Pinellas County, FL – A Pinellas County sheriff’s deputy was killed in the line of duty on Thursday night when he was run over by an illegal immigrant driving a front-end loader who didn’t stop and then fled the scene.
Police said the incident occurred at about 10:40 p.m. on Sept. 22 while 51-year-old Pinellas County Sherriff’s Deputy Michael Hartwick was working a traffic detail in a construction zone along Interstate 75 in St. Petersburg, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
Deputy Hartwick had parked his patrol vehicle to block the two inside lanes of the interstate, guiding traffic away from the construction workers.
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said the deputy was standing on the shoulder of the interstate facing north when a front-loader driven by a construction worker ran him over going about 20 mph, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
Deputy Hartwick, a 19-year-veteran of the sheriff’s department, died instantly, according to the sheriff.
But the construction worker who ran over the law enforcement officer did not stop to try and help him, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
Instead, Sheriff Gualtieri said 32-year-old Juan Ariel Molina-Salles called another construction worker crying.
The sheriff said Molina-Salles then drove the front-end loader to a parking lot approximately a quarter mile from where he’d run over Deputy Hartwick and told another construction worker what he’d done, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
Molina-Salles told his co-worker, 31-year-old Elieser Aureilio Gomez-Zelaya, that he had killed a deputy, according to Sheriff Gualtieri.
Deputies said Gomez-Zelaya took Molina-Salles’ construction vest and helmet and hid them in the woods while the cop-killer fled on foot, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
Authorities launched a nine-hour manhunt involving law enforcement officers from multiple agencies.
The search was further aggravated by the fact that workers at the scene gave police a fake name for Molina-Salles and Gomez-Zelaya also provided fake identification to deputies, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
Pasco County Sheriff’s Office bloodhounds sniffed Molina-Salles’ gear after it was found and were able to pick up the fugitive’s scent.
Authorities said the dogs found the suspect hiding in the brush at about 8:40 a.m. on Friday morning.
Molina-Salles was charged with leaving the scene of a crash involving death, which is a first-degree felony carries a maximum sentence of 30 years, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
He was booked into the Pinellas County Jail on Sept. 24.
Sheriff Gualtieri said Molina-Salles was an illegal immigrant from Honduras who has been in the Tampa Bay area since March, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
Authorities said he crossed into the United States in October of 2021 and was deported.
He returned after that and wasn’t captured until after he killed Deputy Hartwick.
NEW: Per ICE source, the man charged in the fatal hit & run of Pinellas County, FL deputy Michael Hartwick on Thursday is in the U.S. illegally. The sheriff says he crossed into Eagle Pass, TX in October and was expelled to MX. At some point, he crossed again without capture. pic.twitter.com/urBBWGk8Hf
— Bill Melugin (@BillFOXLA) September 23, 2022
The co-worker who helped him evade law enforcement is also in the United States illegally, according to authorities.
Sheriff Gualtieri said that Gomez-Zelaya, who is also a Honduran national, has been charged with accessory after the fact, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
The sheriff said all of the other construction workers at the scene also gave deputies false names and identification.
He said all of the men work for Archer Western Construction, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
Sheriff Gualtieri said Molina-Salles did not have a driver’s license and had provided his employer with a fake ID from North Carolina.
The sheriff said the employer told investigators that Molina-Salles claimed he knew how to operate the front-end loader from his time working construction in Honduras, the Tampa Bay times reported.