Cause of St. Johns County deputy’s death becomes key question in felony murder case

The St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office is now working to verify the immigration status of a man charged with murder in connection to the death of Sgt. Michael Kunovich.

Vergilio Anguilar Mendez, 18, is charged with felony murder and resisting with violence.

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Immigration attorneys told News4JAX that Medez’s immigration status won’t impact his charges. They said the key question is what caused Kunovich’s death.

The sheriff’s office said Kunovich spotted Mendez sitting outside a closed business Friday night. Investigators said Kunovich then tried to pat Mendez down for weapons, but they didn’t say why, and Mendez tried to run away.

“They’re going to have to establish that he was in the lawful execution of his duty,” said Jeremy Lasnetski, an Immigration Attorney.

Lasnetski said these moments could play into what the state is able to prove in the case.

The sheriff’s office said Mendez violently resisted deputies, tried to grab the sergeant’s taser while fighting with him on the ground and armed himself with a pocketknife. Deputies said the struggle lasted more than six minutes.

After Mendez was handcuffed, Kunovich collapsed and died shortly after being taken to the hospital. That’s where the felony murder charge comes in.

“During the commission of a felony if someone dies, the suspect can be charged with felony murder. The suspect, in this case, was committing a felony by resisting with violence and committing battery on a law enforcement officer,” News4JAX Crime and Safety Analyst Lakesha Burton said.

“I think here the felony murder was charged because of the timing, the timing of when the resisting with violence occurred, and when the medical emergency occurred,” said Lasnetski. “The state’s going to have to prove that the death was caused by the resisting. This is going to be a case where medical records are really, really important.”

The defense could also look at the sergeant’s health before this situation occurred. The sheriff’s office said Homeland Security Investigations is helping verify Mendez’s identity and his immigration status.

“The bigger concern is understanding why an 18-year-old would feel compelled to resist and fight a police officer, attempt to take his weapon and pull out a knife. We have some deep issues affecting our society that needs to be addressed. We are seeing more and more violence against police and members of our society at the hands of adolescents and young adults, it’s scary,” Burton said.

News4JAX reached out to ICE to see if it could share Mendez’s status but it did not immediately respond.

Attorneys said if he was in the country unlawfully, deputies could place him on an ICE hold so he can’t bond out.

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