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Grand jury to hear evidence in Evelyn Rodriguez's death, sources say

Anti-gang activist Evelyn Rodriguez was killed on Sept.

Anti-gang activist Evelyn Rodriguez was killed on Sept. 14 in Brentwood.   Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

A Suffolk County grand jury will hear evidence in the death of Evelyn Rodriguez, the Brentwood mother who took on the mantle of anti-gang activist after her daughter’s killing, allegedly at the hands of the MS-13 street gang,  sources with knowledge of the proceedings said.

Two months ago, Rodriguez died after a driver struck her on a Brentwood cul-de-sac during an argument over the placement of a sidewalk memorial of photos, candles and balloons in honor of Rodriguez's daughter, Kayla, 16, and her friend Nisa Mickens, 15.  It was the second anniversary of their suspected gang killings.

The panel is to hear key testimony from Rodriguez’s longtime partner and Kayla’s father, Freddy Cuevas, who was by her side as they argued with the driver, according to a source.

Authorities have not released the name of the driver, who was not criminally charged by police. They identified her as a relative of a resident of Ray Court and said she stayed at the scene, called 911 and was cooperative.

Cuevas said in an interview that he’s satisfied with the pace and depth of the police probe but stressed he could not discuss details of the case.

“The process is working; it’s working,” said Cuevas, who added that he believes the driver should be criminally charged.

Suffolk County District Attorney Timothy Sini and Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart, both of whom issued statements praising Rodriguez’s activism after her death, declined to comment on the investigation.

Rodriguez, 50, set off on a mission to prevent further gang killings after the girls’ slayings. She met President Donald Trump on more than one occasion, including when she and Cuevas, along with Mickens’ parents, were guests at the president’s State of the Union address in January.

“My thoughts and prayers are with Evelyn Rodriguez this evening, along with her family and friends. #RIPEvelyn,” Trump wrote on Twitter the day Rodriguez was killed.

Rodriguez appeared posthumously — at the insistence of her family — in a campaign commercial for Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) ahead of this month's midterm elections.  She filmed it days before she died.

“She was so effective, she was so articulate,” King said. “Evelyn really put the human face on it.”

Rodriguez’s death on Sept. 14 at the site of her daughter’s killing came exactly two years after the teen’s body was found severely beaten in what authorities said was an attack by MS-13 gang members.

It was a tragic and shocking end to the life of a woman who had attained a national profile as she pushed for increased police and school funding to fight the gang. Several alleged MS-13 gang members have been charged in the killings of the teens. They have pleaded not guilty.

Family, friends and supporters — during a vigil a few weeks ago at the spot where Rodriguez was struck and, later, in a smaller rally outside the local police precinct —  expressed frustration with the pace of the investigation.

But criminal law experts said that it’s not uncommon for law-enforcement to take months to investigate before filing charges — if at all — in traffic accidents that result in death or serious injury, in which intoxication does not appear to be a factor.

The process includes interviewing witnesses, reviewing any video, checking the mechanical integrity of the vehicle to see, for example, if the brakes were working properly, and reconstructing the accident, among other investigative steps, to determine if a crime was committed and whether the alleged conduct was intentional, reckless or criminally negligent. Police have said they were reviewing video footage of the encounter between Rodriguez, Cuevas and the driver that was taped by News 12 Long Island.

“These things definitely take time, and two months is nothing,” said Daniel Russo, a Central Islip criminal defense attorney who is the administrator of Suffolk County’s Assigned Counsel Defender program and a former assistant district attorney. “A good DA is going to wait until he has the investigation completed and he’s either going to present what he has to a grand jury or bring the family in and explain that there’s just not a crime there.”

David Besso, a Bay Shore criminal defense attorney in practice for more than 40 years, said he’s represented several defendants involved in fatal vehicle crashes who were not initially charged by police.

The grand jury process is a common tool in these types of cases, Besso said, and while it usually indicates prosecutors think the evidence is strong enough to support a criminal prosecution, sometimes prosecutors present cases to grand juries and let the panel decide on whether to indict as a way to absolve themselves of criticism.

“It usually means that they want an indictment,” Besso said. “But there are cases where if there’s a lot of uproar from the citizenry, they’ll bring a case to the grand jury, so if there’s not an indictment, they’ll be in the clear.”

Barbara Medina, a victims’ rights advocate who befriended Rodriguez and often accompanied her during her public appearances, said she has faith that the DA’s office is handling this case with care. “Whatever it is, we’ll respect the process,” she said.

On a recent visit to Stahley Street and Ray Court, the markings of tragedy had almost disappeared.

The memorials to the slain teens and Rodriguez were gone: A white cross bearing the names of Kayla and Nisa, the place where mourners dropped flowers and shed tears in the two years following the killings, was removed from a grassy sidewalk plot. And the painted tribute on the sidewalk near where Rodriguez fell — the words “R.I.P. Kayla and Evelyn” in gold atop a vibrant green — was covered.

The memorials were removed after neighbors complained about a constant flow of cars stopping at the site, said State Sen.-elect Monica Martinez, a Democrat who currently represents the area in the Suffolk County Legislature. Martinez said she forwarded the emailed complaints to the police department, which found “consensus for finding a more permanent place for Nisa, Kayla and Evelyn to be honored and everyone can have peace.”

Police did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

Cuevas said his spirit is buoyed by the community support for Rodriguez, but he’s struggling without her.

“I’m just trying to maintain, as you know, one day at a time, I guess, and maintain strong for my kids,” he said. “I’m trying to stay up. It’s hard; it’s hard not having the person I’ve had for 30 years next to me.”

With Andrew Smith and Robert E. Kessler

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