This story was reported by Nicole Fuller, Michael O’Keeffe and David Olson. It was written by Fuller.
The collective grief over the death of Evelyn Rodriguez permeated the Brentwood community Sunday, with church sermons and a growing sidewalk memorial recalling the strength and determination of a mother who took on the role of anti-gang violence activist after the brutal killing of her teenage daughter.
Parishioners at St. Anne Roman Catholic Church in Brentwood — where Rodriguez's funeral Mass is to be offered Friday and where her slain daughter's funeral was held two years earlier — mourned the loss of a key community figure.
Rodriguez “died because she sought justice, not justice for her own daughter — her daughter died two years ago — but now she sought justice for our children, for our young people, so that we are more attentive to them," said the Rev. Stanislaw Wadowski during Sunday morning's Spanish-language Mass. "So maybe this death has a meaning for all of us."
Wadowski urged parishioners to support the family in its grief, even if they can’t comprehend why Rodriguez died.
“There’s no way to express the pain,” the St. Anne's pastor said. “There’s no way to express sympathy. We can only support the family, even without understanding this situation.”
Rodriguez, 50, was fatally struck by an SUV in Brentwood Friday afternoon before a scheduled vigil to mark the two-year anniversary of the discovery of the body of her daughter Kayla Cuevas, 16.
Cuevas and her friend Nisa Mickens, 15, were fatally beaten with bats and machetes, allegedly by MS-13 gang members. The killings of the teens captured the attention of President Donald Trump and cast a national spotlight on Long Island’s gang scourge.
The SUV driver, who police have not named, was identified as a relative of a resident of Ray Court. Police said Rodriguez was involved in a "dispute" with the driver over the placement of a memorial to her daughter and Mickens, and was struck as the driver attempted to leave the scene. No charges have been filed.
A more permanent memorial — to Rodriguez and her daughter — has been painted onto the sidewalk: a large green square with gold lettering that reads, "R.I.P Kayla and Evelyn," above a heart broken into two. Flowers, candles and balloons surround it.
“That’s beautiful,” said Freddy Cuevas, Rodriguez's longtime partner and the father of Kayla Cuevas, who surveyed the scene Sunday afternoon.
Brentwood resident Tiki Rodriguez, who is not related to Evelyn Rodriguez, lit a candle at the memorial site for a woman she knew from the community and considered "like a mom."
"She was such a positive person," said Tiki Rodriguez, 23. "She made a huge difference. She was a voice for a long time. She was the voice of the people. She was the voice of anybody who passed because of gang violence.”
Neighborhood resident Joe Costello, who didn't know Evelyn Rodriguez, stopped his bicycle to say a prayer.
Costello, who raised three children in the neighborhood including a daughter who's a teacher in the Brentwood school district, knew of Rodriguez's anti-gang effort and "thought it was fantastic," he said.
"I’ve been in this neighborhood for over 45 years and it made a big change," Costello said.