Illegal migrant driving front-end loader kills Florida congressman

An illegal migrant driving a front-end loader allegedly beat and killed a veteran Florida congressman before fleeing the scene on Thursday night – prompting a frantic manhunt that ended in the suspect’s arrest.

The fatal accident occurred while Pinellas County Deputy Sheriff Mike Hartwick was working on a traffic detail at a construction site along the I-275 freeway about 10:40 p.m., Sheriff Bob Gualtieri told reporters at a news conference Friday.

“This guy that we have in custody is here illegally and he fled, he says, because he got scared after killing the deputy,” Gualtieri said.

Dashcam footage from Hartwick’s police cruiser shows the deputy exiting his vehicle about a minute after arriving at the scene before walking to the curb next to where he had blocked lanes, the sheriff said.

Moments later, footage shows the construction vehicle driving past in front of the camera and then hitting Hartwick while traveling at about 20 mph.

Hartwick, a 19-year veteran of the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, was pronounced dead at the scene.

Memorial to PCSO MP Mike Harwick
Deputy Mike Hartwick was a 19-year veteran of the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.
Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office

The front-end loader – which was used to move concrete barriers at construction sites – was operated by a construction worker at the site, later identified as 32-year-old Juan Ariel Molina-Salles, police said.

Molina-Salles continued driving the loader after allegedly hitting the deputy. He made it a quarter mile from the crime scene before finally stopping.

As he was driving, he called a colleague on the phone who was “crying” and “made no sense” and told him he had “just killed an MP,” Gualtieri said. Molina-Salles gave the colleague his construction vest and helmet and asked him to hide them before fleeing on foot.

The colleague, identified as 31-year-old Eliezer Aureilio Gomez-Zelaya, allegedly hid the vest and helmet in a nearby forest.

After a nine-hour manhunt involving three K-9 helicopter units and hundreds of police officers, Molina-Salles was found hiding in the bush by deputies from the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office.

PCSO Mike Hartwick
Hartwick was attacked and killed during a traffic detail on a Florida freeway.
Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office

Police said K9s recovered the hidden vest and helmet, which bloodhounds then used to pick up Molina-Salles’ scent and locate him.

During his time on the run, police said he contacted his roommate – who is also an illegal migrant – and asked him to pick him up in his car, police said. But the roommate turned his back on seeing the tremendous response from law enforcement in the area.

Molina-Salles’ was arrested and charged with leaving the scene of a fatal accident. Gomez-Zelaya was also charged with accessory to crime. Both were taken to the Pinellas County Jail.

Molina-Salles originally gave police the false name Victor Vasquez-Real and said he was 35 years old. Investigators later learned “that was a bunch of nonsense,” Gualtieri said.

According to the sheriff’s office, Molina-Salles entered the country illegally in October 2021 in Eagle Pass, TX — a hotspot for migrants crossing the southern border — but was turned around by the CBP and turned back to Mexico.

There was no further record of his entry into the country when he was arrested on Friday. He told police he had been in the Tampa Bay area since March of this year.

According to Gualtieri, many of the construction workers on the site were also illegal migrants. Most of them lied or gave deputies false information, which he said hampered the investigation.

Large police presence near the crime scene
Molina-Salles was tracked down by bloodhounds after a nine-hour law enforcement manhunt.

“This company employs a bunch of illegals and they’re all out there lying and giving us fake names, fake IDs, a lot of fake IDs from North Carolina that really frustrated this investigation,” the sheriff said.

Gualtieri said Molina-Salles presented the construction company with a fake ID and told them he had previously worked in Honduras.

“He didn’t have a driver’s license. He has nothing. He shouldn’t have been here from the start and he shouldn’t have driven. He shouldn’t have been working… He doesn’t have the qualifications to drive a front loader,” he explained.

The workers were employed by Archer Western, a Tampa-based construction company that works for the Florida Department of Transportation.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s office told Fox13 in a statement that it was investigating the matter to determine if more illegal immigrants had used fraudulent information to obtain employment in the state.

He promised to continue relocating illegal immigrants from the Sunshine State.

A front loader
A front end loader remained at the scene while forensics investigated the deputy’s death.

“If that individual’s illegal status played a role in his decision to cover up this incident, it underscores just one of the harms our state is facing as a result of the federal government’s open borders policy.” The state of Florida is not a safe haven state and illegal immigrants are not allowed to work here. For reasons like this, we will continue our legitimate efforts to deter and relocate illegal immigrants.”

On Friday afternoon, PCSO made available a police-escorted Deputy Hartwick from the coroner’s office to a funeral home in Tarpon Springs. Hartwick is survived by his mother and two children. Illegal migrant driving front-end loader kills Florida congressman


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