NewsPinellas County


Undocumented worker accused of hitting, killing Pinellas deputy on I-275, sheriff says

I-275 was closed during the investigation
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Posted at 4:59 AM, Sep 23, 2022

PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said the man suspected of a hit-and-run crash that killed a Pinellas County deputy Thursday night along I-275 was an undocumented migrant who was captured Friday morning.

According to Sheriff Gualtieri, Deputy Michael Hartwick, 51, was working a traffic detail on I-275 to provide safety and security for the ongoing construction along the road. Gualtieri said Deputy Hartwick arrived at the location around 10:40 p.m.

The PCSO said Hartwick got out of his cruiser and walked around the front of his car onto the shoulder of the road. Gualtieri said a few minutes later, a frontloader with forklift type arms passed by the area traveling approximately 20 miles per hour and escorted by a white pickup truck.

PCSO said the front loader hit and killed Deputy Hartwick instantly. The truck stopped, but Gualtieri said the front loader continued down the road before eventually pulling off to the site of the road.

Deputy Michael Hardwick E.O.W. 9/22/2022

According to Gualtieri, the driver of the front loader is Juan Ariel Molina-Salles, 32, of Honduras. After stopping, Molina-Salles allegedly took off his construction vest and hat and gave them to another worker and asked him to get rid of both. Deputies said Molina-Salles then left the area heading north.

[Editor’s Note: The PCSO originally named the suspect as Victor Vazquez-Real, 35. However, Sheriff Gualtieri said at a Friday afternoon press conference that the original name given to law enforcement was fake.]

The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office said that started a nine-hour manhunt with three helicopters, hundreds of law enforcement officers, and all the police K-9 units.

Gualtieri said the investigation was hindered from the very beginning as most of the construction workers were giving false names because many were also undocumented workers. The sheriff said the company employing the workers is Archer Western in Tampa and it is a contractor for the Florida Department of Transportation.

Sheriff Gualtieri updates the public on the death of deputy Friday

“They shouldn’t be out there and they shouldn’t be doing this,” Gualtieri said.

As the manhunt continued, Gualtieri said they requested the aid of Pasco County bloodhound units to find the suspect. Gualtieri said Molina-Salles at one point tried to get his roommate in Tampa to pick him up after the deadly crash. However, the roommate, also an undocumented worker, turned around and refused to come get him when that person saw the law enforcement presence.

According to the sheriff, the move to bring in the bloodhounds paid off and Molina-Salles was arrested around 8:45 a.m. Friday.

Gualtieri said sheriff’s deputies can’t do much with the company employing the undocumented workers or with the workers themselves due to immigration law. The sheriff said Molina-Salles had entered the country once illegally and was deported back to Mexico, but later returned through Eagle Pass, Texas and had been in Tampa since March.

The death of Deputy Hartwick is the second in a year and a half for the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.

"All I can say is, here we go again," Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said early Friday morning. "This is 18 months after Deputy Magli was killed. We go 110 years in the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office with no line of duty deaths — now we have two in 18 months."

Deputy Michael Magli, a 30-year-old deputy, was hit and killed by a drunk driver in Pinellas County in February 2021. The suspect pled guilty earlier this month and received a 35-year prison sentence.

Gaultieri said a procession is scheduled for Friday afternoon to escort Hartwick from the Medical Examiner's Office located at 10900 Ulmerton Road in Largo to the Thomas B. Dobies Funeral Home in Tarpon Springs.

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The procession will start around 3:30 p.m. It will travel eastbound on Ulmerton Road, north on U.S. Highway 19, and west on East Tarpon Avenue to the funeral home. Anyone who would like to pay their respects is asked to stage north of Republic Drive, on the east side of the road.

Sheriff Gualtieri said Molina-Salles faces a charge of leaving the scene of an accident with a death and it’s punishable by up to 30 years in prison, with a minimum mandatory sentence of four-years in prison if convicted. Molina-Salles was scheduled to be moved to the Pinellas County Jail Friday afternoon. There’s also an immigration hold on Molina-Salles if he is given bond on the local charge.

The construction worker who allegedly took Molina-Salles’ gear is Elieser Aurelio Gomez-Zalaya, 31, who was also an undocumented immigrant from Honduras. Gualtieri said he was charged with accessory after the fact.

FDOT released this statement:

The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) offers our heartfelt condolences to Deputy Hartwick’s family and the entire law enforcement community. From all accounts, Deputy Hartwick was a model law enforcement officer, and we stand willing and able to assist the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office in any way possible.

FDOT and its contractors follow strict hiring procedures. While it appears that these hiring procedures were followed, including a federal E-Verify clearance check, and the individuals in question passed this federal clearance, the Department is initiating an internal review on this project contract. FDOT will also continue to support law enforcement efforts as investigations continue.