When a Florida sheriff’s deputy suffered a fatal heart attack after a struggle with an 18-year-old migrant from Guatemala in St. Augustine, Florida in May, Virgilio Aguilar-Mendez was charged with manslaughter in the the 52-year-old officer’s death. However, an incident report and bodycam video seem to dispute those charges. St. Johns County Sergeant Michael Kunovich died at the hospital well after Aguilar-Menendez was detained and in the custody of police.
Bodycam footage of the incident shows that around 9 p.m. on May 16, Kunovich spotted Aguilar-Menendez in the parking lot of a Super 8 motel. After attempting to stop the 18-year-old, you can hear Aguilar-Menendez apologize in Spanish while expressing he has very limited English proficiency. The interaction becomes tense when Kunovich turns Aguilar-Menendez around to check him for weapons and forces his hand into one of Aguilar-Menendez’s pockets.
The video shows the 18-year-old appear to pull away from Kunovich prompting the deputy to raise his voice followed by a scuffle. Backup arrived and Aguilar-Menendez was placed in handcuffs. Several minutes later Kunovich collapsed from a heart attack and was transported to a local hospital where he later died.
While the defense maintains that racial profiling based on anti-immigrant legislation in the state led to the incident and that the stop was unwarranted, the sheriff’s department maintains that Kunovich did nothing wrong. During a news conference on the case last month, St. Johns County Sheriff Robert Hardwick said, “He checked out with him to simply say, ‘Hey, why are you on this property trespassing?’ That was a simple thing, a simple task.”
Meanwhile, witness interviews documented in the incident report and reported by NBC News show that officers told an investigator that Kunovich had complained of having bronchitis but later said he was feeling better. Another officer, Cpl. Ryan Liles told the investigator that Kunovich “struggled to talk, was out of breath and disoriented,” after the arrest.
According to the report analyzed by NBC, 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.”
In addition, 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. The medical examiner also listed “physical exertion and possible emotional stress while apprehending a fleeing suspect” as contributing causes.
The 52-year-old deputy presents health issues related to how he lived his life and had little or nothing to do with the events of that day. Wrongfully charging an immigrant with his death won’t bring him back and it sure as hell isn’t justice. Incarcerating Aguilar-Menendez possibly for the rest of his life for something he didn’t have anything to do with speaks to just how easily the system of justice in the U.S. is often manipulated by those tasked with enforcing the law.
The ridiculousness of charges such as these only further solidifies how far Latinophobia and general xenophobia continue to grow in the United States. As liberals continue to buy into the narratives portrayed by Republicans to justify White Democrats agreeing to take away migrant rights and reimplement Trump-era policies, official oppression will only get worse. That a man died in the process of seemingly enforcing dictatorial ideas makes this an even sadder event.
Condolences to Sergeant Michael Kunovich’s family.
The Antagonist Magazine is a project made up of journalists, activists, and writers focused on amplifying the stories of marginalized communities. The goal is to educate the public by sharing narratives focused on independent voices. Born of an online community in 2019, our platform operates independently; free of corporate influence. Please consider supporting the work of dozens of writers from various communities.