Pinellas deputy killed in hit-and-run, suspect arrested after manhunt

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ST. PETERSBURG – A Pinellas deputy was struck and killed by one of the construction workers he had been assigned to protect during a Thursday night shift, sparking a nine-hour manhunt that ended Friday with the suspect’s capture , Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said.

The crash happened near Roosevelt Boulevard after Deputy Michael Hartwick, 51, started his shift around 10:30 p.m. Thursday, Gualtieri said at a news conference Friday morning.

Hartwick was working on a traffic detail to provide safety for road construction crews working on Interstate 275 overnight, Gualtieri said. Hartwick blocked the two inside the southbound lanes of the interstate, got out of his patrol cruiser and was standing on the shoulder facing north when Juan Ariel Molina-Salles, 32, a construction worker operating a front-end loader, struck him, Gualtieri said.

Gualtieri initially gave Molina-Salles a different name, but at another news conference Friday afternoon, he said investigators were given false information from workers at the scene.

Pinellas County Sheriff's Office Deputy Michael Hartwick, 51, was struck and killed Thursday night by a construction worker driving a front-end loader, according to Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.
Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Michael Hartwick, 51, was struck and killed Thursday night by a construction worker driving a front-end loader, according to Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. [ The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office ]

The forklift was traveling about 20 mph when it hit Hartwick, killing him instantly, Gualtieri said.

Molina-Salles continued for about a mile after hitting the deputy, then stopped in a parking lot and told another construction worker he had killed a deputy, according to the sheriff. This worker took Molina-Salles’ construction equipment and hid it in a wooded area. Molina-Salles started running, Gualtieri said.

Law enforcement officers throughout the area spent Friday morning searching for Molina-Salles using three helicopters and K9 units — including bloodhounds from the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office who used Molina-Salles’ equipment to pick up his scent and take him in custody around 8:40 Friday. He was expected to be booked into the Pinellas County Jail on Friday on charges of leaving the scene of a crash involving death, a first-degree felony that carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison.

Molina-Salles is from Honduras and is an undocumented immigrant who told investigators he has been in the Tampa Bay area since March, Gualtieri said. His last known address is in Tampa.

The worker who helped Molina-Salles hide his equipment also initially gave deputies a false name, Gualtieri said, but investigators eventually confirmed he is Elieser Aureilio Gomez-Zelaya, 31.

Gomez-Zelaya is also from Honduras and is an undocumented immigrant, Gualtieri said. He will subsequently be charged with being an accessory, a felony.

Gualtieri said other workers at the site also provided false names.

“They obstructed the investigation and didn’t give us the answers to the questions we needed,” Gualtieri said.

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Juan Ariel Molinas-Salles, 32, was arrested Friday, Sept. 23, 2022, on charges of leaving the scene of an accident involving death after deputies say he fatally struck Pinellas Sheriff's Deputy Michael Hartwick with a front-end loader on a construction site on Interstate 275 near Roosevelt Boulevard the previous night and then ran away.
Juan Ariel Molinas-Salles, 32, was arrested Friday, Sept. 23, 2022, on charges of leaving the scene of an accident involving death after deputies say he fatally struck Pinellas Sheriff’s Deputy Michael Hartwick with a front-end loader on a construction site on Interstate 275 near Roosevelt Boulevard the previous night and then ran away. [ Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office ]

The sheriff said Molina-Salles does not have a driver’s license and gave her employer a fake North Carolina ID. He said he told his employer he knew how to operate the front-end loader from his construction experience back in Honduras, according to Gualtieri.

Gualtieri said the men work for Archer Western Construction. The Tampa-based company is among the contractors hired by the Florida Department of Transportation to replace the Howard Frankland Bridge.

A representative for the company and a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation did not immediately respond to messages Friday afternoon.

Authorities initially closed I-275 in both directions and diverted southbound traffic onto Ulmerton Road and northbound traffic onto Gandy Boulevard. The northbound lanes were reopened at 10.00 and the southbound lanes around 12.15

The scene off SR-688 E at Interstate 275 Friday morning as a manhunt gathered for the construction worker accused of fatally striking Pinellas Sheriff's Deputy Michael Hartwick with a front-end loader on I-275 Thursday night.  The suspect was in custody at 8.40am on Friday.
The scene off SR-688 E at Interstate 275 Friday morning as a manhunt gathered for the construction worker accused of fatally striking Pinellas Sheriff’s Deputy Michael Hartwick with a front-end loader on I-275 Thursday night. The suspect was in custody at 8.40am on Friday. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

“All I can say is, here we go again,” Gualtieri said at the first press conference on Friday. “This is 18 months after Deputy Magli was killed. Now we’re going 110 years in the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office without a fatality and now we have two in 18 months.”

Deputy Michael J. Magli, 30, was killed in the line of duty on February 17, 2021. The 30-year-old deputy, husband and father of two was killed trying to stop a drunk driver fleeing from other wardens.

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

A Pinellas County Sheriff's Office deputy searches an area off State Road 688 E at Interstate 275 for a construction worker accused of striking Pinellas Deputy Michael Hartwick with a front loader Thursday night.  The worker ran away after the accident and was in custody at 8:40 a.m. Friday, deputies said.
A Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office deputy searches an area off State Road 688 E at Interstate 275 for a construction worker accused of striking Pinellas Deputy Michael Hartwick with a front loader Thursday night. The worker ran away after the accident and was in custody at 8:40 a.m. Friday, deputies said. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Hartwick was a deputy with the Sheriff’s Office for 19 years, Gualtieri said.

“Mike was a good guy, a good cop,” Gualtieri said. “He did his job.”

Hartwick has two grown sons, who were notified of Hartwick’s death, as was his mother, Gualtieri said.

The Sheriff’s Office will escort the deputy’s body from the medical examiner’s office to the Thomas B. Dobies Funeral Home in Tarpon Springs, beginning at 3:30 p.m. Friday.

Outside of work, Hartwick loved to ride his motorcycle and was road captain of the Indian Motorcycle Riders Group, Skyway Chapter, 1982 in St. Petersburg.

Hartwick was an excellent planner and liked to introduce the group to new restaurants on their outings, said Ron Herman, 61, a member of the club.

“He always used to joke that we were a riding group with an eating problem because he knew where to go to eat,” Herman said.

Hartwick liked to ride in Pasco and Hernando counties and enjoyed the camaraderie of the group, said Jim Masterson, who met Hartwick through the club about two years ago.

“He was very welcoming and inclusive, very open,” said Masterson, 57, adding that Hartwick had a great sense of humor.

“He was very interested in how everyone was doing and what was going on in our lives, and he was good at sharing what was going on in his,” Masterson said. “And he was just a good friend.”

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