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A man arrested in the death of a Florida sheriff’s deputy was living in the United States illegally, sources told Fox News.
Juan Ariel Molina-Salles, 32, is accused of leaving the scene of an accident. The charge stems from the hit-and-run death Thursday of Pinellas County Sheriff’s Deputy Michael Hartwick, a 19-year-old veteran who left behind two adult sons.
Hartwick was working on a traffic detail in a construction zone at night when Molina-Salles was driving a front-end loader that hit Hartwick, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said Friday. He said the driver of the vehicle was going “I think too fast”.
“He ran away as he said because he got scared after he killed the deputy, but he clearly knew he killed the deputy,” he said.
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After hitting Hartwick, Molina-Salles allegedly continued and told another construction worker that he had just killed a deputy. He then took off his construction hat and traffic vest and allegedly handed them to the worker, telling him to hide it.
The worker, identified as Elieswer Gomez-Zelaya, dumped the items in the woods, Gualtieri said.
Gomez-Zelaya was in the United States illegally from Honduras and was arrested and charged with aiding and abetting, authorities said.
After being confronted by investigators, Molina-Salles gave them a false name and said he was from Puerto Rico, authorities said. He entered the United States illegally on October 25, 2021 through Eagle Pass, Texas, Gualtieri said.
He was turned away and returned to Mexico by Border Patrol, he said.
“There is no record of his legal return to the United States, and he was here illegally,” Gualtieri told reporters.
Molina-Salles reportedly admitted to authorities that he returned to the United States illegally via Texas and had been in the Tampa area since March. During the investigation, the majority of construction workers at the scene gave authorities false names and lied, Gualtieri said.
“They were obstructing the investigation, not giving us answers to the questions we needed,” he said.
He added that the workers were employed by a company doing contract work for the state Department of Transportation. Molina-Salles told the construction company that he had done construction in Honduras before being hired. He gave the company a fake ID, authorities said.
“He didn’t have a driver’s license. He has nothing. He shouldn’t have been here to begin with, and he shouldn’t have driven,” Gualtieri said. “He shouldn’t have worked… He has no qualifications to drive a front loader.”
The state Department of Transportation told Fox News it follows strict hiring procedures and its contractors.
“While it appears these hiring procedures were followed, including a federal E-Verify clearance check, and the individuals in question passed this federal clearance, the Department is initiating an internal review of this contract. FDOT will also continue to support law enforcement efforts as investigations continue,” the agency said.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office told Fox News it was investigating the case and trying to determine if illegal immigrants used false information to get jobs from contractors working with the state.
“As we gather details and review potential courses of action, we are reminded once again that illegal immigration is a serious and persistent problem in the United States that is having a multifaceted effect on Florida,” says the communicated. “If this individual’s illegal status played into his decision to try to cover up this incident, it only underscores one of the harms our state faces as a result of the federal government’s open border policies. The state Florida is not a sanctuary state and illegal immigrants are not permitted to work here.For reasons such as this, we will continue our legitimate efforts to interdict and relocate illegal immigrants.
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Fox News contacted U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the state Department of Transportation and the company that hired Molina-Salles.
DeSantis has stepped up efforts to deter illegal immigration, recently ferrying Venezuelan migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, a move that infuriated Democrats.