Farmworker Charged with Manslaughter as Deputy Dies of Heart Failure After Arrest
The arrest followed a tragic incident outside a St. Augustine, Florida hotel, where St. Johns County Sergeant Michael Kunovich lost his life while apprehending and restraining Aguilar Mendez.
While the medical examiner has since ruled Sergeant Kunovich’s cause of death as heart failure due to an abnormal heartbeat, authorities are charging Aguilar Mendez in connection to the deputy’s death.
As reported by News4JAX in May, Sgt. Kunovich approached Aguilar Mendez on State Road 16 in St. Augustine on May 19 at 9 PM. The police officer reportedly instructed the 18-year-old to “stop” while he was standing outside a Super 8 hotel holding his cellphone. He was reportedly speaking to his mother in Guatemala. Later, Sgt. Kunovich proceeded to check Aguilar Mendez for weapons, upon which the farmworker allegedly resisted.
According to the Sheriff’s Office’s statement to News4JAX, Aguilar Mendez resisted for over six minutes. Deputies also said that the farmworker had a pocket knife at the time.
However, body camera footage of the arrest shows that Aguilar Mendez had trouble understanding the police officer. While Sgt. Kunovich spoke to him in English, the farmworker’s native tongue is Mam, a Maya language spoken by many people in Guatemala. He also reportedly speaks some Spanish.
As shown in the footage, the police officer tells Aguilar Mendez to “stop.”
The farmworker quickly says, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” and “Eating, eating.” Later, you can see police forcibly restrain Aguilar Mendez as he resists while continuing to say “I’m sorry.” As per NBC News, police used physical force and tased him six times in two minutes. Some time later, Aguilar Mendez said his pocketknife was “para sandía,” or “for watermelon.” This alluded to his job as a farmworker.
While Florida’s Seventh Circuit Court Judge R. Lee Smith has now ruled Aguilar Mendez incompetent to go to trial, the charges against the farmworker still stand.
Although the police officer died of heart failure after the arrest, farmworker Aguilar Mendez was charged with his murder
As reported by NBC, Sgt. Kunovich approached Aguilar Mendez to know why he did not initially “stop” when instructed. In the video footage, you can hear the police officer ask, “Why did you get up and walk away? You saw me. You got up and walked away. Why?”
To that, you can hear Aguilar Mendez reply short phrases like, “Eating, eating,” “Yeah,” “Drinking,” “Yes,” “No,” and “Sorry.” At that point, a struggle ensuess between Aguilar Mendez and the deputy. You can hear the police officer say, “Don’t pull away from me. I’m checking you for [weapons].”
After arresting the farmworker, Sgt. Kunovich collapsed and later died at the hospital due to heart failure.
The 18-year-old immigrant has now been in jail for six months awaiting trial. He faces two charges: resisting an officer with violence, and aggravated manslaughter of an officer in connection to Sgt. Kunovich’s death.
The medical examiner’s incident report shows that the “natural” cause of death was cardiac dysrhythmia, or an abnormal heartbeat. However, they also included another cause of death — one that could be used against Aguilar Mendez in trial: “Physical exertion and possible emotional stress while apprehending a fleeing suspect.”
As per NBC, dispatcher Ryker Graves informed an investigator that he had heard deputies say Kunovich was “complaining of chest pains” before his death. Officers said Sgt. Kunovich may have had bronchitis some time before, but his condition had improved. One officer said “[Sgt. Kunovich] struggled to talk, was out of breath and disoriented” after arresting Aguilar Mendez.
Last week, the judge assigned to the case ruled Aguilar Mendez incompetent to go to trial, on account of not being able to understand his charges due to a language barrier. He will now be treated at a facility that will decide if he is fit for trial.
As per The Florida-Times Union, forensic psychologist Dr. Yenys Castillo said at the recent hearing, “He couldn’t understand the difference between being guilty, pleading guilty, or being found guilty.”
“He couldn’t understand what the potential penalties are… or the legal system,” they added.
To that, Assistant State Attorney K. Mark Johnson said it is possible to provide competency, or hire an interpreter.
Attorney Phillip Arroyo, who is representing Aguilar Mendez, told Telemundo: “Unless the state can confirm, or show that Mr. Aguilar Mendez is a fortune teller, and [knew] Mr. Kunovich had a preexisting cardiac condition, I don’t know how the state will be able to demonstrate that in court beyond all reasonable doubt.”
Similarly, Arroyo told Univision, “[Sgt. Kunovich] asked questions in a very aggressive way, screaming at [Aguilar Mendez].”
“[The videos] indicate that he does not speak English,” he added. “And unfortunately, what happened was, in my opinion as a lawyer, an act of police brutality, and a violation of his rights that also apply to those who are undocumented.”
Arroyo said “the only thing” Aguilar Mendez was doing at the time of his arrest was walking back to his hotel. As per The St. Augustine Record, the teen was staying with other farmworkers at the hotel while working at several nearby fields.
Now, people continue to speak out against the “injustice” against Aguilar Mendez. For one, TikTok user Carlos Eduardo Espina raised $20,000 for the farmworker and his family in a now-closed fundraiser.
Meanwhile, many others are raising awareness about the case on social media, with one X user writing: “This was racial profiling and police brutality”: