The Florida governor’s office and department of transportation report they are investigating how an illegal immigrant accused of running into and killing a deputy with a wheel loader in a work zone was hired and allowed to operate the loader.
Juan Ariel Molina-Salles, 32, was charged September 23 with running into and killing Deputy Michael Hartwick who was working traffic control for a work zone on the Gateway Expressway project in St. Petersburg.
The 51-year-old Hartwick was a 19-year veteran of the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office. He was struck by the large loader at about 10:30 p.m. September 22 soon after he had started his shift, according to Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. Hartwick had blocked two southbound lanes of I-275 with his cruiser, and he was facing northbound while standing on the road shoulder.
Molina-Salles was going about 20 mph northbound in the loader and being escorted by another worker in a pickup truck when he hit Hartwick, who died instantly, Gualtieri said during a news conference. Molina-Salles’ job was to pick up concrete barriers with the loader, which was equipped with a fork attachment.
After hitting Hartwick, he then rode farther up to a parking lot about a quarter-mile away where he met with another illegal immigrant worker on the project who helped him hide by stashing his hardhat and vest in some woods, according to Gualtieri. Molina-Salles ran away.
Officers used bloodhounds and found the discarded items and about nine hours later found Molina-Salles hiding in some brush, Gualtieri said. He was charged with felony leaving the scene of an accident involving death. His case was also turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Gualtieri said Molina-Salles, of Honduras and living in Tampa, had entered the country illegally October 25, 2021, at Eagle Pass, Texas. He was caught by U.S. Border Patrol and sent back to Mexico. At some point, he re-entered the U.S. without detection and ended up landing a job on the Gateway project. The contractor on the $545 million project is a joint venture of Archer Western of Atlanta and The de Moya Group of Miami. Archer Western is a subsidiary of the Walsh Group based in Chicago.
Gualtieri said Molina-Salles had shown his employer a fake ID from North Carolina and had also provided a false name.
"He has no qualifications to drive a front loader," said Gualtieri. "What he told those people is that back in Honduras, he works some construction, and he knows how to operate this thing. So they said, ‘Go ahead.’"
Elieser Aurelio Gomez-Zelaya, 31, also of Honduras, was charged with accessory after the fact. He helped Molina-Salles by hiding the hardhat and vest, according to Gualtieri. He was also hired on the project, is in the country illegally and gave his employers false identity and name, the sheriff said.
Under Florida law, state agencies and their contractors on public projects are required to conduct a federal E-Verify search to determine potential hires’ immigration status. The Florida Department of Transportation, which hired Archer Western-de Moya for the project, said an E-Verify check was conducted, “and the individuals in question passed this Federal clearance.”
"FDOT and its contractors follow strict hiring procedures,” the agency said in a statement. It adds that “it appears that these hiring procedures were followed.” The department says it is initiating an interal review of the matter.
The Florida governor’s office said it is also looking into the incident and whether illegal immigrants are using fake documents and information to get hired by contractors.
Archer Western-de Moya joint venture released the following statement:
Archer Western-de Moya Joint Venture II (“the Joint Venture”) is currently performing work as part of the Gateway Expressway project. On Thursday evening, September 22, 2022, a fatal accident occurred on the project site involving a Pinellas County Sheriff’s Deputy.
Our deepest sympathy is extended to the family, friends, fellow law enforcement officers and co-workers of the deceased. The Joint Venture continues its investigation into the circumstances and details of this tragic incident. The Joint Venture is fully cooperating and assisting with the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office investigation.
This is the second death on the Gateway Expressway project in a year.
On October 6, 2021, a 47-year-old worker died after being struck in the chest by a concrete pile that broke free from a crane, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration. Archer Western-De Moya JV II was cited for four serious violations for total penalties of $42,474.
A funeral for Hartwick, who is survived by two adult sons, is scheduled for October 3.
“Mike Hartwick was a cop out there doing his job,” Gualtieri said. “He was a good guy. He dedicated his 19 years of service to protecting the people of Pinellas County.”