Hundreds of mourners — among them, Rep. Peter King and Suffolk's top law enforcement officials — gathered at a Brentwood funeral home Thursday to honor Evelyn Rodriguez, the Long Island woman who turned her grief into activism after MS-13 members allegedly killed her teenage daughter and a friend in 2016.
Rodriguez, 50, was struck and killed Friday near a memorial set up on Ray Court in Brentwood to mark two years since the body of her daughter, Kayla Cuevas, 16, was discovered just yards away.
Six days after Rodriguez died, King (R-Seaford) joined others at the Michael J. Grant Funeral Home on Suffolk Avenue for her wake.
“This is a loss for the entire community,” King said outside, after paying tribute to Rodriguez. “She had a way of challenging your conscience in a way that wasn’t offensive. She appealed to your better instincts.”
Rodriguez and Elizabeth Alvarado, whose daughter Nisa Mickens died along with Kayla, worked after the teenagers' deaths to push government officials at all levels to fund anti-gang and after-school programs in Brentwood, Central Islip and other at-risk Suffolk communities. Representatives from several of the community groups helped by the two friends' efforts paid their respects Thursday, including a group of young people wearing shirts from STRONG Youth, which operates programs for at-risk children in Brentwood with funds Rodriguez helped secure.
Other mourners wore T-shirts with the message: “Rest in Peace Evelyn.”
King said President Donald Trump, after meeting with Rodriguez during a May appearance in Bethpage, marveled at her quiet but steely determination to prevent other parents from experiencing the kind of loss she had suffered.
Minutes after King left the funeral home, several members of the Punisherz Ryderz motorcycle club roared into the parking lot and went inside.
“We were with Evelyn ever since the murders,” said one club member, who identified himself as “Flex.” “We came to help out and say a little prayer.”
Kayla and Nisa were Brentwood High School students when, according to Suffolk police and federal prosecutors, members of the notoriously violent MS-13 gang attacked them with bats and machetes.
Freddy Cuevas, Rodriguez’s partner and Kayla’s father, appeared visibly shaken when he arrived at the funeral home at about 3 p.m.
Within an hour, Suffolk District Attorney Timothy Sini, Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart, Police Chief of Department Stuart Cameron, County Executive Steve Bellone and other officials had also arrived.
“A lot of people think they know what courage is, but very few people get tested," said Suffolk Deputy Police Commissioner Risco Mention-Lewis, who handles community relations for the department and worked with Rodriguez on gang intervention efforts. "She was tested. She was weighed and measured and she showed her fortitude and courage.”
To honor their daughters, Rodriguez and Alvarado helped raise money for the Brentwood Rotary's Gift of Life Program, which helps children from other countries who are in dire need of medical care.
Program director Robbie Donno said two children from Kosovo are set to arrive on Long Island later in the fall for treatment at a hospital.
"We are raising money in Kayla and Nisa’s name to help children who would not have a chance to live in their own countries,” Donno said at the funeral home. “Evelyn and Liz wanted to be part of this because they wanted to prevent other parents from the pain of losing a child.”
Rodriguez's funeral is set for Friday at St. Anne’s Roman Catholic Church in Brentwood.
Several hundred mourners, including King, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), are expected to attend.
Graveside services will follow at Queen of All Saints Cemetery in Central Islip. Rodriguez will be buried beside Kayla.
The discovery of their daughters' bodies transformed two mothers into activists fiercely determined to protect other children. The girls' deaths also cast Brentwood into the national conversation on gang violence and efforts to end it, or at least provide safe detours for those children and teenagers most susceptible to the lure of gang life.
Rodriguez and Cuevas, along with Alvarado and her husband, Rob Mickens, watched from the balcony as White House guests at Trump’s January State of the Union address. They also met with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions when he visited Long Island in April 2017.
Mention-Lewis said Rodriguez's death was hard to fathom.
“I can only hope this will commit even more people to the cause of eradicating gangs and changing young people’s lives,” she said.