Virgilio Aguilar Mendez, and his attorney walking

Case Dismissed: Migrant Released After Being Wrongly Accused of Police Officer’s Death

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A Guatemalan man, previously accused of fatally injuring a police officer, has been freed from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody. At 19 years old, Virgilio Aguilar Mendez faced charges of aggravated manslaughter of an officer following a confrontation with several law enforcement officers in May 2023. The incident led to the death of Sgt. Michael Kunovich from the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office, but last month, the charges against Mendez were dismissed.

Phillip Arroyo, Mendez’s attorney, posted a TikTok video capturing the moment Mendez was released, marking his first freedom since May 2023. In the video, Mendez is seen smiling and nodding as he converses with Arroyo, walking towards the camera. The release occurred 10 months after the tragic event where Kunovich, aged 52, succumbed to “medical distress” during the altercation with then 18-year-old Aguilar Mendez. Initially, Kunovich had approached Aguilar Mendez, suspecting him of a crime. Aguilar Mendez, who was merely walking on a public sidewalk and talking to his mother, did not commit any crime, as stated in a lawsuit. Despite this, when Kunovich detained Aguilar Mendez, he did not attempt to flee.

Aguilar Mendez, who apologized in English, resisted arrest, leading to a pursuit by the officer. Confused, Aguilar Mendez communicated in broken English, “I’m sorry, no speak, no speak English.” Responding deputies, including Spanish speakers, arrived, and Aguilar Mendez was tased and tackled to the ground, as Sheriff Robert Hardwick reported. The deputies managed to handcuff Aguilar Mendez, who then obtained a small pocketknife, though it was not reported if he attempted to use it.

The confrontation was recorded on the officers’ body cameras, and Aguilar Mendez’s lawyers argue that the footage shows his inability to understand or speak English. Jose Baez, another attorney for Aguilar Mendez, contended that his client was confused and unaware of why the officers were physically restraining him, striking him multiple times, and using a Taser repeatedly. A lawsuit filed by Baez claimed that Lt. Jose Jimenez, another deputy involved, failed to inform Aguilar Mendez of his Miranda rights or to secure an interpreter for him.

The 7th District State Attorney’s Office acknowledged these concerns, citing recent expert testimony about Aguilar Mendez’s limited English comprehension, his cultural background, and questions regarding his intellectual capacity. As a result, and following a court ruling deeming Aguilar Mendez incompetent to proceed based on this testimony, the charges were deemed appropriate for dismissal, considering his arrest and time already served.

Sgt. Michael Kunovich, a 25-year veteran of the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office, was remembered by Sheriff Hardwick as a dedicated and valued member of the team, committed to ensuring community safety.