Illegal Immigrant With Fake Name Killed Deputy, Sheriff Says, DeSantis Office Responds: ‘Florida is Not a Sanctuary State’

By Lydia Nusbaum, Florida's Voice

September 23, 2022 Updated 6:14 PM ET

Deputy Michael Hartwick, Pinellas County Sheriff.
Deputy Michael Hartwick, Pinellas County Sheriff.

TAMPA (FLV) – The Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said an illegal immigrant killed Deputy Michael Hartwick after running into him with a front loader Thursday night.

Juan Ariel Molina-Salles, a construction worker, struck Deputy Hartwick at a construction zone on I-275 in St. Petersburg while he was on duty. Molina-Salles then ran from the scene to hide from officers, according to the sheriff. He was charged with leaving the scene of an accident involving death, a first-degree felony.

Sheriff Gualtieri said Molina-Salles entered the country illegally in October of 2021 after previously being denied entry to the U.S. by Border Patrol and sent back.

“There is no record of him ever legally coming back into the United States and he is here illegally,” Gualtieri said.

During the investigation, deputies originally thought they were looking for a person named Victor Vazquez of Puerto Rico. However, the sheriff said that was a fake name for Molina-Salles.

The sheriff also arrested Elieser Aurelio Gomez-Zelaya, who had previously given deputies a fake name. Gomez-Zelaya is accused of hiding Molina-Salles’ uniform after the deputy was hit. Gomez-Zelaya was arrested on a charge of being an accessory after the fact.

“He told that other construction worker that he just killed the deputy and took off his hat and took off his mask traffic vest, handed it to him told him to hide it, get rid of it,” Sheriff Gualtieri said.

Both workers were hired by the Tampa-based Archer Western Construction, who was a contractor for the Florida Department of Transportation. The sheriff said the construction workers on the scene were giving them “false names.”

“They were hindering the investigation and not giving us the answers that we needed,” the sheriff said. “And importantly, they were all giving us fake names like these guys were giving us fake names.”

Bryan Griffin, press secretary for Gov. Ron DeSantis, issued their response to the news of the killing, saying they are “investigating the matter and looking to determine if illegal immigrants have utilized fraudulent information to obtain employment with contractors working with the State of Florida.”

“We are reminded once again that illegal immigration is a serious and ongoing problem in the United States that has a multifaceted effect on Florida,” he continued. “The State of Florida is not a sanctuary state… we will continue our lawful efforts to interdict and relocate illegal immigrants.”

Deputy Hartwick was a 51-year-old father and a 19 year veteran of the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office. Gov. Ron DeSantis and Casey DeSantis offered their condolences to the family of Deputy Michael Hartwick Friday.

“Heartbroken to learn of the death of Deputy Michael Hartwick who was killed in the line of duty yesterday evening as a result of a hit and run crash,” Casey DeSantis said. “Sending prayers to his family and loved ones, including @SheriffPinellas. Glad to see the suspect has been taken into custody.”

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