Worker Accused in Deputy's Death Entered U.S. Illegally

UPDATE: Comments from the Governor's office below:

ST. PETERSBURG -- Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri says a man suspected of running down and killing a deputy in a construction accident gave a fake name and is actually in the country illegally from Honduras.

Gualtieri told reporters Friday afternoon that 32-year-old Juan Ariel Molina-Salles is an illegal immigrant who crossed into the U.S. through Texas sometime between last October and this March. The sheriff says he gave a fake name and showed a fake ID from North Carolina when deputies arrested him Friday morning. Gualtieri says Molina-Salles had been on the run for about nine hours after the crash Thursday night around 10:30.

According to the sheriff, Molina-Salles was operating a front loader that carried a heavy concrete barrier when it struck Deputy Michael Hartwick. He kept going, then parked the frontloader, jumped off and tearfully told a co-worker he had killed the deputy. Molina-Salles allegedly gave his gear to a co-worker. That man, identified as 31-yeaar-old Elieser Aurelio Gomez-Zelaya, is also in the country illegally from Honduras according to the sheriff.

Gualtieri says it appears many of the workers at the construction site on I-275 at Roosevelt Boulevard are in the country illegally. They are employed by a company called Archer Western, that according to various accounts is included in the project to replace the Howard Frankland Bridge. They were contracted by the Florida Department of Transportation. Gualtieri says many of the workers had fake ID's and hindered his deputies' investigation. Gualtieri says his deputies couldn't arrest them because local authorities don't have the power to enforce immigration laws.

Gualtieri says Molina-Salles tried to get a roommate in Tampa to pick him up while in hiding, but the roommate took one look at the police activity and left.

In addition to being here illegally, Gualtieri says Molina-Salles had no business operating the front loader because he had no driver's license. Molina-Salles reportedly told detectives that he told his employer he had some experience running that type of equipment in Honduras, and was hired on that basis. Gomez-Zelaya is also facing charges of accessory after the fact for allegedly helping him get away by hiding his clothing, which was discovered by a K-9.

Governor DeSantis' press secretary, Bryan Griffin, says the governor's office is investigating the matter and that it demonstrates the value of his efforts to relocate illegal immigrants. The full quote is below:

"We are currently 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. As we collect details and examine potential courses of action, 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. If this individual’s illegal status played into his decision to try to cover up this incident, it underscores just one of the harms that our state faces because of the federal government’s open border policies. The State of Florida is not a sanctuary state and illegal immigrants are not authorized to work here. For reasons such as this, we will continue our lawful efforts to interdict and relocate illegal immigrants."

Photo: PCSO/Canva

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