Eileen Lehpamer, who was on the scene working for News...

Eileen Lehpamer, who was on the scene working for News 12 when Ann Marie Drago struck Evelyn Rodriguez with her car, testified at Drago's second trial on Monday. Credit: John Roca

A television reporter held Evelyn Rodriguez's hand as she struggled to breathe in the moments after she was struck and run over by an SUV, the reporter testified at the criminally negligent homicide retrial of the woman accused in the anti-gang activist's death.

Eileen Lehpamer, who was on the scene working for News 12, said she told Rodriguez help was on the way and she was "not alone" as she lay on the ground after being struck by Ann Marie Drago after confronting her for removing a memorial dedicated to her late daughter.

"My mom is a registered nurse and she once told me that if you hold somebody's hand, they can feel it, even if they're not conscious," Lehpamer told the jury. "I wanted her to feel the touch."

The emotional testimony came after jurors once again watched a one-minute News 12 video of the Sept. 14, 2018, encounter, which showed Rodriguez's foot get caught under the front driver's side tire of Drago's Nissan Rogue as her body was pulled to the ground, the back tire crushing her head and body. 

WHAT TO KNOW

  • A television reporter said she held anti-gang activist Evelyn Rodriguez's hand as she struggled to breathe in the moments after she was struck and run over by an SUV in 2018.
  • Eileen Lehpamer, who was on the scene working for News 12, testified took the stand on Monday at the criminally negligent homicide retrial of Ann Marie Drago in Rodriguez' death.
  • Lehpamer said she told Rodriguez help was on the way and she was "not alone" as she lay on the ground after Drago ran her over.

Rodriguez suffered a fractured skull and neck after she was run over, and bruising in her brain caused her death, according to prosecutors.

State Supreme Court Justice Richard Ambro gave Lehpamer a moment to regain her composure after she was moved to tears watching the footage a colleague filmed at the scene on the same Brentwood street where the body of Rodriguez's daughter Kayla Cuevas had been found exactly two years earlier. Kayla, 16, and her friend Nisa Mickens, 15, were allegedly killed by members of the MS-13 street gang in September of 2016.

Under direct examination from Assistant Suffolk County District Attorney Laura Newcombe, Lehpamer said she had built a close professional — and sometimes personal — relationship with Rodriguez since first meeting her around the time Drago's mother found Cuevas' body in her backyard on Ray Court.

Evelyn Rodriguez talks with reporters outside federal court in Central...

Evelyn Rodriguez talks with reporters outside federal court in Central Islip in 2017. Her daughter Kayla Cuevas, 16, was brutally slain in 2016, allegedly by members of MS-13. Credit: AP / Kathy Willens

Lehpamer said she was the person who called Rodriguez after her news crew first noticed the memorial had been removed and again after Drago's former boyfriend told her he "destroyed it."

Lehpamer said she became afraid of the boyfriend, Mace Scanlon of Brentwood, who she said she thought may have been carrying a "box cutter" when he approached her and told her "enough with the fanfare."

"I said, 'It's not fanfare, it's a memorial, someone died," Lehpamer recalled, adding that she asked Scanlon if she could get the memorial back since a vigil was planned for 6 p.m.

In testimony earlier Monday, Scanlon, a prosecution witness, denied saying he destroyed the memorial, testifying that Drago had taken it down before he arrived at the house. Scanlon said he feared many of the people gathering outside Drago's mother's house since Cuevas' death may have had gang affiliations, and he expressed frustration over having to repeatedly clean up items in front of the home, which was for sale.

Scanlon told the court Lehpamer told him a vigil was organized for that evening, but he said he did not relay that message to Drago before the crash. It wasn't until afterward, when a Long Island congressman arrived for the vigil, that he told Drago what he learned was planned for that evening, Scanlon testified.

But Newcombe pointed to grand jury testimony nearly five years ago in which Scanlon told prosecutors he had alerted Drago to the vigil once he got into her SUV that afternoon, suggesting she was aware a vigil was planned as she attempted to drive away with items belonging to Rodriguez.

Newcombe also pressed Scanlon on testimony he gave Monday claiming to have not noticed the vigil items — a large floral arrangement, an enlarged photograph of Kayla Cuevas and a table — inside her SUV when he entered. Drago, 62, of Patchogue, is also charged with misdemeanor petit larceny and criminal mischief for dismantling the memorial and taking some of its contents. Her prior conviction on the charges was overturned on an appeal last year.

Scanlon said he and Drago were about to set off on a trip upstate when Rodriguez and her common-law husband, Freddy Cuevas, arrived to confront them. He said he couldn't recall exactly what the couple was saying, but that they were "aggressive" and "irate" and that he was "terrified."

"Two people ranting, screaming, attacking the car," Scanlon told the jury on cross examination from defense attorney Matthew Hereth of the Legal Aid Society of Suffolk County. "The whole confrontation lasted between probably a minute, maybe a minute and a half … your heart's racing, your adrenaline's flowing."

Scanlon told the court Drago had to turn the wheel to the left — in the direction of Rodriguez — to avoid hitting the minivan Rodriguez had parked in front of her SUV. He said he didn't see Rodriguez or Cuevas at that moment, but he believed they were pounding on Drago's vehicle and trying to enter it.
"There was nobody in front of us and she drove off, but it wasn't fast," Scanlon said.
Hereth asked Scanlon if he would describe the scene as chaos.

"Complete," Scanlon responded. 

The trial continues Tuesday in Riverhead.

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