Body camera video shows language barrier, scuffle between St. Johns County Sgt., man accused in his death

News4JAX obtained body camera video that shows the moment when a St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office Sergeant confronted a man standing outside a closed business.

In the video, Sergeant Michael Kunovich can be seen in a scuffle with 18-year-old Vergilio Aguilar-Mendez. Defense attorneys for Aguilar-Mendez added body camera video of the incident to public court documents.

After Aguilar-Mendez was put in handcuffs, Sergeant Kunovich collapsed and later died at the hospital.

The lawyer for Aguilar-Mendez said in a new court filing that Kunovich died of a heart attack. The exact cause of death is still unknown, but St. Johns County Sheriff Rob Hardwick said the sergeant acted by the book when pursuing Aguilar-Mendez.

“He checked out with him to simply say ‘Hey, why are you on this property trespassing?’” Hardwick said during a news conference. “That was a simple thing, simple task. As the body camera footage will come out and show you, it was by the book, textbook, legal aspect doing his job to the best of his abilities and duties.”

Aguilar-Mendez was accused of resisting an officer with violence and aggravated manslaughter of an officer.

(The video may be disturbing for some viewers, so discretion is strongly advised. News4JAX is only publishing the first two minutes of the nine-minute video to be transparent, as well as respectful to the families. The video gives an unedited view of what happened leading up to the arrest.)

The video starts with Sgt. Kunovich driving. Kunovich got out of his vehicle and approached Aguilar-Mendez. The first thing that can be heard on video was “Stop.”

Sgt. Kunovich then called in and described Aguilar-Mendez. He was standing near a building with an orange roof which is connected to a Super 8 motel near the St. Augustine outlets, but it is not part of the motel. His defense attorney said he was talking to his mother on the phone.

RELATED | Attorney says 2 key questions in death of St. Johns County deputy: How did he die and was suspect trespassing?

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Aguilar-Mendez responded. “Eating, eating.”

“When you saw me, you got up and walked away. Why?” Kunovich asked.

“Yes,” Aguilar-Mendez responded.

Aguilar-Mendez then addressed Kunovich in Spanish while he pointed to the hotel and then appeared to say “drinking.” His responses are not clear.

Kunovich keeps talking to Aguilar-Mendez, asking for his ID and where he is staying.

Aguilar-Mendez pointed toward the hotel.

“Here?” Kunovich responded. “Why aren’t you eating inside?”

Aguilar-Mendez then told Kunovich he didn’t speak English and the sergeant told him he had someone coming and continued to ask him questions, like if he had identification. Aguilar-Mendez indicated his ID was in his room.

“Do you have any weapons on you?” Kunovich asked.

“No,” Aguilar-Mendez said.

“Well, you know what that is. Turn around let me look,” Kunovich said as he grabbed Aguilar-Mendez’s arm and used his finger to signal for him to turn around.

Aguilar-Mendez then started to walk away.

“Don’t walk away from me,” Kunovich said as he raised his voice and grabbed Aguilar-Mendez’s arm with both hands.

“No, no, no, sorry,” Aguilar-Mendez said.

“Don’t pull away from me!” Kunovich said.

Kunovich then started to say “I’m checking you for weapons”, “get your hands away from your pocket” and yelled “stop” multiple times before a scuffle broke out.

Aguilar-Mendez can repeatedly be heard saying “I’m sorry” as Kunovich and another deputy wrestled him to the ground.

There are at least three minutes of a tussle between them. They then used an electric shock device on Aguilar-Mendez several times as he tried to explain he doesn’t speak English.

More deputies arrived and eventually wrestled him into handcuffs.

When Aguilar-Mendez was handcuffed, deputies removed cash, his phone, a lighter, a common pocketknife and his hotel room key. He did not have any illegal items.

Immigration and Customs confirmed to News4JAX that Aguilar-Mendez was in the United States illegally and the arrest report said he later told investigators he was afraid he’d be deported.

News4JAX showed the video to an immigration attorney who is not affiliated with the case and asked if he thought anything could’ve been done to de-escalate this situation.

“And that’s the difficulty. I’m not sure there is because the officer is trying to communicate commands and then Mr. Aguilar-Mendez is not hearing it. He doesn’t understand why he’s being detained in the first place or you know why they’re putting their hands on him, so that’s a difficult situation,” attorney Jeremy Lasnetski said. “I think there’s gonna be a lot of litigation as to whether there was a reasonable suspicion that he was committing a crime, was about to commit a crime, or had committed a crime.”

Lasnetski said there was no reason to search Aguilar-Mendez in that moment.

As for the aggravated manslaughter charge, Lasnetski said prosecutors would have to establish that Aguilar-Mendez knew or reasonably should have expected that his act would have caused Kunovich’s death.

“So that’s going to be very difficult,” he said.

The defense wants a bond set and a hearing, that’s almost like a mini trial.

The state will have to show the evidence they have is sufficient to meet the presumption of guilt.

“All the suspect had to do was comply. Instead, the suspect chose to try and remove a knife from the lefthand pocket of his pants. A struggle was on with Sgt. Michael Kunovich until the next deputy showed up 37 seconds later,” Hardwick said.

The defense said “despite having committed no crime, Kunovich placed his hands on Virgilio and tackled him to the ground.” The motion said other deputies arrived “to pile on him, to physically strike him multiple times and the repeat use of a taser,” which the motion calls “brutality.”

The bond motion asks for consideration that Aguilar-Mendez be released on his own recognizance, or a bond of no greater than $50,000. The lawyer said if Aguilar-Mendez is released, he would be transferred to federal custody to resolve his pending immigration hold. He is currently being held in the Volusia County jail.

Aguilar-Mendez is from Guatemala and entered the U.S. through the southern border and was held in federal detention until he was released to his father’s family in Central Florida. His defense attorney said he moved to St. Augustine to work on a farm and was sending money to family in Guatemala while waiting for a court hearing on his immigration status.

Irvine Casiano, who is from Puerto Rico and is active in the growing Hispanic community here, said the video brought her to tears. She said she feels bad for both families involved.

“[Aguilar-Mendez] answered his questions as best as he could, and as soon as he said, ‘I went to drink, and I live right here,’ it should have ended right there,” Casiano said. “Definitely racial profiling, because why did you stop him? He’s clearly walking on a property where there’s attendance of all types of colors and all types. Why did you stop him out of all people?”

News4JAX asked several local law enforcement agencies how many Spanish-speaking officers are on the streets, but we are still waiting to hear back.

Kunovich, a 25-year veteran of the department, died at Flagler Hospital.

Officers gathered for a prayer and lined the street to pay their respects when Kunovich’s body later left the hospital. Family, friends and members of law enforcement later paid their respects to Kunovich during an emotional funeral service.

MORE | ‘Be our guardian angel’: Son delivers emotional tribute at funeral for fallen St. Johns County Sgt. Michael Kunovich

His son Michael (Mikey) Kunovich shared how his father always remembered what was most important.

“He truly embodied what it meant to be a great person, but most importantly he was a great dad. A lot of what I know today I learned from him and the life lessons he taught, the experiences he shared and his love of history and current events. All of which have helped inspire who my brother and I are today,” his son said.

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