ST. PETERSBURG — At the start of his shift Thursday night, Deputy Michael Hartwick pulled over to direct traffic.
It was about 10:40 p.m. and he was working at a construction site on Interstate 275 near Roosevelt Boulevard, guiding traffic away from the crews. Hartwick blocked the two inside southbound lanes of the interstate with his car, got out and stood on the shoulder, facing north.
It was then that he was struck by a front-end loader driven by one of the construction workers, going about 20 mph, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri would later tell reporters. Hartwick died instantly.
The construction worker behind the wheel, Juan Ariel Molina-Salles, 32, picked up the phone and called another construction worker, crying. He drove to a parking lot about a quarter of a mile away from the scene, where he told another construction worker he had killed a deputy, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
That construction worker, 31-year-old Elieser Aureilio Gomez-Zelaya, took Molina-Salles’ construction vest and helmet and hid them in the woods, deputies said. Meanwhile, Molina-Salles fled on foot, sparking a nine-hour manhunt.
The death marked the agency’s second line-of-duty fatality in its 110-year history and came on the heels of another deputy death in the past 18 months.
Deputy Michael J. Magli, 30, was killed in the line of duty on Feb. 17, 2021. The 30-year-old deputy, husband and father of two was killed attempting to stop a drunken driver fleeing from other deputies.
Robert Allen Holzaepfel, 35, was sentenced this month 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.
“All I can say is, here we go again,” Gualtieri said at a news conference early Friday morning. “This is 18 months after Deputy Magli was killed. Now we go 110 years in the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office without any line-of-duty deaths, and now we have two in 18 months.”
Gualtieri initially provided a different name for Molina-Salles, but at a second news conference Friday afternoon, he said investigators were given false information from workers at the scene. Gomez-Zelaya also initially gave deputies a fake name, Gualtieri said.
Law enforcement across the area spent Friday morning searching for Molina-Salles, using three helicopters and K9 units — including bloodhound dogs from the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office that used Molina-Salles’ gear to pick up his scent and help take him into custody by about 8:40 a.m. Friday, when authorities say a bloodhound found him in some brush.
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He was booked into the Pinellas County Jail on Friday and faces a charge of leaving the scene of a crash involving death, a first-degree felony that carries a maximum prison sentence of 30 years and a mandatory minimum of four years.
Molina-Salles is from Honduras and entered the United States without legal authorization, Gualtieri said. Molina-Salles told investigators he has been in the Tampa Bay area since March. His last known address is in Tampa.
Gomez-Zelaya also is from Honduras and has also been living in the United States without legal authorization, Gualtieri said. He is facing a charge of being an accessory after the fact, a felony.
Gualtieri said other workers at the scene also provided false names.
“They were hindering the investigation, not giving us answers to the questions that we needed,” Gualtieri said.
At times during the press conference, the Republican sheriff veered into inflammatory rhetoric about immigration. His remarks were reminiscent of those made by some in Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration. The governor recently took credit for flying migrants on two planes from Florida to Martha’s Vineyard, sparking outrage across the nation.
The sheriff said Molina-Salles does not have a driver’s license and gave his employer a fake identification card from North Carolina. According to Gualtieri, Molina-Salles told his employer that he knew how to operate the front-end loader from his construction experience back in Honduras.
Gualtieri said the men work for Archer Western Construction. The Tampa-based firm is among the contractors hired by the Florida Department of Transportation to replace the Howard Frankland Bridge.
A representative of the company did not respond to messages Friday. Jessica Ottaviano, a spokesperson for the state transportation department, emailed a statement to the Times Friday evening offering the department’s condolences and its assistance in the Sheriff’s Office investigation.
She went on to say, “FDOT and its contractors follow strict hiring procedures. 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. FDOT will also continue to support law enforcement efforts as investigations continue.”
Authorities initially closed I-275 in both directions, diverting southbound traffic onto Ulmerton Road and northbound traffic onto Gandy Boulevard. The northbound lanes were reopened by 10 a.m. and the southbound lanes by about 12:15 p.m.
‘He did his job’
Hartwick was a deputy with the Sheriff’s Office for 19 years, Gualtieri said.
“Mike was a good guy, a good cop,” Gualtieri said Friday morning. “He did his job.”
Hartwick had two adult sons who were notified of Hartwick’s death, as was his mother, Gualtieri said.
The Sheriff’s Office escorted the deputy’s body from the medical examiner’s office to the Thomas B. Dobies Funeral Home in Tarpon Springs Friday afternoon. Law enforcement vehicles stretched along East Tarpon Avenue as members of the Sheriff’s Office came to pay their respects. Outside of the Sheriff’s Office, a sheriff’s vehicle decorated with ribbons, flowers and a picture of Hartwick honored his memory.
St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch also released a statement offering his condolences to the Sheriff’s Office and Hartwick’s loved ones.
“I’m deeply saddened to learn of the passing of PCSO Deputy Michael Hartwick,” Welch said in the statement.
Outside of work, Hartwick loved to ride his motorcycle and was the road captain for the Indian Motorcycle Riders Group, Skyway Chapter, 1982 in St. Petersburg.
He was nominated as road captain a couple of years ago at a meeting he didn’t attend, but he still agreed to take the lead, said 61-year-old Ron Herman, a member of the club.
Hartwick was an excellent planner and liked introducing the group to new restaurants on their rides.
“He used to always joke and say we were a riding group with an eating problem because he knew the places to go and eat,” Herman said.
The deputy loved his job and worked long hours, Herman said. And he always knew how to make his friends laugh, even when they were in a bad mood.
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. In April, the deputy lead the group on a trip to Georgia, planning a route that was more than 1,000 miles round trip, he said.
“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 about sharing what was going on with his,” Masterson said. “And he was just a good friend.”