An illegal migrant driving a front-end loader allegedly struck and killed a veteran Florida deputy before fleeing the scene on Thursday night — prompting a frantic manhunt that ended in the suspect’s arrest.
The fatal crash took place as Pinellas County Sheriff’s Deputy Mike Hartwick was working a traffic detail at a construction site along highway I-275 around 10:40 p.m., 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 police cruiser 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.
Moments later footage shows the construction vehicle passing in front of the camera and then striking Hartwick while traveling at around 20 miles per hour.
Hartwick, a 19-year veteran of the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, was declared dead at the scene.
The front-end loader — used to move concrete barriers at work sites — was operated by a construction worker at the site, later identified as 32-year-old Juan Ariel Molina-Salles, police said.
Molina-Salles continued driving the loader after he allegedly hit the deputy. He made it a quarter mile away from the scene before finally stopping.
While he was driving, 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 handed the coworker his construction vest and helmet and told him to hide them before fleeing on foot.
The coworker, identified as 31-year-old Elieser Aureilio Gomez-Zelaya, allegedly hid the vest and helmet in a nearby woods.
After a nine-hour manhunt that involved three helicopter K-9 units and hundreds of law enforcement officers, Molina-Salles was found hiding in the brush by deputies from the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office.
Police said K9s recovered the hidden vest and helmet, which bloodhounds then used to pick up Molina-Salles’ scent and locate him.
During his time on the run, cops said he contacted his roommate — who is also an illegal migrant — asking him to pick him up in his car, police said. But the roommate turned around when he saw the huge law enforcement response in the area.
Molina-Salles’ was arrested and charged with leaving the scene of a crash involving death. Gomez-Zelaya was also charged with being an accessory to the crime. Both have been transported to the Pinellas County Jail.
Molina-Salles originally provided police with the false name of Victor Vasquez-Real and said he was 35-years-old. Investigators later learned “that was a bunch of nonsense,” Gualtieri said.
According to the sheriff’s office, Molina-Salles entered the country illegally in Oct 2021 in Eagle Pass, TX — a hotspot for migrants crossing the southern border — but was turned around by CBP and sent back to Mexico.
There was no further record of him entering the country when he was arrested Friday. He told police that he had been in the Tampa Bay area since March of this year.
Many of the construction workers at the site were determined to also be illegal migrants, according to Gualtieri. Most of them lied or provided false information to deputies, which he said 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.
Gualtieri said Molina-Salles had provided a fake ID to the construction company and told them he had previously worked in Honduras.
“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,” he explained.
The workers were employed by Archer Western, a Tampa-based contractor company doing work for the Florida Department of Transportation.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office told Fox13 in a statement that it was investigating the matter to determine whether more illegal immigrants had used fraudulent information to obtain employment in the state.
He vowed to continue to relocate illegal immigrants from the Sunshine 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.”
On Friday afternoon, PCSO provided a police escorted Deputy Hartwick from the Medical Examiner’s Office to a funeral home in Tarpon Springs. Hartwick is survived by his mother and two children.