This story was reported by Ellen Yan, Nicole Fuller, Sandra Peddie, Víctor Manuel Ramos and Stefanie Dazio. It was written by Dazio.
Evelyn Rodriguez, who became a national voice against MS-13 gang violence after her teenage daughter was beaten to death in 2016, was fatally struck by an SUV Friday in Brentwood following a dispute with the driver over the placement of a memorial to her child.
Rodriguez, 50, was struck on Ray Court near Stahley Street in Brentwood less than two hours before a vigil to her slain daughter and two years to the day from when the teen’s body was discovered in a wooded area just off those streets. Rodriguez was pronounced dead at Southside Hospital in Bay Shore, police said.
The killings of the teen, Kayla Cuevas, 16, and her friend Nisa Mickens, 15, allegedly by MS-13 members with bats and machetes, led to a massive crackdown on the gang on Long Island. Rodriguez met with President Donald Trump, who tweeted a statement Friday night, and was a White House guest at his 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.
Suffolk homicide Det. Lt. Kevin Beyrer said Rodriguez was arguing with the driver, a relative of a resident of nearby Ray Court, just before she was killed. He stressed that Rodriguez’s death was not gang-related.
“The dispute was over the placement of a memorial for her daughter Kayla,” Beyrer said. The relative started to drive away and struck Rodriguez, police said.
Investigators are working with the district attorney’s office to determine if any charges should be filed against the driver, he said, declining to identify her. Police are also reviewing News 12 Long Island footage of the incident.
“The driver of the car stopped, called 911 and cooperated,” Beyrer said.
Rodriguez, who spoke to Newsday by phone on Thursday afternoon, said the anniversary week of her daughter’s death was a “roller coaster ride” of emotions.
She spoke of the candlelight vigil she was planning for the teens, near the site where the girls’ bodies were found less than 24 hours apart.
“Everybody’s bringing one candle and one balloon to remember Kayla and Nisa,” Rodriguez said. “It’s a fight that I have to continue to make sure all communities are safe.”
Rodriguez was still focused on pushing for better school safety and more police resources to deal with gangs.
“I think it’s everyone’s responsibility to make sure that the community is safe, our kids are safe — that’s a priority,” Rodriguez said. “Making sure our community’s safe and our kids should have the right to go to a park, the kids have the right to go to their friends, the kids have the right to walk with their friends in their neighborhood. They shouldn’t be scared. And what happened to Kayla and Nisa, it was — I was not keeping quiet — I was going to make sure that the awareness, and what happened to my daughter doesn’t happen to another family.”
Accolades poured in Friday night for Rodriguez’s efforts to protect her community.
Suffolk County District Attorney Timothy Sini said Rodriguez turned her “tragedy into a mission for good.”
“She harvested her grief and used it as a catalyst for positive change on behalf of her community and on behalf of this country,” Sini said in a statement. “She was a fierce advocate for her hometown of Brentwood and was fearless in her fight to put an end to the violence caused by MS-13 to ensure that other parents never have to endure the pain she suffered.”
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo directed State Police to provide any help necessary to Suffolk police to investigate the circumstances of the anti-gang crusader’s death. "In the wake of the unspeakable tragedy of her daughter's death, Evelyn showed tremendous courage by dedicating herself to the disruption of gang violence throughout her community,” the governor said in a statement. “As she stood by my side as we fought back against MS-13, I stand with her family tonight.”
Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), who was on his way to the memorial when he learned the news, tweeted on Friday evening: “Prayers for Evelyn Rodriguez the mother of MS-13 victim Kayla Cuevas.”
Just like two years ago, the sounds of crying could be heard outside Rodriguez’s Stacom Street home, just a block from where she was fatally struck. Friends and family could be seen hugging each other as mourners arrived with flowers.
Elizabeth Alvarado, Mickens’ mother, arrived at the scene after the crash. She desperately tried to get past the crime scene tape, but family members held her back. A few minutes later, she broke down in tears and had to be led away.
Magaly Rivera said she had been friends with Rodriguez since Kayla and her son were small.
“The only thing I know is my friend is dead,” she said. “And at the same place where she lost her daughter.”
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said Rodriguez “never stopped fighting.”
“From the moment I met Evelyn, I was struck by her incredible courage,” Bellone said in a statement. “In the aftermath of her unimaginable loss she was a pillar of strength for her family and the community.”
Federal prosecutors said Cuevas had clashed with members and associates of MS-13. The more than a half-dozen alleged gang members who have been indicted in the girls’ slayings were reportedly hunting for rival gang members to kill when they happened to come across Cuevas and Mickens.
A spokesman for Richard P. Donoghue, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said in a statement, “The U.S. Attorney’s Office and our law enforcement partners are saddened to learn of the death of Evelyn Rodriguez, a tireless advocate for victims of MS-13 violence.”
Rodriguez last year filed a $110 million federal suit against the Brentwood schools, claiming that the district failed to protect her daughter against MS-13 gang members and ignored warnings about repeated threats to the teen.
In a joint statement, Suffolk police officials praised the way Rodriguez used the tragedy to help the community. "The death of Evelyn Rodriguez is a true loss for the Suffolk County Police Department,” Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart and Chief of Department Stuart Cameron said. “Evelyn turned the tragic loss of her daughter into a driving force to become an outspoken voice against gang violence.”
Hart spoke of her personal experience with Rodriguez. “I first met Evelyn while I was with the FBI and was immediately impressed by her strength and perseverance,” Hart said. “I was fortunate to have the opportunity to continue to work in partnership with her when I joined the Suffolk County Police Department. My thoughts … [and] prayers are with her family during this heartbreaking time.”
Sammy Gonzalez Jr., a Brentwood community advocate and Rodriguez’s friend, said she was committed to turning her tragedy into positive change.
“She had suffered a lot, and now this?” Gonzalez, 57, said. “She was turning a tragedy into light and didn’t want this to happen to any other girl. She gave her life for this.”
Walter Rodriguez, 31, said he was coming home from work when he saw a body on the street, not far from where Cuevas’ body had been found. Like many others gathered for the vigil, he feared it was another MS-13 homicide.
“I thought they had come back,” he said. “It turned out to be something worse.”
With Robert Kessler and Tom Brune