By Paula Katinas
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Eleven years after four members of the same family were killed by a drunk-driving police officers on Third Avenue, relatives, friends, local residents and elected officials gathered in a park named in their honor to pay them tribute.
A ceremony that featured prayers and music was held on the 11th anniversary of the deaths of Maria Herrera, 24, her 4-year-old son Andy, infant son Ricardo, and her sister Dilcia Pena, 16.
Sunset Park Councilwoman Sara Gonzalez, who helped organize the tribute in Pena-Herrera Park on Third Avenue between 46th and 47th streets, called the gathering a celebration of the victims’ lives.
“I am still saddened by the tragic circumstances that made a memorial necessary, but I am encouraged by the strength and resolve of the Peña-Herrera family to turn their pain into positive change,” Gonzalez said.
Joseph Gray, the driver who killed the victims, was a police officer assigned to 72nd Precinct at the time. He was off-duty when the crash took place.
Gray's arrest brought to light what authorities said was a pervasive alcohol problem in the Sunset Park precinct. Several cops in the precinct drank heavily and frequently visited local strip clubs, authorities said. The precinct’s commanding officer was reassigned following the shocking allegations. Gray quit the New York Police Department a few days after his arrest.
Gray was convicted of four counts of second-degree manslaughter and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. He was released from prison in April after serving 10 years of the 15-year sentence.
Maria Herrera was eight months pregnant at the time of the crash. After she, her son Andy, and her teenage sister were rushed to the hospital, doctors delivered her baby, a boy. The infant lived for only a short time, police said. The baby’s father named him Ricardo.
The funeral for all four victims took place at Saint Michael’s Catholic Church on Fourth Avenue and 42nd Street.
George Pataki, the governor at the time, visited the crash scene and spoke to the family. He vowed to push for stronger laws against hit-run drivers and drunk drivers.
Gonzalez hosted the memorial ceremony in Pena-Herrera Park, a playground dedicated in 2003 in memory of the victims.
The ceremony began with a prayer led by the Rev. Kevin Sweeney of St. Michael’s Church. After members of the family spoke, local guitar impresario Ivan Perez performed.
González offered her remarks before introducing state Sen. Eric Adams, who pledged to work with the family to introduce legislation in Albany to prevent such tragedies in the future.
The family matriarch, Maria Altagracia Peña, offered a musical tribute. Grupo Cultural Sunset Park performed a colorful dance. To close the ceremony, Jessica Suren of the Resurrection Singers performed a moving rendition of Amy Grant’s famous song “I Will Remember You.”