U.S.

Pinellas deputy killed in hit and run, suspect taken into custody after manhunt

ST. PETERSBURG — A Pinellas deputy was hit and killed by one of the construction workers he was supposed to protect during a Thursday night shift, sparking a nine-hour manhunt that ended with the suspect’s arrest Friday, Pinellas sheriff Bob Gualtieri said.

The crash occurred near Roosevelt Boulevard after Deputy Michael Hartwick, 51, began his shift on Thursday at about 10:30 p.m., 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 at night, Gualtieri said. Hartwick blocked the two inner lanes south of the highway, got out of his patrol cruiser and stood on the shoulder to the north when Juan Ariel Molina-Salles, 32, a construction worker operating a front loader, punched him, Gualtieri said.

Gualtieri initially gave Molina-Salles a different name, but during a second press conference Friday afternoon, he said investigators had been given false information from workers on the ground.

Michael Hartwick, 51-year-old deputy to the Pinellas County sheriff, was hit and killed Thursday night by a construction worker operating a front loader, according to Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. [ The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office ]

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

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

Police throughout the area spent Friday morning searching for Molina-Salles, using three helicopters and K9 units — including Pasco County Sheriff’s Office bloodhound dogs that used Molina-Salles’ gear to pick up his scent and to take him into custody for about 8 o’clock. :40 p.m. Friday. He was expected to be jailed Friday in Pinellas County Jail on charges of leaving the scene of a death accident, a first-degree felony carrying a maximum sentence of 30 years.

Molina-Salles is from Honduras and is an undocumented immigrant who told researchers 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 the agents a false name, Gualtieri said, but investigators eventually confirmed that he is 31-year-old Elieser Aureilio Gomez-Zelaya.

Gomez-Zelaya is also from Honduras and is an undocumented immigrant, Gualtieri said. He will be charged afterwards with complicity, a crime.

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Gualtieri said other workers on the ground also gave false names.

“They hindered the investigation and did not give us answers to the questions we needed,” Gualtieri said.

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

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

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

A company representative and a spokesman for the state transportation department did not immediately respond to messages Friday afternoon.

Authorities initially closed I-275 in both directions, diverting traffic south to Ulmerton Road and north to Gandy Boulevard. Northbound lanes reopened at 10am and southbound lanes at approximately 12:15pm

The scene at SR-688 E on Interstate 275 on Friday morning, where a manhunt converged on the construction worker accused of fatally striking Pinellas Sheriff Deputy Michael Hartwick with a front-end loader on I-275 Thursday night .  The suspect was arrested at 8:40 a.m. Friday.
The scene at SR-688 E on Interstate 275 on Friday morning, where a manhunt converged on the construction worker accused of fatally striking Pinellas Sheriff Deputy Michael Hartwick with a front-end loader on I-275 Thursday night . The suspect was arrested at 8:40 a.m. 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 assassinated. Now we’ve been in the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office for 110 years without any deaths in the line of duty, and now we’ve got two in 18 months.”

Deputy Michael J. Magli, 30, was killed in the line of work on Feb. 17, 2021. The 30-year-old sheriff’s deputy, husband and father of two was killed when he tried to stop a drunk driver who was on the run from other deputy sheriffs.

Robert Allen Holzaepfel, 35, was sentenced this month to 35 years in prison after pleading guilty to third-degree manslaughter, manslaughter by drink-driving and a felony for driving while his license was suspended or revoked.

A Pinellas County deputy searches an area off State Road 688 E off Interstate 275 for a construction worker accused of fatally striking Pinellas deputy Michael Hartwick with a front-end loader Thursday night.  The worker ran away after the crash and was taken into custody at 8:40 a.m. Friday, deputies said.
A Pinellas County deputy searches an area off State Road 688 E off Interstate 275 for a construction worker accused of fatally striking Pinellas deputy Michael Hartwick with a front-end loader Thursday night. The worker ran away after the crash and was taken into custody at 8:40 a.m. Friday, deputies said. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Hartwick was a deputy at 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 adult sons who have been notified of Hartwick’s death, as has his mother, Gualtieri said.

The Sheriff’s Office is escorting the deputy’s body from the coroner’s office to the Thomas B. Dobies Funeral Home in Tarpon Springs beginning Friday at 3:30 p.m.

In addition to his work, Hartwick loved motorcycling and was the road captain for the 1982 Indian Motorcycle Riders Group, Skyway Chapter, in St. Petersburg.

Hartwick was an excellent planner and enjoyed introducing the group to new restaurants on their rides, said 61-year-old Ron Herman, a member of the club.

“He was always joking and saying we were a driving group with an eating problem because he knew the places to go for dinner,” Herman said.

Hartwick enjoyed riding in Pasco and Hernando counties and enjoyed the group’s camaraderie, said Jim Masterson, who met Hartwick through the club about two years ago.

“He was very inviting 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 happening in our lives, and he was good at sharing what was going on with his,” Masterson said. “And he was just a good friend.”

This is a story in development. Stay with tampabay.com for updates.

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