Patchogue woman guilty in activist Evelyn Rodriguez’s death
Ann Marie Drago guilty on all counts in activist Evelyn Rodriguez’s death…..
Jurors delivered a swift verdict Wednesday in the trial of a Patchogue woman after once again watching the graphic news video of her driving over Evelyn Rodriguez on the same Brentwood street where the body of the anti-gang activist’s daughter was found two years earlier.
Ann Marie Drago’s eyes widened as she faced jurors and heard they had convicted her of criminally negligent homicide, criminal mischief and petit larceny following Rodriguez’s 2018 death.
The verdict came in the trial of Drago, 59, after about three hours of deliberations over two days in a Suffolk County Court trial that lasted nearly three weeks and included testimony from about 20 witnesses.
It was a result juror Bunnie Baumayr said the 12 panelists reached despite feelings of sympathy for not only Rodriguez, but Drago herself.
The defendant now faces up to 1 and 1/3 to 4 years in prison.
“Naturally she didn’t want that to happen to the lady … but we had to look at all the evidence,” said the 66-year-old retired receptionist from Bay Shore.
A short time after the verdict, Suffolk prosecutor Maggie Bopp called Rodriguez’s longtime partner, Freddy Cuevas, to share the news he later heralded outside the Central Islip courthouse as “joyous.”
The Brentwood man had played a pivotal role in the deadly confrontation on Ray Court on Sept. 14, 2018. Evidence showed he and Rodriguez approached Drago’s Nissan Rogue and demanded the return of items from a memorial to their slain 16-year-old daughter, Kayla Cuevas, that were in her vehicle.
Exactly two years earlier, Drago’s mother had found Kayla’s body in the backyard of her home on the same street. Federal prosecutors say Kayla and her friend Nisa Mickens, 15, fell victim to a deadly MS-13 gang assault.
Evelyn Rodriguez addresses the Brentwood School Board on November 17, 2016.
The slayings sparked Rodriguez to become outspoken against gang violence, activism that led to her congressional hearing testimony and a meeting with President Donald Trump on the day he called Kayla and Nisa “precious girls” during a State of the Union address.
But on the day Rodriguez planned to hold a second anniversary vigil for Kayla, her own life ended.
The 50-year-old Brentwood woman suffered fatal injuries shortly after 4 p.m. when Drago piloted her Nissan forward, running over the grieving mother with both driver’s side tires.
“There’s definitely some type of closure, in some way, somehow,” Cuevas also said Wednesday.
His family still awaits the trial of Kayla and Nisa’s alleged killers. But for Kayla’s mother, Cuevas said, “We got justice.”
Suffolk District Attorney Timothy Sini also called the verdict “a just result.”
“She spent energy and time fighting for justice, justice for others, and today we were able to obtain justice for Evelyn,” Sini said of Rodriguez while addressing reporters outside the courthouse.
He added that his prosecution team — Bopp and Assistant District Attorney Marc Lindemann — would continue to oppose a defense motion to dismiss the criminally negligent homicide charge.
Acting State Supreme Court Justice Fernando Camacho said he would rule on the motion April 10 after reserving his decision until after the verdict.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that the outcome will remain,” Sini added.
But Drago’s lead attorney, Stephen Kunken, said the defense team had hope the judge would rule in their favor. He said Drago was “struggling and extremely disappointed” by the verdict — which she planned to appeal.
Among the most significant evidence in the case was a video News 12 Long Island photographer Andrew Singh recorded while on the scene ahead of the planned vigil.
The footage ended after Rodriguez was on the ground, her life ebbing away after suffering a fractured skull and brain injury less than 300 feet from where police recovered her daughter’s remains.
The video showed Rodriguez being pulled under Drago’s Nissan Rogue as she stood by the front driver’s side tire.
Prosecutors told jurors Rodriguez took a step forward at the same time Drago accelerated, before Rodriguez’s head hit the ground and her body went under the Nissan.
Before that, Rodriguez and Cuevas had approached Drago as she sat behind the wheel and her then-fiance, Mace Scanlon, sat in the front passenger seat.
Prosecutors said the grieving parents, without physical threats or showing any weapons, demanded the return of items Drago stole from a memorial for Kayla — some visible in the SUV.
Drago dismantled the memorial in front of her mother’s home, trashing some items, because she didn’t want to scare off potential buyers of the property who were due to visit, prosecutors told jurors.
But Kunken and defense attorney Caroline Mayrhofer maintained Drago feared for her life when Rodriguez and Cuevas ran up, shouting expletives while pointing at her.
“Get out of the (expletive) car!” Cuevas yelled at one point as the parents demanded the return of items that included a portrait of Kayla in her Junior ROTC uniform and a wreath of fresh flowers.
Kunken told jurors Drago eased the Nissan forward to try to escape the threat when she believed Rodriguez and Cuevas had moved away from the vehicle’s front.
The defense also contended Drago was responsible for maintaining her mother’s property and sidewalk and a town ordinance required her to clean up the area where mourners constantly left memorial items that included pizza boxes and liquor bottles.
They also presented evidence that Drago, a registered nurse, was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder at the time of the confrontation after a 2008 attack by a psychiatric patient at work.
Two psychologists testified for the defense, including one who was treating Drago at the time of the encounter and had diagnosed her with conditions including PTSD, major depressive disorder and panic disorder. Another psychologist testified Drago had PTSD and it triggered a fight or flight response.
But a psychiatrist who testified for the prosecution said any previous mental disorders Drago had didn’t impact her mental state that day.
He also compared the 911 calls of Drago and News 12 reporter Eileen Lehpamer, saying Drago displayed “coherence” compared with Lehpamer’s “stumbling words.”
Lehpamer testified that she witnessed the confrontation after calling Rodriguez — which brought the parents to the scene — to tell her the memorial was gone.
Lehpamer also recalled later kneeling over Rodriguez, whose chest was crushed, and seeing her eyes roll toward her.
“She looked at me,” Lehpamer testified, soon unable to hold back tears. “And I held her hand … I didn’t want her to be alone.”