An illegal migrant driving a front-end loader reportedly punched and killed a former Florida congressman before fleeing the scene Thursday night – sparking a frantic manhunt that ended with the suspect’s arrest.
The fatal crash occurred while Pinellas County Sheriff’s Deputy Mike Hartwick was working at a construction site along I-275 around 10:40 p.m., Sheriff Bob Gualtieri told reporters during a a press conference on Friday.
“This guy we have in custody is here illegally and he ran away, as he said, because he got scared after he killed the deputy,” Gualtieri said.
Dashcam footage from the Hartwick police car shows the deputy getting out of his vehicle about a minute after arriving at the scene before walking to the shoulder of the road next to where he had blocked the lanes, the sheriff said.
Moments later, footage shows the construction vehicle streaking past the camera, then hitting Hartwick as it moved at around 20 miles per hour.
Hartwick, a 19-year veteran of the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, was pronounced dead at the scene.
The front-end loader – used to move concrete barriers at construction sites – was driven by a construction worker at the site, later identified as 32-year-old Juan Ariel Molina-Salles, police said.
Molina-Salles continued to drive the Charger after allegedly hitting the deputy. He walked a quarter mile from the stage before finally stopping.
While driving, he called a colleague on the phone “crying” and “making no sense”, telling him he had just “killed a deputy”, Gualtieri said. Molina-Salles handed the colleague his construction vest and helmet and told him to hide them before fleeing on foot.
The colleague, identified as Elieser Aureilio Gomez-Zelaya, 31, reportedly hid the vest and helmet in a nearby wood.
After a nine-hour manhunt involving three units of K-9 helicopters and hundreds of law enforcement officers, Molina-Salles was found hiding in the brush by deputies from the city’s sheriff’s office. Pasco County.
Police said the K9s recovered the hidden vest and helmet, which sleuths then used to detect Molina-Salles’ scent and locate him.
While on the run, cops said he contacted his roommate – who is also an illegal migrant – to ask him to pick him up in his car, police said. But the housemate turned around when he saw the huge response from law enforcement in the area.
Molina-Salles was arrested and charged with leaving the scene of an accident resulting in death. Gomez-Zelaya was also charged with being an accomplice to the crime. Both were transported to Pinellas County Jail.
Molina-Salles initially provided police with the false name of Victor Vasquez-Real and said he was 35 years old. Investigators later learned “it was a bunch of nonsense,” Gualtieri said.
According to the sheriff’s office, Molina-Salles entered the country illegally in October 2021 at Eagle Pass, TX — a hotspot for migrants crossing the southern border — but was turned away by CBP and returned to Mexico.
There was no other record of him entering the country when he was arrested on Friday. He told police he had been in the Tampa Bay area since March of this year.
According to Gualtieri, many construction workers at the site were also illegal migrants. Most of them lied or provided false information to MPs, which he said hampered the investigation.
“This company employs a group of illegals and they are all lying and giving us fake names, fake IDs, lots of fake IDs from North Carolina which really frustrated this investigation,” said the sheriff.
Gualtieri said Molina-Salles provided the construction company with a fake ID and told them he had previously worked in Honduras.
“He didn’t have a driver’s license. He has nothing. He shouldn’t have been there to begin with and he shouldn’t have been driving. He shouldn’t have worked… He has no qualifications to drive a front loader,” he explained.
The workers were employed by Archer Western, a Tampa-based contracting company that worked for the Florida Department of Transportation.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ office told Fox13 in a statement that it is investigating the case to determine if more illegal immigrants used fraudulent information to get jobs in the state.
He vowed to continue relocating illegal immigrants from the Sunshine State.
“If this individual’s illegal status played into his decision to try to cover up this incident, it only underscores one of the harms our state faces as a result of the federal government’s open border policies.” The state of Florida is not a sanctuary state and illegal immigrants are not allowed to work there. For reasons like this, we will continue our legitimate efforts to interdict and relocate illegal immigrants. »
On Friday afternoon, the PCSO provided police escorting Deputy Hartwick from the medical examiner’s office to a funeral home in Tarpon Springs. Hartwick is survived by his mother and two children.
New York Post