Florida deputy killed in hit-and-run crash; suspect arrested

PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — Authorities on Friday arrested a man suspected of striking and killing a sheriff’s deputy on Thursday night and then running from the scene.

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Deputies said Juan Ariel Molina, 32, hit Deputy Michael Hartwick with a front loader truck as the deputy was working traffic detail on Interstate 275.

Here are the latest updates:

Update 3:40 p.m. EDT Sept. 23: Deputies said that with help from a bloodhound, they found Molina in brush following a nine-hour manhunt. Molina faces one count of leaving the scene of a crash involving death.

Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said at a news conference that Molina knew he had hit a deputy but he fled because he said he was afraid. He worked for Archer Western, a contractor that was doing work for the Florida Department of Transportation, and he was in the country illegally, the sheriff said.

“This guy entered the country illegally on Oct. 25, 2021, in Eagle Pass, Texas,” Gualtieri said. “He was turned around by the Border Patrol and sent back to Mexico. There is no record of him ever legally coming back into the United States, and he is here illegally.”

The sheriff said Molina admitted that he had been in the Tampa Bay area since March.

Authorities also charged Molina’s co-worker, 31-year-old Elieser Aureilio Gomez-Zelaya, with one count of accessory after the fact. Officials said Molina told Gomez-Zelaya that he had “just killed a deputy” shortly after he struck Hartwick, and that he gave Gomez-Zelaya his helmet and vest. Gomez-Zelaya hid both items in woods near the scene of the crash, deputies said.

Gomez-Zelaya was also in the country illegally, Gualtieri said. He is from Honduras.

Officials said Gomez-Zelaya gave investigators a fake name. They initially believed that Molina was a man named Victor Vazquez from Puerto Rico.

Gualtieri said Archer Western is “employing all these illegals, and they’re all out there lying, giving us fake names, fake IDs, a lot of fake IDs out of North Carolina.” He added that Molina didn’t have the qualifications to drive the front loader truck that killed Hartwick.

“He said what he told these people is that back in Honduras, he worked some construction, and he knows how to operate this thing, so they said go ahead,” the sheriff said. “Is that really what these contractors are doing? Is that how they’re doing business?”

Hartwick worked as a deputy for the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office for 19 years. He is survived by his mother and two adult children.

Update 8:12 a.m. EDT Sept. 23: Authorities have identified the deputy killed in Thursday’s hit-and-run crash.

“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,” the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office wrote in a Facebook post early Friday.

“Deputy Hartwick is survived by his two adult sons. We would like to extend our sincerest condolences to Deputy Hartwick’s family during this difficult time. Please keep his loved ones along with our PCSO family in your thoughts and prayers.”

Original report: “Detectives are investigating a fatal deputy involved hit-and-run crash,” the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office wrote in a Facebook post early Friday, adding that the entrance to I-275 northbound at Roosevelt Boulevard was closed. “Deputies are actively searching for the suspect. ... Expect traffic delays until midday.”

Authorities have not released any further details, such as the deputy’s identity or a suspect description, the news outlets reported.

K-9s, helicopters and all-terrain vehicles are involved in the search, according to Bay News 9.

Please return for updates on this developing story.

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