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Indigenous Guatemalan farmworker charged in death of sergeant raises legal questions

Body cam footage shows a man pointing.
Screen shot of body cam footage
On May 19th, 2023, body cam footage from Sergeant Michael Kunovich of St.Johns County shows him reporting Virgilio Aguilar-Mendez as a suspicious Hispanic male in a parking lot near a motel in St. Augustine.

Last May, an indigenous Guatemalan farmworker standing outside a Super 8 motel room near St. Augustine was confronted by a local police officer who reported the young man as a “suspicious Hispanic male” and began questioning him in English.

Unable to understand the police officer, Virgilio Aguilar-Mendez, then 18, tried to explain that he was staying at the motel. Moments later, the police officer wrestled him to the ground and tased him several times, according to body cam footage of the encounter and a police report. Two other police officers joined in apprehending Aguilar-Mendez, who had a pocket knife used for his farmworker job.

In a tragic turn, the arresting police officer, Seargent Michael Kunovich, 52, suddenly collapsed and died at a nearby hospital of cardiac arrest, according to a medical examiner’s report, which found the physical exertion was a contributing factor in his death.

St. John’s County prosecutors followed up by filing charges accusing Aguilar-Mendez in the police officer’s death.

Aguilar-Mendez, who speaks Mam — a distinct Mayan language from Guatemala and is an undocumented immigrant — is charged with aggravated manslaughter, and has been locked up behind bars without bond since his arrest on May 19.

His attorney and immigrant advocates with the Guatemalan-Maya Center in Palm Beach County say the arrest violated the young man’s constitutional rights against “unreasonable searches and seizures" and are demanding he be immediately released from detention.

The center has rallied support for Aguilar-Mendez through a national online petition calling for his release from jail and dismissal of charges. They have collected nearly 600,000 signatures at Change.org. The goal is 1 million signatures.

Mari Blanco, assistant executive director at the Guatemalan-Maya Center in Lake Worth Beach — known for its immigrant advocacy — has been assisting the 7th Judicial Circuit Court with cultural and language interpreters.

Their work also includes informing the teen’s family in Huehuetenango, a rural city in Guatemala, “finding some of the relatives, including his [Aguilar-Mendez] mom and dad and getting documents,” Blanco told WLRN.

READ MORE: New immigration law forces family to flee Florida, leaving behind American-born student

Last month, St. Johns County Judge R. Lee Smith ruled Aguilar-Mendez, who has a sixth-grade education, incompetent to proceed to trial after several experts, including Blanco, testified in December that he was incapable of understanding the American judicial process due to his limited English and Spanish proficiency.

Since Aguilar-Mendez "doesn’t understand his rights,” said Blanco, the center is tasked to work with a jail-based competency program to help “teach him rights” and “what it means for him to have his rights removed.”

The trial is at a standstill, attorneys told WLRN. The St. John's County Office of the Public Defender, which represents Aguilar-Mendez in the criminal case, filed a motion to free Mendez from detention and another to have the charges dismissed. It's up to the Seventh Judicial Circuit to set the dates for those two motions, which have not been set.

In the meantime, the teen's civil attorney Phillip Arroyo told WLRN he plans to file a federal lawsuit against the sheriff's office for violation of Aguilar-Mendez’s constitutional rights.

Mari Blanco, assistant executive director at the Guatemalan-Maya Center in Lake Worth Beach, looking through documents sent from Virgilio Aguilar-Mendez's family in Huehuetenango, Guatemala.
Wilkine Brutus
Mari Blanco, assistant executive director at the Guatemalan-Maya Center in Lake Worth Beach, looking through documents sent from Virgilio Aguilar-Mendez's family in Huehuetenango, Guatemala.

He said the aggravated manslaughter charge that Aguilar-Mendez faces pose significant legal questions for American-born citizens, not just undocumented immigrants.

"If you are being arrested by law enforcement — and let's say that you are resisting and that officer just happens to have a heart attack and die, you are now on the hook for that officer's death," said Arroyo.

Arroyo said Aguilar-Mendez's constitutional rights under the Fourth Amendment were violated.

"The video clearly indicates that that [racial profiling] is a very high possibility. If you look at the video, you never see officer Kunovich mentioning when he's calling in through the radio suspicious person trespassing," he said. "All he relays through the dispatch is 'suspicious Hispanic male.'"

Teen spotted near motel room

On May 19, 2023, body cam footage from Kunovich shows him reporting Aguilar-Mendez as a “suspicious Hispanic male” after spotting the teen eating and drinking in a parking lot near a Super 8 motel room. He was staying at the motel with his co-workers, according to the police report.

Officer Kunovich began questioning Aguilar-Mendez about his whereabouts and why he was standing around eating and drinking outside of the motel instead of inside his room. Aguilar-Mendez said “sorry” multiple times and expressed that he doesn't understand English.

Moments later, Kunovich asks if he has any weapons on him, and Aguilar-Mendez says "no," but it's unclear if he understands the question. Kunovich then wrestles the 5-foot-4, 115-pound teen to the ground, and tases him several times after two other police officers arrive to help restrain him — Aguilar-Mendez was placed in a chokehold and then pinned to the ground during a minutes-long tussle with deputies.

Aguilar-Mendez is heard screaming “sorry” and “mi Familia" and, as he is handcuffed and restrained, officers frisks him and one officer finds a pocket knife from his shorts.

Aguilar-Mendez is heard saying “para sandía,” alluding to the knife as a tool for cutting watermelons at his job.

Moments after the ordeal, police reports say officer Kunovich collapsed and was transported to a nearby hospital where he died of cardiac arrest, according to a medical examiner. Physical exertion was a contributing factor. Kunovich, 52, served in law enforcement for 26 years.

St. Johns County Sergeant. Michael Paul Kunovich died of an irregular heartbeat, according to the medical examiner.
St.Johns County
St. Johns County Sergeant. Michael Paul Kunovich died of an irregular heartbeat, according to the medical examiner.

St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office and the Office of the State Attorney for the 7th Judicial Circuit of Florida later charged Aguilar-Méndez with murder, which is punishable by life in prison. The charges were reduced to aggravated manslaughter of an officer and resisting with violence.

Sheriff's remarks spark condemnation

Just a few days after the incident and prior to the public release of the body cam footage, St. Johns County Sheriff Robert Hardwick spoke about the incident at an "End Violence Against Police" press conference alongside elected officials. Hardwick said Kunovich stopped Aguilar-Mendez to question him about “trespassing.”

“And all the suspect had to do was comply,” Hardwick said. “Instead the suspect chose to try to remove a knife from his left hand pocket of his pants and the struggle was on with sergeant.”

Hardwick's statements were false, and sparked public outrage.

“He totally misconstrued and quite frankly lied openly during a press conference surrounded by other elected officials, saying that this entire incident started because Mr. Vigilio Aguilar attempted to pull a knife,” Arroyo told WLRN.

"Officer Kunovich passing away is a tragedy. It is. But to try to pin it on Mr. Aguilar-[Mendez] is a huge injustice.”

Arroyo says the state attorney's office should immediately drop the aggravated manslaughter charge because the evidence does not support it — and point to the body cam footage as further evidence to refute the sheriff's claims.

Representatives from the St. Johns Sheriff's Office and the Office of State Attorney R.J. Larizza, Florida's Seventh Judicial Circuit, told WLRN they do not comment on pending cases.

Case could take months to move forward

The county judge ordered competency training where Aguilar-Mendez is held at the Volusia County Jail. The case will move forward once he is proven to understand the U.S. judicial process, which could take months. If released, the Guatemalan-Maya Center would also assist with housing, transportation, language interpretation and court date follow-ups.

The Guatemalan-Maya Center's Blanco said the teen's parents are “devastated" over what's happened to their young son who had emigrated to the U.S. to help send money back to his impoverished family.

Added Blanco: "Their main concern is that Virgilio will become sick because of the depression of being isolated in a jail where he can't speak to anybody.”

Wilkine Brutus is the Palm Beach County Reporter for WLRN. The award-winning journalist produces stories on topics surrounding local news, culture, art, politics and current affairs. Contact Wilkine at wbrutus@wlrnnews.org
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