Hit-and-run Kills Pinellas Deputy; Suspect Apprehended After Search

Deputy Michael Hartwick stopped traffic on the first night of his shift on Thursday.

About 10:40 p.m., he was working at a construction site on Interstate 275 near Roosevelt Boulevard, directing traffic around the workers. The southbound lanes of the freeway were stopped when Hartwick pulled over, exited his vehicle, and stood on the shoulder facing north.

Hit-and-run Kills Pinellas Deputy; Suspect Apprehended After Search
Hit-and-run Kills Pinellas Deputy; Suspect Apprehended After Search

During that time, a front-end loader driven by one of the construction workers slammed into him at a speed of roughly 20 miles per hour, as Sheriff Bob Gualtieri of Pinellas County explained to reporters. When Hartwick collapsed, he passed away instantly.

Construction worker Juan Ariel Molina-Salles, 32, who was driving, called a colleague while in tears. The Sheriff’s Office says he went to a parking area about a quarter of a mile from the location and there told another construction worker he had killed a policeman.

Elieser Aureilio Gomez-Zelaya, 31, a construction worker, is accused by deputies of stealing Molina-Salles’ construction vest and helmet and hiding them in the woods. Molina-Salles, meanwhile, ran away on foot, setting off a manhunt that lasted for nine hours.

The tragedy followed another deputy death during the past 18 months to become the agency’s second line-of-duty mortality in its 110-year history.

Michael J. Magli, a deputy with 30 years of service, was slain on the job on February 17, 2021. The 30-year-old deputy, husband, and father of two was slain while trying to stop a drunk driver who was evading other deputies.

After pleading guilty to third-degree murder, DUI manslaughter, and a felony charge of driving while his license was suspended or revoked, Robert Allen Holzaepfel, 35, was sentenced this month to 35 years in prison.

Here we go again is all I can say,” Gualtieri remarked at a press conference on Friday morning. It’s been 18 months since we lost Deputy Magli. The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office went 110 years without a fatality on the job before two occurred within a span of 18 months.

Gualtieri had previously identified Molina-Salles under a different name, but he later said that workers at the scene had given investigators erroneous information. Gualtieri claims that when questioned by law enforcement, Gomez-Zelaya gave them a false name.

A bloodhound from the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office reportedly tracked Molina-Salles to a clearing in the woods at around 8:40 a.m. on Friday, after law enforcement agencies in the region had spent the morning searching for him using three helicopters and K9 units.

Gualtieri claims that Molina-Salles, originally from Honduras, illegally entered the United States. According to Molina-statements Salles’s to the authorities, he has been in the Tampa Bay area since March. His most recent known residence was in Tampa.

According to Gualtieri, Gomez-Zelaya is also from Honduras and has been living in the United States illegally. An accessory after the fact charge, a felony, has been filed against him.

According to Gualtieri, some of the other personnel on the site also gave fictitious names.

Gualtieri claimed that the suspects’ refusal to cooperate with the investigation was hampering the probe.

During the press conference, the Republican sheriff swerved into some incendiary rhetoric against immigrants. His words echoed those of former government officials, including current Governor Ron DeSantis. Recently, the governor took credit for transporting migrants from Florida to Martha’s Vineyard using two planes, causing widespread uproar.

According to the sheriff, Molina-Salles lied to his employer by showing him with a North Carolina identification card that he did not actually have. Gualtieri claims Molina-Salles informed him he was familiar with front-end loaders from previous work in the construction industry in Honduras.

The workers, according to Gualtieri, are employed by Archer Western Construction. The Florida Department of Transportation has contracted with a number of different businesses, including the Tampa-based enterprise, to build a new Howard Frankland Bridge.

On Friday, the company’s representative did not return any of our calls or emails. A spokesman for the state transportation department, Jessica Ottaviano, sent a message to the Times via email on Friday evening, expressing sympathies and offered to assist the Sheriff’s Office with their inquiry.

In addition, she emphasized that both FDOT and its contractors adhere to rigorous recruiting standards. The Department has started an internal review of this project contract, despite the fact that it appears all proper hiring processes were followed and the employees in question passed a federal E-Verify clearance check. As investigations proceed, FDOT will also maintain its support for law enforcement.

At first, authorities shut down I-275 in both directions, rerouting traffic northbound onto Gandy Boulevard and southbound onto Ulmerton Road. By 10 a.m., the northbound lanes were back up, and by 12:15 p.m., the southbound lanes had also reopened.

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