What to Know
- A woman has been indicted in the September SUV death of anti-gang crusader Evelyn Rodriguez, whose teenage daughter was killed by MS-13
- Rodriguez, 50, was struck and killed by an SUV on Sept. 14 after a heated confrontation with a driver over the placement of a memorial
- The driver, Annmarie Drago, pleaded not guilty to charges of criminally negligent homicide, petit larceny and criminal mischief on Friday
A 58-year-old Long Island nurse has been indicted on charges of criminally negligent homicide, criminal mischief and petit larceny in connection with the September SUV death of Evelyn Rodriguez, the mother of an MS-13 victim who channeled her daughter's gruesome killing into an anti-gang crusade.
Annmarie Drago, whose mother owned a home less than 300 feet from where the mutilated body of Rodriguez's daughter Kayla Cuevas was found in 2016, pleaded not guilty to the charges at her arraignment Friday. The top charge carries a maximum penalty of four years in prison if convicted.
Rodriguez, 50, was struck and killed by Drago's SUV on Sept. 14 after she got into a heated argument with her over the placement of a memorial to Kayla. The grieving mother was insistent that her daughter's death not be forgotten, and she was readying for an annual memorial vigil on the Brentwood block where the teen died when prosecutors say Drago drove up and purposely destroyed it.
A television news crew on hand for the memorial was recording as Rodriguez and another person yelled at the SUV driver, who then sped forward and struck Rodriguez. The driver remained at the scene and called 911. Her name had not been made public until Friday.
According to prosecutors, Drago allegedly intentionally ruined the memorial and took some of the items with her because her mother was closing on the nearby home and Drago feared the memorial would impact the sale of the house. Drago ultimately received $19,000 in proceeds from the house sale, officials said.
"As she put up the memorial, Evelyn had no idea that she would be joining Kayla that day," Assistant District Attorney Marc Lindemann told Judge Fernando Camacho.
Lindemann said Kayla's father warned Drago twice that she would hit Rodriguez if she drove her car forward. Rodriguez was about a half step from the front tire when the vehicle lurched forward, and she grabbed onto the headlight before being thrown to the street.
In a prepared statement in court, Drago's lawyer, Stephen Kunken, called the matter a "tragic accident" and said his client extended her condolences to Rodriguez's family. After the hearing, Drago hid in the corner of an elevator, surrounded by court officers, as reporters shouted questions.
She was released on her own recognizance after Friday's hearing.
At a community vigil for Rodriguez Friday night, friend Amory Speulveda said of Drago, "When I think about the character of this woman, it's just disappointing. This person is not able to understand the pain that a mother is suffering at that moment."
"The woman is free, she is walking," added friend Liz Cordero. "Evelyn is not here with us."
Rodriguez's death in the neighborhood dispute came two years to the day after Kayla's beaten, slashed body was found. Kayla and her friend, 15-year-old Nisa Mickens, were walking when police say they were ambushed by MS-13 gang members and slaughtered.
The deaths brought sudden attention to a string of murders of teenagers in the Long Island suburbs that had largely gone unnoticed, and in some cases, uninvestigated by police.
After he became president, Donald Trump visited Brentwood and vowed a national crackdown on MS-13. He recognized Rodriguez, Cuevas and Mickens' parents at the State of the Union address in January.
Rodriguez spoke out against the gang and the local school district, saying in a $110 million lawsuit that it had ignored warnings that MS-13 members were threatening students. She sat alongside Trump at a gang violence forum in May on Long Island.
At her funeral, Suffolk County District Attorney Tim Sini called Rodriguez "our Batman and Robin" and one of the strongest people he's ever met.
"Her roar was deafening, from the streets of Brentwood to the halls of Congress to the ears of the president himself," Sini said.
New York Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul encouraged mourners to continue Rodriguez's crusade and offered a message to MS-13: "You will be stopped. Your evil will be thwarted at every step, because you have lit a fire under this community."
"That will be the enduring legacy of what Evelyn accomplished in the name of Kayla and other victims of gang violence," Hochul said.
The funeral was held at the same church where services were held for Kayla.
"It's maddening and saddening to know we're back here again two years later," said County Legislator Monica Martinez, who taught Cuevas in the sixth grade and remained close with the family.
The girls' alleged killers, who were arrested along with about a dozen other suspected MS-13 members, are facing murder charges that could result in the death penalty.
MS-13, or the Mara Salvatrucha, is blamed for dozens of killings on Long Island since 2016. A purported member of the gang, Freiry Martinez, pleaded guilty Friday to participating in the brutal massacre of four young men in nearby Central Islip. The victims were lured to a park and attacked with machetes, knives and clubs.