TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Two road construction workers are facing charges after one allegedly ran into a Pinellas County deputy with a forklift, killing him, and fled the scene.
The collision occurred just after 11 p.m. Thursday. Investigators say the man believed to be responsible, 32-year-old Juan Ariel Molina Salles, was a Honduran migrant who was in the country illegally.
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said Deputy Michael Hartwick, a 51-year-old veteran officer and father, was in a construction zone, working a traffic detail when he was struck by a front end loader with a forklift.
Hartwick had parked his cruiser to block two inside southbound lanes and was standing on the shoulder of the road, facing north when he was hit.
Gualtieri said the front end loader, which was used to lift concrete barriers, was traveling at about 20 mph. Hartwick died instantly.
The forklift operator, Molina-Salles, allegedly continued driving for about a quarter of a mile before he pulled into a parking area, got out of the vehicle and told another construction worker about what happened. He gave the worker his helmet and vest and ran off on foot, Gualtieri said.
The sheriff said they initially believed Molina-Salles was named Victor Vazquez, of Puerto Rico, but it turned out to be a fake name. Molina-Salles had previously been denied entry to the U.S. by Border Patrol at the U.S.-Mexican border and sent back.
“He came back in through the Texas border, he is here illegally, and he’s been here in the Tampa Bay area since March of this year,” the sheriff said.
Gualtieri said the other worker hid Molina-Salles’ uniform. That worker also gave deputies a fake name and was identified as being Elieser Aurelio Gomez-Zelaya, sheriff’s officials said.
Gomez-Zelaya was arrested on a charge of being an accessory after the fact.
Gualtieri said about 100 officers and K9 teams spent hours searching the area for Molina-Salles.
“After a nine hour manhunt conducted by local law enforcement agencies, PCSO K9 and our flight unit, Molina was located by the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office bloodhound hiding in a brush area,” the sheriff’s office said in a release. “He was taken into custody and charged with one count leaving the scene of a crash involving death.”
However, the investigation was hampered by other workers at the scene, the sheriff said. He alleged that many of them hired by the contractor, Archer Western, were in the country illegally and lied to investigators at the scene.
According to Gualtieri, Molina Salles fled because he was afraid after he killed Hartwick. The sheriff said the suspect also didn’t have a driver’s license and should not have been driving, much less working.
“He has no qualifications to drive a front loader, and he said what he told these people is that back in Honduras, he worked some construction, and he knows how to operate this thing so they said go ahead,” he said. “Is that really what these contractors are doing? Is that how they’re doing business?”
Gualtieri said the migrant didn’t even give the employer a driver’s license, just a fake North Carolina ID card.
Molina-Salles was taken into custody Friday morning, the sheriff’s office said, and faces a charge of leaving the scene of an accident involving a death, a first-degree felony.
Gualtieri said Hartwick had worked for the sheriff’s office for 19 years. He was assigned to the patrol division, and worked the night shift for the North District Station.
He is survived by his mother and adult children, according to the sheriff.
“All I can say is here we go again. This is 18 months after Deputy Magli was killed,” Gualtieri said. “We go 110 years in the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office with no line-of-duty deaths, now we have two in 18 months.”
St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch said he was saddened by Hartwick’s death and expressed his condolences to the deputy’s family.
“These men and women put their lives on the line day in and day out and it’s imperative to us avoid avoidable accidents that caused this tragedy,” Welch said. “Our entire St. Pete family sends our love and prayers to Deputy Hardwick’s friends and family may your PCSO family remain strong and protected.”
Archer Western – de Moya Joint Venture II, the company handling the Gateway Expressway Project, said it is cooperating with the investigations. Gualtieri said ICE would be notified of the situation as well since the sheriff’s office has no jurisdiction on undocumented immigrants and homeland security matters.