ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. – Family and friends gathered Thursday at the viewing for St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Michael Kunovich ahead of Friday’s funeral service.
Kunovich died in the line of duty Friday night after detaining a man who Sheriff Rob Hardwick said was trespassing at a permanently closed business off State Road 16 in St. Augustine.
Virjilio Aguilar-Mendez, 18, is now charged with felony murder in connection with the deputy’s death.
Immigration and Customs confirmed to News4JAX Aguilar-Mendez was in the United States illegally and the arrest report said Mendez later told investigators he was afraid he’d be deported.
Attorneys who spoke to News4JAX said the sergeant’s suspicion of the suspect, which started the confrontation, must be reasonable.
Investigators must rely on body camera footage of the incident because Kunovich isn’t here to speak for himself.
“Sgt. Kunovich succumbed to some medical issues that were actually induced by the struggle with our subject,” Hardwick said.
The exact cause of death is still unknown, but 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 on Wednesday.
Immigration Attorney Jeremy Lasnetski said the trespassing issue is a key part of the case.
“There has to be a [sign that says no trespassing], and then that officer would have to have reasonable suspicion that he is in violation of that,” Lasnetski said.
The confrontation happened at a building with an orange roof that is connected to a Super 8 motel near the St. Augustine outlets, but it is not the motel. The blinds were closed Thursday and News4JAX saw something blocking the door.
News4JAX spoke to a Super 8 employee who said it also owns the property where the building is but there aren’t any “no trespassing” signs posted. However, Harwick said Kunovich approached Aguilar-Mendez because it seemed suspicious he would be in the dark outside a closed building.
Hardwick said the area is known for prostitution and illegal drug activity, which may have added to Kunovich’s suspicion.
Hardwick also said body-camera shows the suspect tried to remove a pocket knife when Kunovich was approaching him but the arrest report said when Kunovich made contact he tried to pat him down for weapons and the suspect resisted and later tried pulling the knife after he was handcuffed.
“Yeah, I think there’s two main issues with this case,” Lasnetski said. “One is whether the officer had reasonable suspicion that he was committing a crime such to detain him in the first place, or was this a violation of the Fourth Amendment search and seizure? And then the second issue is causation. Did the resisting with violence cause the death? Both of those are potentially legal issues for a judge to determine and also factual issues for a jury to determine.”
Sheriff Hardwick told reporters his office is relying on information from the medical examiner and he said the sergeant was not stabbed.
There was another case similar to this out of Nassau County in 2016.
Francisco Portillo-Fuentes, who was in the United States illegally, ran from Border Patrol and while Nassau County Deputy Eric Oliver chased him. Oliver was then hit by an SUV and died at the scene.
Portillo-Fuentes’ attorney told News4JAX in a statement: ”St. Johns law enforcement has the benefit of body cam which was not available in Mr. Portillo-Fuentes’ case. Video like this is invaluable to all parties in a criminal case because it is a historical account of the events that happened without influence from motive, bias, emotion or human fallibility. You can be sure all parties will carefully dissect and evaluate the body-worn camera available to determine not just the initial basis for the encounter but whether indeed Mr. Mendez was committing a felony at the time of this officer’s passing.”
The next crucial step is obviously to determine the causation of the officer’s death.
Portillo-Fuentes pleaded guilty to Deputy Oliver’s death and was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
News4JAX reached out to Aguilar-Mendez’s attorney Rosemarie Peoples for a comment but she did not immediately respond.