PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. – A man said to be an illegal immigrant who was operating a front-end loader struck and killed a Florida deputy before fleeing the scene on Thursday night, prompting a manhunt that ended in the suspect’s arrest.
Deputy Mike Hartwick of the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office was working a traffic detail at a construction site along I-275 around 10:40 p.m. when the fatal collision took place, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri told reporters at a press conference Friday.
“This guy that we have in custody is here illegally and he fled, as he said, because he became afraid after he killed the deputy,” Gualtieri said.
Dashcam footage from Hartwick’s patrol unit shows the deputy exit his vehicle about a minute after arriving at the scene before walking to the shoulder of the road next to where he had blocked off lanes, the sheriff said.
Shortly thereafter footage shows the heavy construction machinery passing in front of the camera and then striking Hartwick while traveling at about 20 miles per hour, the New York Post reported.
Hartwick was pronounced dead at the scene. He was a 19-year veteran of the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.
The front-end loader is primarily used to move concrete barriers at work sites. It was operated by a suspect identified as 32-year-old Juan Ariel Molina-Salles, according to law enforcement authorities.
Molina-Salles continued operating the loader after striking the deputy. While he drove away, he called a fellow co-worker on the phone “crying” and “not making sense,” telling him that he had “just killed a deputy,” Gualtieri said.
Molina-Salles stopped about a quarter mile away and then handed the coworker his construction vest and helmet and told him to hide them before fleeing on foot.
Law enforcement authorities engaged in a nine-hour manhunt before locating Molina-Salles. Deputies with the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office found the suspect hiding in some brush.
Officials said K9s recovered the hidden vest and helmet, which bloodhounds then used to pick up Molina-Salles’ scent and locate him.
Molina-Salles’ was arrested and charged with leaving the scene of a crash involving death. His coworker, identified as 31-year-old Elieser Aureilio Gomez-Zelaya, who reportedly hid the vest and helmet in the nearby woods, was also charged with being an accessory to the crime. Both have been transported to the Pinellas County Jail.
After providing deputies with a false name “that was a bunch of nonsense,” Gualtieri said, they finally discovered his true identity.
Molina-Salles entered the country illegally in Oct 2021 in Eagle Pass, TX, but was turned around by Border Patrol and sent back to Mexico, according to the sheriff.
There was no further record of him entering the U.S. when he was arrested Friday. He told authorities that he had been in the Tampa Bay area since March of this year, The Post reported.
Gualtieri said the construction site was heavily occupied by illegal immigrants, most of whom lied and provided false information to deputies, which hindered the investigation.
“This company is employing a bunch of illegals and they are all out there lying and giving us fake names, fake IDs, a lot of fake IDs out of North Carolina that really frustrated this investigation,” the sheriff said.
Molina-Salles provided a fake ID to the construction company, telling them he had previously worked in Honduras, according to Gualtieri.
“He didn’t have a driver’s license. He’s got nothing. He shouldn’t have been here to begin with and he shouldn’t have been driving. He shouldn’t have been working…He has no qualifications to drive a front loader,” the sheriff noted.
Archer Western is the Tampa-based company doing work for the Florida Department of Transportation that employed the workers.
In a statement to Fox13, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office said it was investigating the matter to determine whether more illegal immigrants had used fraudulent information to obtain employment in the state.
“If this individual’s illegal status played into his decision to try to cover up this incident, it underscores just one of the harms that our state faces because of the federal government’s open border policies. The State of Florida is not a sanctuary state and illegal immigrants are not authorized to work here. For reasons such as this, we will continue our lawful efforts to interdict and relocate illegal immigrants.”
Hartwick is survived by his mother and two children.