An illegal immigrant has been arrested and charged in Florida with leaving the scene of an accident, in a hit-and-run that left Pinellas County sheriff’s deputy Michael Hartwick dead.
Hartwick, a 19-year veteran of the police force, was tasked with traffic detail in a construction zone on Thursday night when he was struck by Juan Ariel Molina-Salles, 32, who was driving a front loader, Fox News reports.
Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said on Friday that he thought the driver was going “too fast.”
According to Gualtieri, Molina-Salles knew what he was doing when he fled.
“He fled as he said because he became afraid after he killed the deputy, but he clearly knew he killed the deputy,” he said.
NEW: Per ICE source, the man charged in the fatal hit & run of Pinellas County, FL deputy Michael Hartwick on Thursday is in the U.S. illegally. The sheriff says he crossed into Eagle Pass, TX in October and was expelled to MX. At some point, he crossed again without capture. pic.twitter.com/urBBWGk8Hf
— Bill Melugin (@BillFOXLA) September 23, 2022
Molina-Salles is accused of driving off after he hit Hartwick. He allegedly then confessed that he’d killed a deputy to a fellow construction worker and illegal migrant, identified as Elieswer Gomez-Zelaya, who took the driver’s construction hat and vest and hid them in the woods.
Gomez-Zelaya, from Honduras, was also arrested and charged as an accessory, a felony.
The Daily Mail reports that Molina-Salles was hunted for nine hours before Pinellas County sheriffs’ bloodhounds finally tracked him down on Friday and booked him into the Pinellas County Jail. He, too, faces a felony. Leaving the scene of a fatal accident is a first-degree felony, with a prison sentence that ranges from a mandatory minimum of four years to up to 30 years behind bars.
Sheriff Gualtieri told reporters that Molina-Salles illegally crossed into the States via Eagle Pass, Texas, on Oct. 25, 2021, when Border Patrol caught him and sent him back to Mexico.
“There is no record of him ever legally coming back into the United States, and he was here illegally,” he explained.
When approached by investigators, Molina-Salles, like the majority of the construction workers at the scene, gave a phony name. He told the investigators he was from Puerto Rico and allegedly eventually admitted he’d jumped the border in Texas illegally and has been residing in the Tampa area since March, Gualtieri said, adding that the construction workers “were hindering the investigation, not giving us answers to the questions we needed.”
Perhaps the most disturbing part of the story so far is that Molina-Salles and the rest of the illegal immigrants at the site were employed by a company hired to do contract work for Florida’s Department of Transportation.
Authorities say the accused driver simply told the construction company that he’d worked construction in Honduras and handed them a fake ID.
“He didn’t have a driver’s license. He’s got nothing. He shouldn’t have been here to begin with, and he shouldn’t have been driving,” Sheriff Gualtieri said. “He shouldn’t have been working…He has no qualifications to drive a front loader.”
The state’s Transportation Department maintains it followed strict hiring procedures, as do its contractors.
“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,” the agency told Fox News. “FDOT will also continue to support law enforcement efforts as investigations continue.”
Governor Ron DeSantis’s office issued a statement that highlighted the Biden administration’s “ongoing” border crisis.
“We are currently investigating the matter and looking to determine if illegal immigrants have utilized fraudulent information to obtain employment with contractors working with the State of Florida,” the statement read.
“As we collect details and examine potential courses of action, we are reminded once again that illegal immigration is a serious and ongoing problem in the United States that has a multifaceted effect on Florida,” it continued. “If this individual’s illegal status played into his decision to try to cover up this incident, it underscores just one of the harms that our state faces because of the federal government’s open border policies.”
“The State of Florida is not a sanctuary state and illegal immigrants are not authorized to work here,” DeSantis’s office stated. “For reasons such as this, we will continue our lawful efforts to interdict and relocate illegal immigrants.”
Statement from FL Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office. pic.twitter.com/Vb2EDFWLlF
— Bill Melugin (@BillFOXLA) September 23, 2022
Gov. DeSantis’s outspoken Rapid Response Director, Christina Pushaw, suggested Molina-Salles landed in Tampa as a result of a nighttime flight, courtesy of the Biden administration.
“I thought the Pinellas Sheriff said that he got back into the USA and came to the Tampa Bay Area in March of 2022,” she tweeted. “Wonder how he got here?”
I thought the Pinellas Sheriff said that he got back into the USA and came to the Tampa Bay Area in March of 2022. Wonder how he got here?
— Christina Pushaw 🐊 🇺🇸 (@ChristinaPushaw) September 23, 2022
Deputy Michael Harwick was 51 years old. He leaves behind two sons.
“Mike Harwick was a cop out there doing his job,” Sheriff Gualtieri said in a moving tribute. “He was a good guy. He dedicated his 19 years of service to protecting the people of Pinellas County.”
“Mike Hartwick was a cop out there doing his job. He was a good guy. He dedicated his 19 years of service to protecting the people of Pinellas County.” – Sheriff Bob Gualtieri pic.twitter.com/bb6TPI27Yb
— Pinellas SO (@SheriffPinellas) September 24, 2022
Floridians and fellow members of Florida’s law enforcement community lined up to pay their respects.
Transporting Deputy Michael Hartwick from the medical examiners office to the funeral home. Although it appears to be an accident, he was killed by an ILLEGAL IMMIGRANT. This is not ok. SECURE OUR BORDERS @POTUS pic.twitter.com/rouPwrHRHD
— Mrs. Booker (@MarriedToBooker) September 23, 2022
Police officers and @clearwaterfire personnel gather to salute the processional for @SheriffPinellas Deputy Michael Hartwick as he is escorted to a funeral home in Tarpon Springs. pic.twitter.com/YLBk8iaagV
— Clearwater Police Department (@myclearwaterPD) September 23, 2022
Chief Troche has authorized our Officers to wear mourning bands in respect & remembrance of @SheriffPinellas Deputy Michael Hartwick. While working on duty overnight, he made the ultimate sacrifice. Mourning bands will be worn until midnight on the day of the funeral. #LODD pic.twitter.com/3zbBRzA1UX
— Sarasota Police Department (@SarasotaPD) September 23, 2022
Some of our personnel gathered along with @myclearwaterPD to salute the processional for @SheriffPinellas Deputy Michael Hartwick as he was escorted to a funeral home in Tarpon Springs. pic.twitter.com/xyTbRVSzH4
— Clearwater Fire & Rescue Department (@clearwaterfire) September 23, 2022
Deputy Michael Hartwick
E.O.W. September 22nd, 2022 pic.twitter.com/RzY6V3F9k9
— Pinellas SO (@SheriffPinellas) September 23, 2022
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