New details emerge about teen charged with manslaughter in Florida police officer's death

Attorney Jose Baez said his client was the victim of an "unlawful arrest."

February 26, 2024, 9:18 PM

Virgilio Aguilar Mendez, the Guatemalan teen charged with aggravated manslaughter after a Florida police officer collapsed after a struggle while attempting to arrest him, is now being represented by high-profile criminal defense attorney Jose Baez.

Speaking exclusively with ABC News, Baez said the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office conducted an "unlawful arrest" of his client and that racial profiling was the reason he was initially approached by police. He also pushed back on the police claim that Aguilar Mendez threatened officers with a knife.

"This officer had no right to engage and to put Virgilio in a position where he was not free to leave. He did so based on profiling him and I think the fact that the sheriff's office decided to charge him and continue to want to have him prosecuted is a reflection of their culture and their lack of understanding of diversity within not only their community, but the United States," Baez told ABC News in an interview.

On May 19, 2023, Sgt. Kunovich made contact with Aguilar Mendez due to "suspicious behavior," according to an arrest report reviewed by ABC News.

Body camera video and audio of the incident obtained by ABC News shows Kunovich asking Aguilar Mendez a series of questions, which he seemed to struggle to understand. The teen primarily speaks the Indigenous language Mam and can be heard telling the officer on two occasions he does not speak English.

In the video, Kunovich is seen asking Aguilar Mendez if he had any weapons on him and grabs him by the arm. A struggle ensues as Aguilar Mendez begins to walk away. The incident lasted about eight and a half minutes and several officers responded to the scene.

Aguilar Mendez was then thrown to the ground, held in a chokehold, pinned down by officers and tased multiple times. Phillip Arroyo, who is representing Virgilio in an imminent civil lawsuit against the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office, told ABC News in January that five minutes after Aguilar Mendez was handcuffed and put into the patrol car, Kunovich suffered a heart attack.

In a statement released shortly after the incident, the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office said Aguilar Mendez “pulled away and attempted to flee” from Sgt. Kunovich as he attempted to pat him down and check for weapons. As more officers arrived at the scene, the Sheriff’s office says the teen “attempted to grab Sergeant Kunovich’s taser and continued to resist for approximately 6 minutes and 19 seconds.” Kunovich collapsed moments later, the statement says.

St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office declined ABC News' request for comment.

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.

Baez says he was "disgusted" and "angered" when he first saw the video of the encounter.

"I was furious at the fact that it's quite apparent and incredibly obvious that not only does this child not understand, but that he's not a sophisticated boy either," he told ABC News.

In December, Judge R. Lee Smith ruled Agular Mendez mentally incompetent due to his lack of understanding of the American criminal justice system. The judge, in part, cited the language barrier as a supporting reason. The case is on pause while the teen receives help from his legal team so that he can be ruled competent to stand trial.

Baez says they’ve been using a Mam interpreter to help communicate some of the intricacies of the justice system. Baez also said Aguilar Mendez’s upbringing in a small Guatemalan village may have also painted his perception of what was happening during the arrest.

According to Baez, the teen comes from a poor family and was raised in a home with a dirt floor. His family pooled money together from the community through various loans to help him travel to the United States so that he could send money back when he was 17. Because he’s been in custody since May, he has been unable to provide for his family and it has placed his relatives in danger, Baez said.

"If he comes here and disappears or doesn't fulfill his responsibilities of paying that money back, his family is shamed forever," he said. "They have no way of really engaging in commerce in their community. They will have no respectability and it'll damage them completely."

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 does 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 to ABC News, that he cuts watermelon and harvests peppers for work. But he also said his client had his "life’s savings" in cash in the pocket officers claim he pulled a knife from.

"He comes from a small little village, lives in a home with a dirt floor and essentially every police officer in his country that he's ever encountered in his life has been a corrupt police and they stop you, they take your money, and they send you on your way," he said. "That's what he had in that pocket, he never reached for a knife or anything of the kind. They never even recovered it until after he was secured in handcuffs."