Charges in death of anti-gang crusader who lost her daughter

FILE - In this April 24, 2017 file photo, Evelyn Rodriguez listens during a news conference by Suffolk County officials in Hauppauge, N.Y. An indictment has been filed against the driver of an SUV that struck and killed Rodriguez, who led a crusade against MS-13 gang violence after her daughter was slain. Rodriguez was fatally injured in Brentwood in September 2018 after arguing with the driver over the placement of a memorial to her 16-year-old daughter. Her death came two years to the day after her daughter’s body was found. (AP Photos/Frank Eltman)

CENTRAL ISLIP, N.Y. — An SUV driver pleaded not guilty Friday in a crash that killed a New York mother who had led a nationally recognized crusade against MS-13 gang violence after her daughter was slain.

Annmarie Drago, a 58-year-old nurse, was indicted on charges of criminally negligent homicide, criminal mischief and petit larceny and appeared in court with handcuffs behind her back. Her lawyer entered the plea on her behalf. The top charge carries a maximum penalty of four years in prison if she's convicted.

The victim, Evelyn Rodriguez, was fatally injured in Brentwood, on Long Island, in September after arguing with Drago over the placement of a memorial to her daughter Kayla Cuevas, who died at age 16. Drago has ties to the property near where the teenager's body was found.

Drago's lawyer, Stephen Kunken, called the matter a "tragic accident" and said Drago extended her condolences to Rodriguez's family. After the hearing, she hid in the corner of an elevator, surrounded by court officers, as reporters shouted questions.

"As she put up the memorial, Evelyn had no idea that she would be joining Kayla that day," Assistant District Attorney Marc Lindemann told Judge Fernando Camacho.

Lindemann said Kayla's father, Freddy Cuevas, warned Drago twice that she would hit Rodriguez if she drove her car forward. Evelyn was about a half step from the front tire when the vehicle lurched forward, and she grabbed onto the headlight before being thrown to the street.

Rodriguez's death came two years to the day after her daughter's body was found. Cuevas and her best friend, 15-year-old Nisa Mickens, were walking when police say they were ambushed by MS-13 gang members and slaughtered.

Their deaths brought sudden attention to a string of killings of teenagers in the Long Island suburbs that had largely gone unnoticed, and in some cases, uninvestigated by police. After he became president, Donald Trump visited Brentwood and vowed a national crackdown on MS-13. He recognized Rodriguez, Cuevas and Mickens' parents at the State of the Union address in January.

"Her roar was deafening, from the streets of Brentwood to the halls of Congress to the ears of the president himself," Suffolk County District Attorney Timothy Sini said at her funeral.

Freddy Cuevas said after the arraignment that "justice was served today, in a way."

Cuevas testified before the grand jury that indicted Drago and said it was important he be there to see the defendant hauled into court.

He acknowledged frustration with the pace of the investigation — nearly 2½ months — but said he understood that time was needed to build the case.

Some of Rodriguez's friends attended the arraignment and were upset that Drago had been released on bail.

Sini explained that bail wasn't meant as a punishment and said there's no indication she'll flee, given that she has no criminal record, has been cooperative and surrendered her passport.

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