CENTRAL ISLIP, Long Island — On Friday, after a two-month investigation, the identity of the person who fatally ran over anti-gang advocate Evelyn Rodriguez was revealed. It happened when that person, Annmarie Drago, 48, appeared in court to face charges in relation to Rodriguez's death.
Drago said, through her attorney, that the incident that happened on Sep. 14 was accidental, and that she sent condolences to Rodriguez's family. Those statements, however, were met with skepticism, particularly by the dozen or so supporters of the anti-gang activist, who'd come to court on Friday.
Officers ushered Drago into the courtroom in handcuffs. There, prosecutors read the charges she faces: criminally negligent homicide, criminal mischief, and petit larceny, in relation to the fatal incident on Sep. 14.
It was the second anniversary of the deaths of Rodriguez's daughter, Kayla Cuevas, 16, and her best friend, Nisa Mickens, 15. The bodies of the two girls had been left behind a home on Ray Court in Brentwood, after the girls had been killed by MS-13 gang members, allegedly.
On the second anniversary, a large, makeshift memorial of flowers, balloons, candles and other keepsakes had been set up in front of the Ray Court home during the day, in preparation for a memorial vigil scheduled for that evening.
That afternoon, according to the criminal complaint read in court on Friday, Drago removed the memorial items, out of fear that they would prevent the sale of her mother's home, which is at the location where the memorial had been erected.
Drago had thrown out some of the memorial items, and had placed others in her SUV, according to prosecutors. Rodriguez came to the scene and confronted Drago, the complaint alleges. When the encounter happened, Drago, a registered nurse who was behind the wheel of her SUV at the time, accelerated and ran over Rodriguez, killing her, according to the district attorney's office.
Drago has insisted that it was an accident.
"I am confident," her attorney, Stephen Kunken, said in a statement outside of the courtroom, "that she will be found not guilty of any criminal conduct." He added that Drago, 48, sends "her sincere condolences to the family of Evelyn Rodriguez."
In response, Rodriguez's daughter, Kelsey Cuevas, said, "I hope she did mean that she was sorry, but sorry doesn't bring my mother back."
Cuevas, as well as her father, Freddy, Rodriguez's long-term partner, both spoke about Friday's hearing, after it had ended.
"Justice was served today, in a way," Freddy Cuevas told reporters, outside of the courtroom. He had been with Rodriguez when she was run over, and had warned Drago at the time of the potential danger. "All the professionals behind this case took their diligence to make sure that everything was solid," Cuevas added.
However, many of the friends and supporters of Rodriguez who had come to court were less than pleased with the proceeding.
"This is disgusting!" exclaimed Vanessa Lopez, a long-time friend of Rodriguez. "As a community, we're outraged."
Rodriguez had become such a vocal and high-profile activist against gang violence that she was recognized by President Donald Trump in his first State of the Union address last January, and she'd testified at congressional hearings and at other forums.
Her personal advocacy was cut short by her death, her friends and fellow activists pointed out, adding that the mother, partner, friend and mentor would no longer be present for them, in contrast to the woman whose automobile collision was captured on a variety of video cameras, and was seen by "many eyewitnesses," according to the district attorney.
"Why is she able to walk?" asked fellow anti-gang advocate Liz Cordero, about Annmarie Drago's legal status. "She's just walking amongst us."
In response to the criticism, District Attorney Timothy Sini pointed out that because of a number of factors, Drago's case didn't qualify for a request for bail. Among those factors, he said, was that Drago had remained at the crime scene when the incident had occurred, she has no criminal history, she'd turned herself in, and she has surrendered her passport.
She was released on her own recognizance.
"If any of those circumstances change," Sini said outside of court, "you know I will be here with my people, seeking a bail modification."
If found guilty of the most serious charges against her, Drago faces up to four years in prison. Her next court proceeding is scheduled for Jan. 15.AlertMe