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Mother of suspected MS-13 victim remembered as 'warrior'

BRENTWOOD, N.Y. (AP) — A mother hailed by President Donald Trump for channeling grief over her slain daughter into an anti-gang crusade was memorialized at her funeral Friday as a "warrior," a week after her passion boiled into a fatal clash yards from where her child died.

"She was my warrior, my rock, my queen, my everything in my whole world," her longtime partner, Freddy Cuevas, told mourners at St. Anne's Roman Catholic Church in Brentwood, following a parade of public officials who hailed Rodriguez's fearlessness and compassion.

Rodriguez, 50, was struck and killed by an SUV on Sept. 14 after she got into a heated argument with the driver over the placement of a memorial to her slain daughter, Kayla Cuevas. Rodriguez' death in the neighborhood dispute came two years to the day after Cuevas' beaten, slashed body was found. Cuevas and her friend, 15-year-old Nisa Mickens, were walking when police say they were ambushed by MS-13 gang members and slaughtered.

The deaths brought sudden attention to a string of murders 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.

Rodriguez spoke out against the gang and the local school district, saying in a $110 million lawsuit that it had ignored warnings that MS-13 members were threatening students. She sat alongside Trump at a gang violence forum in May on Long Island.

At her funeral, Suffolk County District Attorney Tim Sini called Rodriguez "our Batman and Robin" and one of the strongest people he's ever met. "Her roar was deafening, from the streets of Brentwood to the halls of Congress to the ears of the president himself," Sini said.

New York Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul encouraged mourners to continue Rodriguez's crusade and offered a message to MS-13: "You will be stopped. Your evil will be thwarted at every step, because you have lit a fire under this community."

"That will be the enduring legacy of what Evelyn accomplished in the name of Kayla and other victims of gang violence," Hochul said. Rodriguez was so moved by the suspected gang killing in June of a 15-year-old Bronx boy, Lesandro "Junior" Guzman-Feliz, that she reached out to his mother and attended his wake, Homeland Security Special Agent C.J. Martinez said.

Cuevas led pallbearers carrying Rodriguez's casket in and out of the church, pausing at the back of the hearse after the service and placing both hands atop the wooden case. Moments later, tears rushed from beneath his sunglasses as he wrapped his arms around a mourner.

About a dozen mourners wore memorial T-shirts with photograph of Rodriguez at the U.S. Capitol for the State of the Union. Several others wore shirts with the dates of Rodriguez's death and her daughter's death. It read: "Welcome home mommy. I've missed you."

Rodriguez was insistent that her own daughter's death not be forgotten, and she was readying for an annual memorial vigil on the Brentwood block where she died when she got into an argument with a relative of a neighborhood resident.

A television news crew on hand for the memorial was recording as Rodriguez and another person yelled at the SUV driver, who then sped forward and struck her. The driver, who has not been identified by police, remained at the scene and called 911. Another vigil is planned for Sunday at the same location.

Outside the church Friday, Rodriguez's friend, Liz Cordero, said the driver should be charged with a crime. "This was no accident, Cordero said. "This was murder." The funeral was held at the same church where services were held for Kayla Cuevas.

"It's maddening and saddening to know we're back here again two years later," said County Legislator Monica Martinez, who taught Cuevas in the sixth grade and remained close with the family. The girls' alleged killers, who were arrested along with about a dozen other suspected MS-13 members, are facing murder charges that could result in the death penalty.

MS-13, or the Mara Salvatrucha, is blamed for dozens of killings on Long Island since 2016. A purported member of the gang, Freiry Martinez, pleaded guilty Friday to participating in the brutal massacre of four young men in nearby Central Islip. The victims were lured to a park and attacked with machetes, knives and clubs.

Trump has blamed the violence on lax immigration policies. Sini, who was police commissioner when Kayla Cuevas was killed, encouraged mourners to take up Rodriguez's fight to eradicate the gang suspected of terrorizing her family and community.

"While Evelyn can never be replaced she can be honored each and every day by all of us by continuing her fight for good," Sini told mourners. "Evelyn's with Kayla now, but I know she's watching, and we must not let her down."

Follow Sisak at twitter.com/mikesisak

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