National News

Guatemalan migrant accused of police officer’s death released after case dismissed

todayMarch 16, 2024

Background

Attorney Phillip Arroyo

(BAKER COUNTY, Fla.) — Virgilio Aguilar Mendez, the teen migrant from Guatemala who was arrested following the death of a Florida police officer, has been freed from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s custody his lawyers told ABC News.

Attorney Phillip Arroyo shared a video on TikTok showing the moment Aguilar Mendez was released for the first time since May 2023. The video shows the teen smiling and nodding while speaking with Arroyo.

Aguilar Mendez, a 19-year-old farmworker was arrested in May after Sgt. Michael Kunovich, an officer with the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office in St. Augustine Florida approached him. Kunovich made contact with him due to “suspicious behavior,” according to an arrest report reviewed by ABC News.

Aguilar Mendez, who does not speak English, attempted to walk away from the officer, but a struggle ensued, according to body camera video and audio of the incident obtained by ABC News.

Body camera shows Aguilar Mendez being thrown to the ground, put in a chokehold, and tased on multiple occasions. Arroyo told ABC News that minutes after the incident, Kunovich suffered a heart attack and died.

ABC News obtained a copy of the autopsy report, which concluded Kunovich died of natural causes after suffering cardiac dysrhythmia, which may have been a result of the severe heart disease he was noted to have, a prior heart attack, or heart and lung deterioration due to smoking. Prosecutors dropped charges against Aguilar Mendez earlier this month.

Criminal defense attorney Jose Baez, who represented Aguilar Mendez’s criminal case claimed during an exclusive interview in February that the sheriff’s office conducted an “unlawful arrest” and that racial profiling was the reason he was initially approached by police.

Baez also fought back against a police report that claimed Aguilar Mendez “armed himself with a folding pocket knife” that was in his pocket after he was placed in handcuffs. Officers claimed he ignored commands to drop the knife and that the knife “had to be forcefully removed from the defendant’s hands.” Body camera video, reviewed by ABC News, did not clearly show the moment he allegedly grabbed the knife. In the video, Aguilar Mendez can be heard saying he uses the knife to cut watermelon. Baez confirmed he cuts watermelon and harvests peppers for work.

After charges were dropped, St. Johns County Sheriff defended Sgt. Kunovich’s actions.

“There have been attempts by some to portray Aguilar Mendez as a victim and vilify Sergeant Kunovich. I continue to stand behind Sergeant Kunovich’s actions on the night of May 19, 2023,” St. Johns County Sheriff Rob Hardwick said in a statement earlier this month. “The danger associated with law enforcement is a risk we assume when we enter this profession. Sergeant Kunovich died a hero protecting the citizens of St. Johns County and there is nothing more noble than that. Please continue to hold our agency and Sergeant Kunovich’s family in your thoughts and prayers.”

Mariana Blanco, assistant Executive Director of the Guatemalan-Maya Center, an organization that has been advocating for the teen, praised his release.

“Our work has just begun in terms of the healing work that will need to be done with Aguilar Mendez so we’re just excited to have him back and bring him into a community where he’s going to feel welcomed, and aprreciated and safe,” Blanco told ABC News. “This case just proves that local authorities in Florida are not prepared to work with our workforce.”

Aguilar Mendez, is from a small Indigenous community in Guatemala and primarily speaks Mam, according to Arroyo.

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