Worker on front-end loader hits, kills Florida deputy

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ST. PETERSBURG, Florida — A Florida sheriff’s deputy, who was working a night shift to provide security in a construction zone, was accidentally hit and killed by an employee operating a front-end loader illegal in the US, officials said Friday.

Pinellas County Deputy Sheriff Michael Hartwick had started his shift shortly before the accident happened late Thursday night on Interstate 275, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said during a pair of press conferences on Friday.

The original name given to the worker, Victor Vazquez-Real, was false, Gualtieri said. His real name is Juan Ariel Molina-Salles, 32, who the sheriff said is a migrant from Honduras who arrived in March and was deported earlier.

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“He shouldn’t have been here. He shouldn’t have been driving that thing,” Gualtieri said of the big road construction vehicle. “He shouldn’t be working.”

Molina-Salles fled the job site on foot, reportedly with the help of a colleague, but was eventually tracked down using bloodhounds, the sheriff said.

The sheriff said Hartwick had blocked the two southbound lanes of the highway and was standing on the verge when he was hit by the front loader traveling at about 20 mph. Hartwick was killed instantly.

The construction worker continued for about a mile before stopping in a parking lot, the sheriff said. Gualtieri said the man then told another construction worker that he had killed a deputy sheriff. That worker took Molina-Salles’ stuff and hid it in a wooded area, the sheriff said.

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The sheriff said Molina-Salles will be charged with leaving the scene of a death accident, which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of four years in the event of a conviction. The other construction worker is later charged with complicity.

It was not immediately known whether Molina-Salles has a lawyer who can speak on his behalf. He had not yet been admitted to prison on Friday afternoon.

Hartwick had been with the agency for 19 years.

“Mike was a good guy, a good cop,” Gualtieri said. “He did his job.”

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The company that employs the two employees, Archer Western Construction of Tampa, did not immediately respond to a call asking for comment. The company is involved in several major transportation projects in the Tampa Bay area, some of which have contracts with the state of Florida.

Gualtieri said he referred the matter to the US Immigration and Customs Service, which has jurisdiction over immigration issues.

The office of Governor Ron DeSantis released a statement saying the state was investigating to determine whether undocumented migrants used fraudulent information to get jobs with contractors partnering with the state of Florida.

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