Almost exactly two years ago, mourners gathered at Brentwood High School on Long Island to remember teenagers Kayla Cuevas and Nisa Mickens, who were allegedly killed by suspected MS-13 gang members. The night was pierced with hundreds of candle flames marshaled on the football field, though the two friends dreamed of playing professional basketball.
Kayla’s mother, Evelyn Rodriguez, organized another vigil for Friday to mark precisely the two years since Kayla’s body was recovered from a wooded area off Ray Court, a verdant cul-de-sac.
The family put together a memorial along the street for Kayla, whose slaying President Trump invoked in his State of the Union address in January.
At one point Friday afternoon, someone came out of a house on the street to dismantle the memorial, CBS New York reported, with one witness telling the station a woman was popping balloons at the display. Rodriguez and Kayla’s father, Manny Cuevas, grew furious and yelled at a woman behind the wheel of a white Nissan Rogue, captured in a tense video by News 12 Long Island.
Then, the woman tried to speed away. Rodriguez was struck by the vehicle, and she was later pronounced dead at a hospital, the Suffolk County Police Department said. Homicide detectives are investigating, the department said in a statement, but a spokeswoman on Saturday declined to say if the driver will face charges. The woman was a relative of a resident on the street, police said.
Rodriguez, 50, had channeled her grief and sorrow over her daughter’s slaying to become perhaps the most visible advocate for MS-13 victims, earning a seat in the gallery at the State of the Union address and the recognition by Trump during his speech.
“Many of these gang members took advantage of glaring loopholes in our laws to enter the country as unaccompanied alien minors and wound up in Kayla and Nisa’s high school,” the president said as the girls’ parents wiped away tears. They rose for a standing ovation.
Dozens of slayings on Long Island since 2013 have rocked communities there and transformed the debate over immigration policy. Trump has used brutal killings such as Kayla’s to raise the specter of the transnational gang as an existential threat, and he has argued for tougher immigration laws in response.
Data has shown immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than U.S.-born citizens.
Trump on Friday evening noted Rodriguez’s death. “My thoughts and prayers are with Evelyn Rodriguez this evening, along with her family and friends,” he wrote on Twitter.
Rodriguez sued Kayla’s high school for $110 million, saying her daughter had been bullied and accosted there by an alleged gang member who Rodriguez said still attended the school, even after she complained to administrators.
“She used to tell me, ‘Ma, they are taking over the school. It’s like they’re everywhere,’ ” Rodriguez said.
After a confrontation at Brentwood, federal prosecutors say, MS-13 put a “greenlight” — or kill order — on Kayla, and members made a “throat slicing gesture” toward her at school, the lawsuit says.
A week later, she was walking home one evening with Nisa, a basketball teammate one day shy of her 16th birthday, when MS-13 members spotted them and attacked with a machete and baseball bats, according to prosecutors.
Federal prosecutors believe thousands of primarily Central American immigrants are members of MS-13, or the Mara Salvatrucha, across the United States. It began as a street gang in Los Angeles in the 1980s.
Four members were charged in connection with Kayla’s and Nisa’s slayings, prosecutors said in March 2017. They were apprehended as part of a wider dragnet of 13 members charged in seven murder cases, among other charges. Convictions could lead to the death penalty.
Rodriguez, who appeared with Trump in a roundtable discussion on immigration policy in May, told lawmakers last year that parents feared seeing their children playing outside with other children.
“The MS-13 gang is so unpredictable you just don’t know who is who with them,” Rodriguez said. “MS-13 is a new breed of murderers, they are children, kids killing kids, and as they continue to grow, so does their techniques of recruiting helpless kids into their wicked actions.”
Michael E. Miller contributed to this report.
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