Vice Pinellas was killed in a hit-and-run accident, the suspect was arrested after the search

Street. PETERSBURG – At the start of his shift Thursday night, Representative Michael Hartwick stopped to direct traffic.

It was about 10:40 p.m. and he was working on a construction site on Interstate 275 near Roosevelt Boulevard, directing traffic away from the crews. Hartwick blocked the two southbound lanes of the highway with his car, got off of them and stood on his shoulder, heading north.

At the time, he was hit by a front loader driven by a construction worker, going about 20 mph, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri later told reporters. Hartwick died on the spot.

The construction worker behind the wheel, Juan Ariel Molina-Sales, 32, picked up the phone and called another construction worker in tears. He drove to a parking lot about a quarter mile from the scene, where he told another construction worker he had killed a deputy, according to the sheriff’s office.

Deputies said construction worker Eliezer Aurelio Gomez Zelaya, 31, took Molina Salles’ construction jacket and helmet and hid them in the woods. Meanwhile, Molina Salles escaped on foot, leading to a nine-hour chase.

The death was the agency’s second death in its 110-year history, and follows the death of another MP in the past 18 months.

Representative Michael J. Magley, 30, in the line of duty on February 17, 2021. The 30-year-old MP, husband and father-of-two was killed while trying to stop a drunk driver from escaping from other MPs.

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

“All I can say is, here we go again,” Gualtieri said at a press conference early Friday morning. This is 18 months after the murder of Rep. Megally. Now we’ve had 110 years in the Pinellas County sheriff’s office with no on-the-job deaths, and now we’ve had two in 18 months.”

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

Investigation

Gualtieri initially gave a different name to Molina-Sales, but at a second news conference on Friday afternoon, he said investigators received false information from workers at the scene. Gualtieri said Gomez Zelaya initially gave the lawmakers a false name.

Law enforcement across the area spent Friday morning searching for Molina-Salles, using three helicopters and K9 units — including bloodstained dogs from the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office that used Molina-Salles equipment to catch his scent and help detain him before about 8 a.m. :40 a.m. Friday, when authorities say a bloodied dog found it in some brush.

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He was booked into Pinellas County Jail Friday and faces a charge of leaving the scene of the death incident, a first-degree felony punishable by a maximum prison term of 30 years and at least four mandatory years.

Investigators are working with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office at the scene on the southern lanes of I-275 near Gandhi Street Friday in St. Petersburg, where Representative Michael Hartwick, 51, was shot and killed Thursday night by a construction worker working at the front-end loader in Construction site, according to Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.
Investigators are working with the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office at the scene on the southern lanes of I-275 near Gandhi Street Friday in St. Petersburg, where Representative Michael Hartwick, 51, was shot and killed Thursday night by a construction worker working at the front-end loader in Construction site, according to Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Gualtieri said Molina Salles is from Honduras and entered the United States without legal permission. Molina Salles told investigators he has been in the Tampa Bay area since March. His last known address was in Tampa.

Gualtieri said Gomez Zelaya is from Honduras and also lives in the United States without a legal permit. He is facing charges of being an affiliate after the incident, a felony.

Gualtieri said other workers at the scene also gave aliases.

“They were obstructing the investigation, not giving us answers to the questions we needed,” Gualtieri said.

Sometimes during the press conference, the Republican mayor veered into inflammatory rhetoric about immigration. His remarks were reminiscent of those made by some in Governor Ron DeSantis’ administration. The governor recently took credit for taking immigrants on two planes from Florida to Martha’s Vineyard, sparking outrage across the country.

Juan Ariel Molinas-Sales, 32, was arrested Friday, September 23, 2022, on charges of leaving the scene of a fatal accident after MPs said he hit Pinellas Deputy Mayor Michael Hartwick with a front loader at a construction site.  on Interstate 275 near Roosevelt Street the night before and then escaped.
Juan Ariel Molinas-Sales, 32, was arrested Friday, September 23, 2022, on charges of leaving the scene of a fatal accident after MPs said he hit Pinellas Deputy Mayor Michael Hartwick with a front loader at a construction site. on Interstate 275 near Roosevelt Street the night before and then escaped. [ Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office ]

Sheriff said Molina Salles did not have a driver’s license and gave her employer a fake North Carolina ID. According to Gualtieri, Molina-Salles told his employer that he knows how to operate a front loader through his experience building in Honduras.

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 of the company did not respond to Friday’s messages. Jessica Ottaviano, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation, emailed the Times Friday evening offering the department’s condolences and 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, including the Federal Electronic Verification Clearance Check, have been followed, and the individuals involved have passed this federal clearance, the department is initiating an internal review of this project contract. The FDOT will also continue to support law enforcement efforts as investigations continue.”

Authorities initially closed I-275 in both directions, diverting southbound traffic to Ulmerton Road and northbound traffic to Gandy Boulevard. Northbound lanes reopened by 10 a.m. and southbound lanes reopened at about 12:15 p.m.

The scene from SR-688 E on Interstate 275 on Friday as the chase converged on a construction worker accused of hitting Pinellas Deputy Mayor Michael Hartwick with a front loader on I-275 Thursday night.  The suspect was in custody by 8:40 a.m. Friday morning.
The scene from SR-688 E on Interstate 275 on Friday as the chase converged on a construction worker accused of hitting Pinellas Deputy Mayor Michael Hartwick with a front loader on I-275 Thursday night. The suspect was in custody by 8:40 a.m. Friday morning. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

‘He did his job’

Gualtieri said Hartwick has been a deputy in the sheriff’s office for 19 years.

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

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

The sheriff’s office escorted the deputy’s body from the medical examiner’s office to the Thomas P. Dobbis funeral home in Tarpon Springs on Friday afternoon. Law enforcement vehicles stretched along East Tarpon Street as members of the sheriff’s office came to pay their respects. Outside the sheriff’s office, a sheriff’s car was decorated with ribbons, flowers and a portrait of Hartwick in honor of his memory.

Tony Karlhofer, of Largo, lays flowers near a temporary memorial to Representative Michael Hartwick, at the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office headquarters Friday in Largo.
Tony Karlhofer, of Largo, lays flowers near a temporary memorial to Representative Michael Hartwick, at the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office headquarters Friday in Largo. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Saint Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch also issued a statement offering his condolences to the sheriff’s office and Hartwick’s loved ones.

“I am deeply saddened to learn of the death of PCSO Deputy Michael Hartwick,” Welch said in the statement.

Outside of work, Hartwick loved riding his motorcycle and was the road leader for the Indian Motorcycle Riders Group, Skyway Chapter, 1982 in Saint Petersburg.

He was nominated as a road leader two years ago at a meeting he did not attend, but nevertheless agreed to take the lead, said Ron Hermann, 61, a member of the club.

Hartwick was an excellent planner and loved introducing the group to new restaurants on their travels.

“He was always joking and saying we were a commuter group and we had trouble eating because he knows where to go and eat,” Hermann said.

Hermann said the deputy loved his job and worked long hours. And he always knew how to make his friends laugh, even when they were in a bad mood.

Jim Masterson, who met Hartwick through the club about two years ago, said that Hartwick loved riding in Pasco and Hernando counties and enjoyed the camaraderie of the group. And in April, the deputy led the group on a trip to Georgia, where he planned a route of more than a thousand miles back and forth, he said.

“He was engaging, inclusive and very open,” said Masterson, 57, adding that Hartwick had a good sense of humour.

“He was very interested in how everyone works and what’s going on in our lives, and he was really good at sharing what was going on with his character,” Masterson said. “He was just a good friend.”

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