.”


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