What to Know
- Five bodies have turned up in the small town in a little more than a month
- Police suspect all were victims of gang violence
- No arrests have been made in any of the murders
Two months after Kayla Cuevas was found murdered in Brentwood, a victim of suspected gun violence, her mother still can't fathom she's gone.
Evelyn Rodriguez has amassed photos, cards and keepsakes in a shrine to her daughter -- and a monument to her own pain.
"Kayla loved life, she was athletic, energetic," she told NBC 4 New York recently.
"My kid is a good kid," she said. "Normal teenager. It's just..."
Her voice trailed off.
She, like so many in Brentwood, are at a loss, grasping for answers after Kayla and four other teenagers from Brentwood High School were murdered this year. Police say all signs point to gangs, especially MS-13, which has roots in El Salvador and outposts in communities across the U.S.
While the police response has been swift and visible, there's another side to the fight: they're trying to combat gangs through intervention.
"We're engaging in proactive patrols, by our schools and certain hotspots," said Suffolk Police Commissioner Timothy Sini.
NBC 4 took a recent ridealong with Suffolk Police Deputy Commissioner Risco Mention-Lewis to see how authorities are combating gangs through intervention.
"We patrol here on a regular basis, we make sure we have a presence here," he said. "Take note of who's around the building and if there's ever any graffiti, get rid of it as soon as possible."
"In terms of intervention, you're just not looking for the people who are completely in, you're looking for the people who are hanging around, they're in that group, they're friends with them," he said.
"It's our job to know where they are, those hot locations, and to make our presence known while they're trying to make their presence known."
But it's not just about a show of force. In the days after Kayla's murder, Mention-Lewis' officers began visiting the homes of suspected gang members and anyone connected to them.
"The door knocks are about making people realize, you are in danger," said Mention-Lewis. "You are 900 percent more likely to be a victim of violence or get involved in violence when you're in a social network."
While working the streets, Mention-Lewis has also developed a safety net to help kids get out of gangs. To help them change, she developed The Council of Thought and Action, a grassroots effort to provide everything from school help to counseling to job training.
A young woman who says she was once involved with gangs on Long Island says the program helped her.
"We were robbing people on the street, wherever our chance was, wherever we saw a weak link, which is sad, 'cause it was like, this could have been a random dad or mom," said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous.
Mention-Lewis said the woman is proof that the war on gangs can be won.
"There are those who are going to have to go because murderers cannot stand among us," she said. "However, those who want to change, we want to get to them as soon as possible."
In the last six weeks, Suffolk County police have arrested 33 known MS-13 gang members. Five other violent known MS-13 gang members have also been arrested under federal RICO charges. But there have been no arrests in any of the killings.