UPDATE, January 4, 2023, 1:15 pm ET
Lieutenant George Harrigan from the Public Affairs division of the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office responded to the initial request for comment, saying in an email, "We will not comment at this time as this case is pending prosecution." The number of signatures is now over 148,000.
An online petition calling for the release of a Guatemalan teen accused of aggravated manslaughter in the natural death of a Florida deputy has garnered more than 138,000 signatures in the last 24 hours, according to the teen's lawyer.
In a Wednesday Facebook post, the Arroyo Law Firm announced the petition, stating the following:
Our client Virgilio Aguilar Méndez, an 18-year-old indigenous-Maya teen from Guatemala, is currently being held without bond in St. Johns County for a crime he DID NOT commit. Virgilio was a victim of police brutality and violation of his 4th amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure on May 19th, 2023, for standing outside the motel he was residing in while on a call with his dad. Sergeant [Michael] Kunovich said he "looked suspicious" and began yelling at Virgilio. Virgilio expressed he didn't speak English on more than one occasion and that he was residing at that motel.
This interaction led to an 8-minute struggle where Virgilio was physically abused and tased multiple times by multiple officers, although he made it clear to the officers involved that he did not understand English, despite Virgilio being 5-foot-4 and weighing 115 pounds.
Sergeant Kunovich suffered a heart attack minutes after the struggle and died at the hospital. Medical examiners ruled that Sergeant Kunovich died of natural causes. Despite this ruling, The St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office and the Office of the State Attorney for the 7th Judicial Circuit of Florida have charged Virgilio with aggravated manslaughter of a police officer and are attempting to put Virgilio away for life for alleged crimes he did not commit.
Sergeant Kunovich died from a heart attack as a result of an incident he himself started unnecessarily and unconstitutionally that was not caused by Virgilio, but by a pre-existing condition.
Virgilio has been held since May 2023 without bond, completely isolated due to his primary language being Mam, for a crime he did not commit.
Phillip Arroyo, the lawyer representing Aguilar Mendéz's family, sent me a text update about reaching 130,000 signatures on Thursday morning. (Arroyo regularly contributed to Latino Rebels, and I edited many of his stories.)
"We launched an online petition for Virgilio Aguilar Mendez at 4 pm [Wednesday] on Change.org to be sent to the U.S. Department of Justice and the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office, and it has garnered over 130,913 signatures so far at the time of this text in less than 24 hours," Arroyo said in the Thursday morning text.
He then followed up with another update a few hours later via text, which showed an increase in signatures that is now more than 138,000 and growing. This is the full text he sent (it later became an official statement on Arroyo's social media handles):
On behalf of Virgilio, his family and his entire legal team, we are overjoyed and thankful for the enormous support received through the online petition signed by over 137,080 people across the nation so far demanding the immediate release of Mr. Virgilio Aguilar Méndez from custody at the Volusia County Jail.
For far too long, Hispanics have also been the victims of racial profiling, police brutality and violation of constitutional rights by law enforcement, but their stories rarely see the light of day due to language barriers and the fear of retaliatory actions such as deportation. Many, like Virgilio, have suffered in silence.
That ends today.
We must continue to expose this injustice and expose St. Johns County Sheriff Robert Hardwick’s acts of untruthfulness, such as when he announced at a press conference while surrounded by elected officials that this entire incident started because Virgilio had pulled a knife on Officer Kunovich. Upon release of the bodycams. we now know that this statement was a blatant lie.
We must continue to fight for people like Virgilio, while also holding our elected officials accountable for spreading lies, thereby undermining the people’s trust in government.
On Wednesday, Arroyo did a TikTok Live with Carlos Eduardo Espina, who has more than 17.5 million followers. Espina then posted a link to the petition on his channel.
The story received local attention last year but an NBC News story published at the end of December showed some of the bodycam video and pertinent details of the case. Earlier this week, a judge ruled that Aguilar Méndez was not competent for prosecution.
An email request to the St. Johns Sheriff's Office for comment was made for this story. As of this initial publication, it has yet to respond.