Sheriff: Illegal Immigrant Kills Florida Deputy

Juan Molina-Salles

An illegal immigrant struck Pinellas County Deputy Michael Hartwick with a vehicle while he was guarding a construction zone, authorities said.

Fox News reported that a man arrested in the death of a Florida sheriff’s deputy was living illegally in the country.

It is alleged that Juan Ariel Molina-Salles, 32, left the scene of an accident. A 19-year veteran of Pinellas County’s sheriff’s department, Michael Hartwick, died in a hit-and-run on Thursday, leaving behind two adult sons.

A front loader driven by Molina-Salles struck Hartwick while Hartwick was working a traffic detail in a construction zone at night, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said. According to him, the driver of the vehicle was going too fast.

Despite knowing he killed the deputy, he fled after killing him, he said, because he was afraid.

Despite striking Hartwick, Molina-Salles allegedly kept going and told another construction worker that he had just killed a deputy. Afterwards, he allegedly handed the worker his construction hat and traffic vest and told him to hide them.

Gualtieri said the worker, identified as Elieswer Gomez-Zelaya, dumped the items in the woods.

Gomez-Zelaya, who was in the U.S. illegally from Honduras, was arrested and charged with accessory.

When confronted by investigators, Molina-Salles gave them a fake name and claimed to be from Puerto Rico. On Oct. 25, 2021, he entered the country illegally through Eagle Pass, Texas, Gualtieri said.

The Border Patrol sent him back to Mexico, he said.

Gualtieri told reporters that there is no record of him ever legally returning to the United States.

According to authorities, Molina-Salles illegally entered the U.S. through Texas and has lived in the Tampa area since March. Gualtieri reported that the majority of construction workers at the scene lied to authorities during the investigation.

“They hindered the investigation, not answering our questions,” he said.

A company that does contract work for the state Department of Transportation employed the workers. He told the construction company he had done construction in Honduras before being hired. Authorities say he supplied the company with a fake ID card.

“The driver had no driver’s license. He had nothing. He shouldn’t have been here to begin with, and he shouldn’t have been driving.” Gualtieri said. “It’s not appropriate for him to be working… He has no qualifications to operate a front loader.”

According to Fox News, the state Transportation Department’s hiring procedures are strict.

Despite the fact that it appears these hiring procedures were followed, including a federal E-Verify clearance check, and the individuals in question passed this federal clearance, the Department is launching an internal review of the project contract. According to the agency, FDOT will also continue to support law enforcement efforts as investigations continue.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office was investigating whether illegal immigrants used false information to obtain employment with contractors.

“As we collect details and examine potential courses of action, we are reminded once again that illegal immigration has a multifaceted effect on Florida,” the statement read. “If this individual’s illegal status played into his decision to try to cover up this incident, it underscores one of the harms that our state faces due to the federal government’s open border policies.” Due to the fact that illegal immigrants are not permitted to work here, Florida is not a sanctuary state. As a result, we will continue to lawfully arrest and relocate them.”

For more on this story, please consider these sources:

  1. Migrant driving front-end loader strikes and kills Florida deputy  New York Post
  2. Construction worker who killed Pinellas deputy was undocumented, sheriff says  WFLA News Channel 8
  3. Florida deputy killed by illegal immigrant in hit-and-run before fleeing scene, sheriff says  Fox News
  4. Suspect identified in Pinellas deputy’s death  Bay News 9
  5. Pinellas sheriff: Illegal worker hit, killed deputy on construction site  FOX 13 Tampa Bay
John Nightbridge is a veteran reporter, researcher, and economic policy major from UCLA. Passionate about world issues and potential ways to solve them is a significant focus of his work. Writing freelance and reading the news are John's passions at work. Outside of work, it's all about sky diving, surfing, and stock market modeling.