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HomePoliticsCharges dropped against Guatemalan farmworker in death of sheriff's officer during arrest

Charges dropped against Guatemalan farmworker in death of sheriff’s officer during arrest


A Guatemalan farmworker has been cleared of charges in the heart-attack death of a Florida sheriff’s officer, a case that drew celebrity attention and prompted a nationwide petition for his freedom.

NBC News reported on the case of 19-year-old Virgilio Aguilar Mendez, in December, after his attorney obtained and shared body camera video of the arrest.

On Friday, the state attorney in Florida’s 7th Judicial Circuit said in a statement that dismissing charges against Aguilar Mendez was appropriate.

Expert testimony on Aguilar Mendez’s inability to comprehend English, his cultural background and concerns about his intellectual capacity had raised concerns in the case, said R.J. Larizza, the prosecutor in the case. He added that a judge recently ruled that Aguilar Mendez was incompetent to face prosecution based on that expert testimony.

“Arrest and time served is sufficient,” the state’s attorney stated.

Aguilar Mendez had been held since May 19, 2023, when he was arrested outside a Super 8 hotel in St. Augustine, Florida.

He was charged with contributing to the death of St. Johns County Sheriff’s Sgt. Michael Kunovich, who suffered a heart attack after struggling for several minutes, along with other officers, to take Aguilar Mendez into custody. Kunovich walked away when Aguilar Mendez was handcuffed on the ground. Minutes later he collapsed on a curb, according to documents released after the arrest.

Virgilio Aguilar Mendez.Phillip Arroyo

Video of the arrest, however, led Aguilar Mendez’s civil attorney, Phillip Arroyo, to assert that his client was a victim of police brutality and that the arrest never should have happened. Arroyo said body camera showed that his client, whose first language is Mam, an indigenous language of Guatemala, did not understand the commands of the officer.

A petition for his release started by Change.org garnered more than 600,000 signatures. Aguilar Mendez’s case got a boost from media personality Kim Kardashian’s social media sites, Arroyo said.

Aguilar Mendez remained jailed Monday in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody. Attorneys had filed a motion for his release and were awaiting response from the agency, said Arroyo, who filed a civil rights lawsuit in the case on Feb. 23.

Aguilar Mendez had faced charges of aggravated manslaughter of an officer, a first-degree felony punishable by up to life in prison and resisting an officer with violence, a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison. 

Arroyo disputed assertions that the charges were dropped based on Aguilar Mendez’s competence.

“The prosecutor dropped the case because, it is our position, they knew very well the evidence and bodycam videos demonstrated how the Sheriff blatantly lied to the media during the case and they had no case. The charges were frivolous and they always knew it would not stand legal muster,” Arroyo said in an email to NBC News.

In a news conference last May, St. John County Sheriff Robert Hardwick had said the arrest was by the book and that Aguilar Mendez had been trespassing. He was never charged with trespassing.

Arroyo said that one hour after charges were dropped, Aguilar Mendez was moved to St. Johns County Jail, where he was picked up by ICE to be held at its facility in Baker County, Florida. Arroyo said he was not informed of the transfer before the charges were dropped.

“Luckily our team had already filed a motion through immigration attorney Henry Lim to have Virgilio released from ICE custody and there actually is no deportation removal order at all,” Arroyo said.

Aguilar Mendez initially had been charged with murder but those charges were reduced after a medical examiner found Kunovich’s death was natural and caused by an irregular heartbeat, due to atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and hypertensive cardiovascular disease.

The medical examiner also listed “physical exertion and possible emotional stress while apprehending a fleeing suspect” as contributing causes. 

Kunovich was 52 and had 26 years of service, according to an obituary. He had two sons.

The sheriff’s office criticized the decision to drop the charges saying in a statement that Aguilar Mendez is an “illegal alien” who resisted “lawful efforts to detain him” and Kunovich died as a result.

Hardwick said in a statement that Kunovich was a hero, First Coast News reported.

“There have been attempts by some to portray Aguilar Mendez as a victim and vilify Sergeant Kunovich. I continue to stand behind Sgt. Kunovich’s actions on the night of May 19, 2023,” Hardwick stated. He said Kunovich was a hero protecting St. Johns County citizens.



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