Petition calls for release of Guatemalan teen charged with officer's death following heart attack

Virgilio Aguilar Mendez, 19, has been in jail without bond since May 2023.

January 9, 2024, 7:58 PM

An online petition is calling for the release of Virgilio Aguilar Mendez, a 19-year-old Guatemalan migrant who was charged with aggravated manslaughter after a Florida police officer collapsed and later died following a struggle while attempting to arrest the teen.

The petition, which was started on Jan. 3 by Mariana Blanco of the nonprofit The Guatemalan-Maya Center, has gained a lot of traction in recent days. As of Tuesday morning, the petition had garnered over 443,000 signatures.

Aguilar Mendez's lawyer, Phillip Arroyo, told ABC News that signatures on the online petition are being directed to the U.S. Department of Justice and the St. Johns County's Sheriff's Office. Arroyo has also requested the State Attorney's Office of the Seventh Judicial Circuit of Florida to drop the charges against the teen.

"It's a grave injustice, and they know it," Arroyo said. "The facts of this case and the evidence in this case do not support the charge that he is facing."

On May 19, 2023, Aguilar Mendez was on the phone with his mother outside the Motel 8 building where he was staying when Sgt. Michael Kunovich, an officer with the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office in St. Augustine, Florida, approached the teen, according to Arroyo.

Virgilio Aguilar Mendez has been held without bond since May 19. Aguilar has been charged with aggravated manslaughter after an officer who tried to arrest him died of a heart attack.
Phillip Arroyo Law

Body camera video and audio of the incident reviewed by ABC News shows Kuvonich calling the dispatcher and describing Aguilar Mendez as a "suspicious Hispanic male," but he never specified why he thought Aguilar Mendez was suspicious.

Kunovich proceeded to ask Aguilar Mendez a series of questions, which the teen seemed to struggle to understand. Aguilar Mendez, who his attorney says is from a small indigenous community in Guatemala and primarily speaks the ancient indigenous language Mam, can be seen in the body camera video trying to explain to Kunovich that he was just eating and tells him on two occasions that he does not speak English.

The officer then asked Aguilar Mendez if he had any weapons on him and grabs Aguilar Mendez by the arm. Aguilar Mendez then begins to walk away and a struggle ensues. Kunovich calls for reinforcement as he attempts to handcuff Aguilar Mendez.

During the incident, which lasted about eight and a half minutes, additional officers responded to the scene. Aguilar Mendez is thrown to the ground, held in a chokehold, pinned down by officers, and tased on multiple occasions.

According to Arroyo, five minutes after Aguilar Mendez was handcuffed and put into the patrol car, Kunovich suffered a heart attack.

That same night, Aguilar Mendez was charged with murder for Kunovich's death. The charges were later reduced by the state of Florida to aggravated homicide of a police officer, which is punishable by life in prison. He has been in jail without bond since.

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.

"These cardiac changes, while recent, predate the struggle with the subject," the report said. "The circumstances do not fully meet the criteria for a homicide manner of death."

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

According to police records from the incident obtained by ABC News, Aguilar Mendez "armed himself with a folding pocket knife, which he retrieved from his shorts pockets."

Body camera video reviewed by ABC News does not clearly show the moment Aguilar Mendez allegedly grabbed the knife from his pocket, but officers can be heard telling Aguilar Mendez to drop the knife. The teen tells the officers that he needs the knife to cut up watermelon.

Aguilar Mendez was recently declared by the court as being mentally incompetent to stand trial due to his lack of understanding of the American criminal justice system, Arroyo told ABC News. A judge has put the case on pause as Aguilar Mendez is receiving help learning about the American criminal justice system before his case can proceed.

The State Attorney's Office did not immediately respond to ABC News' request for comment.

"For the state to prove this beyond every reasonable doubt they have to establish that Mr. Aguilar [Mendez] knew that Officer Kunovich had a heart condition… and that despite knowing that Mr. Kunovich had a heart condition, he did something negligent that caused his death," Arroyo said. "Nobody knew that Mr. Kunovich had a heart condition, much less our client."