ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — A Florida sheriff’s deputy working an overnight shift providing safety in a construction zone was accidentally struck and killed by a worker operating a front end loader who is in the U.S. illegally, officials said Friday.
Pinellas County Sheriff’s Deputy Michael Hartwick had started his shift shortly before the accident happened late Thursday on Interstate 275, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said at a pair of Friday news conferences.
The initial name given by the worker, Victor Vazquez-Real, was false, Gualtieri said. His real name is Juan Ariel Molina-Salles, 32, who the sheriff said is a migrant from Honduras who arrived in March and was deported previously.
“He shouldn’t have been here. He shouldn’t have been driving that thing,” Gualtieri said of the large road construction vehicle. “He shouldn’t be working.”
Molina-Salles fled from the job site on foot, allegedly with the help of a co-worker, but was eventually tracked down using bloodhounds, the sheriff said.
The sheriff said Hartwick had blocked the two inside southbound lanes of the interstate and was standing on the road’s shoulder when he was struck by the front end loader traveling at about 20 mph (32 kph). Hartwick died instantly.
The construction worker continued driving for about one mile (1.6 kilometers) before stopping in a parking lot, the sheriff said. Gualtieri said the man then told another construction worker that he had killed a deputy. That worker took Molina-Salles’ gear and hid it in a wooded area, according to the sheriff.
The sheriff said Molina-Salles will be charged with leaving the scene of an accident involving death, which carries a minimum mandatory four-year prison sentence in the event of a conviction. The other construction worker is being charged with being an accessory after the fact.
It was not immediately known whether Molina-Salles has a lawyer who can speak on his behalf. He had not yet been booked into jail early Friday afternoon.
Hartwick had been with the agency for 19 years.
“Mike was a good guy, a good cop,” Gualtieri said. “He did his job.”
The company that employs the two workers, Tampa-based Archer Western Construction, did not immediately respond to a phone call seeking comment. The company is involved in several large transportation projects in the Tampa Bay area, some involving contracts with the state of Florida.
Gualtieri said he referred the matter to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has jurisdiction over immigration issues.
The office of Gov. Ron DeSantis released a statement saying the state was investigating to determine whether undocumented migrants have used fraudulent information to obtain employment with contractors working with the State of Florida.