Case dismissed against Florida teen migrant accused of homicide in police officer's death

Virgilio Aguilar Mendez, 19, a Guatemalan migrant, had been arrested last May.

The case has been dismissed against a teen migrant from Guatemala almost a year after he was arrested following the death of a Florida police officer, according to Jose Baez, the teen'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 teen, according to Phillip Arroyo, another lawyer for the teen. Aguilar Mendez, who does not speak English, attempted to walk 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 on the ground, put in a chokehold and tased on multiple occasions, according to the footage.

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

Kunovich died of natural causes after suffering cardiac dysrhythmia, according to an autopsy report reviewed by ABC News, which may have been a result of the severe heart disease, a prior heart attack or heart and lung deterioration due to smoking.

The teen was charged with aggravated manslaughter on the same day he was arrested, which was later reduced to aggravated homicide 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 the intellectual capacity of Vergilio Aguilar Mendez and the recent ruling finding him to be incompetent."

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.

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

In an exclusive interview with ABC News on Monday, Baez said the teen comes from a poor family and was raised in a home with a dirt floor. Aguilar Mendez’s 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 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."

Though 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 vilify Sergeant Kunovich. I continue to stand behind 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 assume 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 hold our agency and Sergeant Kunovich’s family in your thoughts and prayers."

Police have argued Aguilar Mendez "armed himself with a folding pocket knife, which he retrieved 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 allegedly grabbing the knife from his pocket, but officers can be heard telling him to drop the knife. The teen can be heard telling officers he needs the knife to cut up watermelon.

ABC News' Sabina Ghebremedhin contributed to this report.