CENTRAL ISLIP, N.Y. – A woman who drove her SUV over a New York mother saluted by President Donald Trump for her crusade against MS-13 gang violence pleaded not guilty Friday to a charge of criminally negligent homicide.
Annmarie Drago, a 58-year-old nurse, surrendered to police in the morning and appeared in court with her hands cuffed behind her back.
She also faces charges of criminal mischief and petit larceny in the Sept. 14 confrontation that led to the death of Evelyn Rodriguez, who became a symbol in the fight against gang violence after her 16-year-old daughter, Kayla Cuevas, was hacked and beaten to death along with a friend on a suburban Long Island street.
Prosecutors said Rodriguez was killed as she angrily confronted Drago for trashing a memorial set up for the second anniversary of the girl's death near the spot where she was slain.
The fatal SUV strike was recorded by a television news crew that was rolling as dignitaries, including a congressman, prepared to head to the scene in Brentwood for a vigil.
Drago, a mother of two, stood silently in a gray winter coat as her lawyer entered the plea on her behalf. The top charge carries a maximum penalty of four years in prison.
Her lawyer, Stephen Kunken, called the matter a "tragic accident" and said Drago extended her condolences to Rodriguez's family.
Drago hid in the corner of an elevator, surrounded by court officers, after she was freed following the hearing. She ignored shouted questions from reporters.
"When all the facts and circumstances surrounding this incident are revealed, it will be shown that my client's actions that day were neither intentional nor reckless," Kunken said. "She is hopeful, and I am confident, that she will be found not guilty of any criminal conduct."
Assistant District Attorney Marc Lindemann said Drago was selling her mother's home near where Kayla's body was found in 2016 and was worried the memorial would scare off the buyers.
Drago tossed candles in the trash, popped balloons decorated with messages such as "My Angel" and "Mommy and Daddy Love You" and stuffed a large floral arrangement in her car hours before the deadly confrontation, Lindemann said.
A neighbor saw the destruction and alerted Rodriguez, who showed up with Kayla's father, Freddy Cuevas. According to prosecutors, Rodriguez demanded that Drago return what was taken.
Video of the confrontation showed Rodriguez, 50, and Cuevas shouting and gesturing and standing in front of Drago's car, blocking her from driving away.
Rodriguez was about a half-step from the front tire and Cuevas was circling around the back when the vehicle lurched forward, striking her. Drago remained at the scene and called 911.
"As she put up the memorial, Evelyn had no idea that she would be joining Kayla that day," Lindemann said in court.
Drago's sale of the home closed the day of Rodriguez's funeral. Drago's cut was $19,000, Lindemann said.
"This is not a case where anyone is left wondering what happened," Suffolk County District Attorney Tim Sini said. "We know exactly what happened here. The question was: Let's make sure we have all the answers, that we know all the circumstances before we make a decision as how to proceed."
Rodriguez's death came two years to the day after her daughter's body was found, a short distance from the corpse of her best friend, 15-year-old Nisa Mickens.
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, 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. After Rodriguez died, he tweeted condolences to her family and friends.
Freddy Cuevas said after the arraignment that "justice was served today, in a way."
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