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In Brentwood and across LI, mourning a 'warrior for the children'  

Evelyn Rodriguez, who died Friday, is remembered for turning personal tragedy into community advocacy.

Evelyn Rodriguez, seen at Brentwood school board meeting

Evelyn Rodriguez, seen at Brentwood school board meeting Nov. 17, 2016, is being laid to rest Friday. Photo Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

After her daughter's death, Evelyn Rodriguez began a crusade to save lives. 

The Brentwood mother became an activist and an advocate after her own tragedy in 2016 when her 16-year-old daughter, Kayla Cuevas, and her friend, Nisa Mickens, 15, were killed, allegedly by members of MS-13. On Friday — two years to the day after her daughter's body was discovered — Rodriguez was killed in Brentwood before an anniversary vigil, close to the site where her child was found. 

“She was our warrior,” said Maria Heuskin, 45, of Bay Shore, wearing a T-shirt Saturday in honor of the girls that read: “We are Brentwood” and “#Brentwoodstrong." "The last two years, she became the warrior for the children and for the community. And our warrior’s gone.”

Heralded by community advocates and local officials as a voice against gang violence and the face of the fight against MS-13, Rodriguez was instrumental in bringing the country's focus, as well as millions of dollars in funding, to Long Island. 

Freddy Cuevas, standing outside the home he shared with Rodriguez on Saturday, said he was struggling to go on without her after their daughter's death.

“She was a shield of armor; she was a true person,” he said. “She was willing to — with the tragedy we endured — to come out to the community and to still be an advocate for the community.”

Cuevas said he wanted to keep Rodriguez’s spirit, and her advocacy, alive.

“Knowing she’s not here anymore is an incredible thing,” Cuevas said. “She was a phenomenal person. She was doing something for the community and something for the outreach of Brentwood itself. … Her not being here today is a big setback.”

Rodriguez, 50, was fatally struck by an SUV on Friday afternoon. The crash occurred after a dispute with the driver over the placement of a memorial for her daughter, less than two hours before the vigil, authorities said. On Saturday, a parade of heartbroken friends, family and even some strangers who wanted to pay their respects visited the crash site in Rodriguez's memory, leaving flowers, cards and prayers for the grieving family. 

Sam Gonzalez, a Brentwood community activist, called Rodriguez “a pioneer, a force, a mother” and he said he took some solace in imagining the conversations that Rodriguez “and her daughter and the other young lady are having in heaven right now.”

"Everything that she worked hard for, everything that she fought for, that she spearheaded, has made this community better,” said Gonzalez, 57.

Brentwood resident Vivian Brown, 52, also prayed Saturday that Rodriguez will have "peace" now. 

“She fought the battle for her daughter,” she said. “It was so painful for a mother to go through something like this.”

The slayings of the teens propelled Brentwood, Long Island, and Rodriguez into a national spotlight and to the attention of President Donald Trump. 

Trump referred to the Brentwood High School students as "precious girls" in his State of the Union speech, which the families attended as guests: "Tonight, everyone in this chamber is praying for you. Everyone in America is grieving for you. And 320 million hearts are breaking for you. We cannot imagine the depth of your sorrow, but we can make sure that other families never have to endure this pain."

Friends and officials said Rodriguez remained committed to Brentwood — often bringing homemade empanadas to Third Precinct officers — and to her daughter's memory.

"From the moment I met her, I could see she was a fighter," County Executive Steve Bellone said. "And that carried through, right through to the end for her.”

But even as news of Rodriguez's death spread to Washington, it's Brentwood and beyond that will feel the "void."

“She changed the dynamics of what was happening," said Barbara Medina, a crime victims' advocate who was frequently at Rodriguez’s side. "To lose her the way we did, it’s a big hit to the community. We’re all shocked. It’s something we never expected.”

Rodriguez's work with law enforcement, officials said, can be tied to a safer community where residents talk to police. Since the double murders, authorities have made more than 250 gang-related arrests, obtained more than 30 federal indictments and launched gang prevention programs, District Attorney Timothy Sini said.

"It's such a shame to think of all the things she could have done if she'd been with us longer," Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart said.

Two years ago, Sini vowed to her that the murders would be solved. It was a promise he kept, with more than a half-dozen indictments.

When Sini told her the news of the arrests, "I remember very clearly that she said, 'We did this,' " he recounted, his voice breaking. 

Medina, speaking outside of Rodriguez's home Saturday, said the community is "devastated" by her death and the circumstances around it. 

"She fought for her daughter from day one and she died fighting for her daughter’s memorial," she said.

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