Florida migrant teenager charged with manslaughter in police officer’s death dismissed

Florida migrant teenager charged with manslaughter in police officer’s death dismissed

Virgilio Aguilar Mendez, 19, a migrant from Guatemala, was arrested last May.

The case against a teenage migrant from Guatemala has been dismissed almost a year after his arrest following the death of a Florida police officer, according to Jose Baez, the teenager’s lawyer.

Virgilio Aguilar Mendez, a 19-year-old migrant, was arrested in May 2023 after Sgt. Michael Kunovich, an officer with the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office in St. Augustine, Florida, approached the teenager, according to Philip Arroyo, another attorney for the teen. Aguilar Mendez, who does not speak English, tried to get away from the officer, but a struggle ensued, according to body camera video and audio of the incident reviewed by ABC News.

Aguilar Mendez was thrown to the ground, choked and punched multiple times, according to the footage.

Five minutes after Aguilar Mendez was handcuffed and loaded into the squad car, Kunovich suffered a heart attack and died, according to Arroyo.

Kunovich died of natural causes after suffering from a cardiac arrhythmia, according to an autopsy report reviewed by ABC News, which could be the result of severe heart disease, a previous heart attack or deterioration of the heart and lungs due to smoking.

The teenager was charged with aggravated murder the same day he was arrested, which was later reduced to aggravated murder of a police officer, which is punishable by life in prison.

The St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement that the charges against Aguilar Mendez were dismissed “based on concerns about Virgilio Aguilar Mendez’s mental capacity and the recent ruling that found him incompetent.”

Aguilar Mendez was recently declared mentally incompetent to stand trial because of his lack of understanding of the American criminal justice system, Arroyo told ABC News.

Aguilar Mendez is from a small indigenous community in Guatemala and speaks primarily the ancient indigenous Mam language, according to Arroyo.

In an exclusive interview with ABC News on Monday, Baez said the teenager came from a poor family and was raised in a home with dirty floors. Aguilar Mendez’s family raised money from the community through various loans to help him travel to the United States so he could send money back when he was 17 years old. Because he has been in custody since May, he has not been able to provide for his family and that has put his relatives in danger, Baez said.

“If he comes here and disappears or defaults on paying back this money, his family will be shamed forever,” he said. “They have no way to really do business in their community. They’re not going to have respect and it’s going to hurt them completely.”

Baez also said his client had his “life savings” in cash in the pocket from which officers say he pulled a knife.

“He comes from a small village, he lives in a home with a dirt floor and basically every policeman in his country that he’s ever met in his life has been a corrupt policeman and they pull you over and take your money and send you on your way,” he said . “That’s what was in that pocket, he never reached for a knife or anything. They never even found him until they cuffed him.”

Although the state charges were dismissed, the sheriff’s office said Aguilar Mendez will remain in federal custody pending deportation proceedings.

“There have been attempts by some to portray Aguilar Mendez as a victim and defame Sergeant Kunovich. I continue to stand by Sergeant Kunovich’s actions on the night of May 19, 2023,” St. Johns County Sheriff Rob Hardwick said in a statement. “The danger associated with law enforcement is a risk we take 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 keep our agency and Sergeant Kunovich’s family in your thoughts and prayers.”

Police say Aguilar Mendez “armed himself with a folding pocket knife that he pulled from his shorts pockets,” according to police records obtained by ABC News.

Body camera video reviewed by ABC News does not clearly show Aguilar Mendez grabbing the knife from his pocket, but officers can be heard telling him to drop the knife. The teenager can be heard telling officers he needed the knife to cut a watermelon.

ABC News’ Sabina Gebremedhin contributed to this report.

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