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Attorney says video disputes charges that farmworker caused officer’s fatal heart attack

A Guatemalan teen is charged in the death of a Florida sheriff’s sergeant, but his attorney says video shows the officer made an illegal stop and search and used excessive force.

On May 19, outside a Super 8 hotel in Florida, Virgilio Aguilar Mendez held his cellphone as a sheriff’s officer pulled up and ordered him to stop. As shown on an officer’s body camera video shared with NBC News last week, the officer said he wanted to know why Aguilar didn’t stop when he first made the command. The 18-year-old farmworker from Guatemala apologized, gestured to his hotel, and said “eating,” “tienda” (store) and “drink.” He appeared confused. 

The officer, Sgt. Michael Kunovich, wanted to know if Aguilar had any weapons and ordered him to turn around, the video shows. He grabbed Aguilar’s arm and tried to pat down his shorts pockets. Aguilar, who doesn’t speak English, tried to pull away. An intense struggle followed as Kunovich, and later two more sheriff’s officers, tried to handcuff Aguilar. 

Much of the stop and arrest, which took place just outside of St. Augustine, was captured by officers’ body cameras. The St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office has said it shows a “by the book, textbook” arrest of a suspect whose resistance to arrest led — according to the department — to Kunovich’s death from heart failure. The office wants Aguilar held accountable for Kunovich’s death, which occurred minutes after the arrest.

Aguilar faces charges of aggravated manslaughter of an officer, a first-degree felony punishable by up to life in prison, and resisting an officer with violence, a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison. He is being represented by a public defender in the criminal case.

An attorney hired by Aguilar’s family, Phillip Arroyo, provided copies of two body camera videos to NBC News. Arroyo said the footage shows that his client was a victim of police brutality in an arrest that never should have happened in the first place. 

Arroyo said Kunovich used an aggressive tone and his initial questioning was “unlike hundreds of other [criminal] cases I have handled, where the police officer gets out of the vehicle and begins to question the suspect in a courteous and calm manner.” 

“He committed an act of police brutality, which included the unfortunate heart attack that killed him,” Arroyo said. 

Aguilar is being held while a judge decides the amount of his bond following a hearing on his mental competency last Friday. Aguilar has a sixth-grade education and cannot understand the legal proceedings against him in the U.S., defense witnesses said in the Friday hearing.

In the videos, Aguilar can be heard screaming in pain when he is Tased multiple times and as officers tackle him, hit him with their knees in his torso, twist his arms, use what a deputy said was a “naked choke” hold and take other measures to subdue him. 

Vergilio Aguilar Mendez, 18,
Virgilio Aguilar MendezPhillip Arroyo

Aguilar is repeatedly heard on the video saying in Spanish, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” He also says several times “familia” (family) and, in response to commands, says that he doesn’t understand or speak English.

Arroyo said Aguilar learned Spanish in school and understands some, but his native language is Mam, an indigenous language spoken by about half a million people in Guatemala.

“This is clearly a violation of a Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure and it’s also a case of police brutality,” Arroyo told NBC News.

The St. Johns Sheriff’s Department and the state attorney’s office did not respond to NBC News’ requests for comment.

The medical examiner ruled Kunovich’s death was “natural,” caused by an irregular heartbeat, due to atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and hypertensive cardiovascular disease, according to a 44-page incident report. 

The medical examiner also listed “physical exertion and possible emotional stress while apprehending a fleeing suspect” as contributing causes. 

Kunovich was 52 and had 26 years of service, according to an obituary. He also was the recipient of several awards, including a Meritorious Service Award. He had served on the SWAT team for five years. He had two young sons.

In a news conference held a few days after the arrest, Sheriff Robert Hardwick defended Kunovich saying the sheriff’s sergeant “simply” asked why Aguilar was trespassing on property and tried to pat him down. He said Aguilar should have complied, but instead tried to remove a knife from his pants' pocket. 

“As the body camera footage will come out and show you, it was by the book, textbook,” Hardwick said of the arrest at a May 24 news conference. Hardwick said Kunovich “succumbed to some medical issues that were induced by the struggle with our subject.”

But Arroyo says that Aguilar was not engaged in any suspicious activity to warrant the stop and, even if his client was suspected of trespassing, the officers should have notified Aguilar of that before trying to arrest him. 

Aguilar has not been charged with trespassing.

After Aguilar was handcuffed, officers discovered he had a foldable pocketknife, which Deputy Gavin Higgins was quoted in the incident report as saying was small enough that Aguilar could clench his fist around it. 

Aguilar wouldn’t unclench his fist and an officer can be heard in the video telling Aguilar, “If you don’t let go, I’ll break your f---ing hand.” Deputy Brian Armenta is quoted in the incident report saying he made that comment. The comment is repeated to Aguilar by a Spanish-speaking officer, who said he arrived after Aguilar was handcuffed, according to the incident report.

Aguilar can be heard saying that he needs the knife “para sandía” (for watermelon). As officers begin to escort him to the cars, he says in Spanish he’s going to see his family.

Aguilar initially denied having the pocketknife in an interview with a Spanish-speaking officer after his arrest, according to the incident report. 

But he later admitted having the knife and said it was for work cutting melons. He said that he was not going to use it on the officers, but wanted to toss it away. The incident report states that officers said they feared for their safety because he had the knife.

The incident report also states that Aguilar said in the post-arrest interview that he was talking to his mother in Guatemala when Kunovich pulled up. When the officer grabbed him, he was afraid, he said. 

When asked in the post-arrest interview why he struggled, Aguilar said that he was afraid to go to jail and did not want to go back to Guatemala, the incident report states.

“I didn’t do anything. They grabbed me and hit me,” Aguilar told the interviewer.

Aguilar apparently didn’t understand he was under arrest when he was taken into custody and repeatedly asked the officer in the post-arrest interview to go home. When the officer told him again he could not, he replied that “he doesn’t know what occurred and only god is watching,” the report states. Aguilar “continued to ask to let him leave because he wanted to go to work tomorrow.”

The incident report also states that the data from Kunovich’s Taser showed it was deployed six times over 2 minutes and each time was on stun mode, which delivers electrical shocks. In another mode, it fires probes or darts that penetrate the skin and deliver electrical pulses into the body that cause temporary paralysis.

At one point, Aguilar tried to prevent the officer from Tasing him again, blocking and then grabbing the Taser as the officer, still holding it, pulls it away, the video shows. 

In interviews documented in the incident report, officers told an investigator that Kunovich had complained of having bronchitis but that he also said he was feeling better. Some of the officers said he looked fine. An officer identified as Cpl. Ryan Liles told the investigator that Kunovich “struggled to talk, was out of breath and disoriented,” when he saw him after the arrest.

According to the report, Ryker Graves, a dispatcher on a ride-along with a deputy who arrived after Aguilar was handcuffed, told the investigator in a sworn statement that deputies had told him that Kunovich had been “complaining of chest pains beforehand.”