A Pinellas County sheriff’s deputy was struck and killed by a front-end loader late Thursday in a hit-and-run crash along I-275 in St. Petersburg, officials said.
News4JAX sister station WKMG reported that Deputy Michael Hartwick, who was wearing a safety vest, was working an overnight security shift at a construction site when he was struck by the loader just after 11 p.m. next to the interstate near the Howard Frankland Bridge, according to sheriff’s officials.
According to WFLA, two road construction workers are facing charges in the hit-and-run crash.
According to WFLA, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said officials initially believed the forklift operator was Victor Vazquez of Puerto Rico, but it turned out he was a 32-year-old immigrant named Juan Ariel Molina Salles, who entered the United States illegally after previously being denied entry by Border Patrol at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“He came back in through the Texas border. He is here illegally, and he’s been here in the Tampa Bay area since March of this year,” the sheriff said.
According to Bay News 9, Gualtieri said Molina Salles drove to a parking area after hitting Hartwick, parked the front-end loader and then took off his helmet and vest, handing the gear to another worker and saying he had “killed a deputy” before leaving the scene on foot.
Gualtieri said the other worker hid Molina Salles’ uniform. That worker also gave deputies a fake name and was identified as actually being Elieser Aurelio Gomez-Zelaya, WFLA reported.
Gomez-Zelaya was arrested on a charge of being an accessory after the fact.
Gualtieri said about 100 officers and K9 teams spent hours searching the area for Molina Salles, who was taken into custody Friday morning and faces a charge of leaving the scene of an accident involving a death, a second-degree felony.
The sheriff’s office tweeted about the death of Hartwick, a 19-year veteran of the agency.
“It is with extraordinary sadness that we announce that Deputy Michael Hartwick was killed in the line of duty late Thursday evening as a result of a hit-and-run crash on I-275 in St. Petersburg,” the tweet said.
It is with extraordinary sadness that we announce that Deputy Michael Hartwick was killed in the line of duty late Thursday evening as a result of a hit and run crash on I-275 in St. Petersburg. The suspect is still at large. pic.twitter.com/o5TcR5t7bo— Pinellas SO (@SheriffPinellas) September 23, 2022
Hartwick, 51, is survived by his mother and adult children, according to the sheriff.