Juan Ariel Molina-Salles, 32, is charged with leaving the scene of an accident. The charge stems from the Thursday hit-and-run death of Pinellas County sheriff's deputy Michael Hartwick, a 19-year veteran who left behind two adult sons.
Hartwick was working a traffic detail in a construction zone at night when Molina-Salles was driving a front loader that hit Hartwick, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said Friday. He said the driver of the vehicle was going "I think too fast."
"He fled as he said because he became afraid after he killed the deputy, but he clearly knew he killed the deputy," he said.
After striking Hartwick, Molina-Salles allegedly kept going and told another construction worker he had just killed a deputy. He then took off his construction hat and traffic vest and allegedly handed it to the worker and told him to hide it.
The worker, identified as Elieswer Gomez-Zelaya, dumped the items in the woods, Gualtieri said.
Gomez-Zelaya was in the U.S. illegally from Honduras and was arrested and charged with being an accessory, authorities said.
Upon being confronted by investigators, Molina-Salles gave them a fake name and said he was from Puerto Rico, authorities said. He entered the U.S. illegally on Oct. 25, 2021 through Eagle Pass, Texas, Gualtieri said.
He was turned around and sent back to Mexico by the Border Patrol, he said.
"There is no record of him ever legally coming back into the United States, and he was here illegally," Gualtieri told reporters.
Molina-Salles allegedly admitted to authorities that he illegally came back into the U.S. through Texas and has 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 hindering the investigation, not giving us answers to the questions we needed," he said.
He added the workers were employed by a company doing contract work for the state Department of Transportation. Molina-Salles told the construction company he did construction in Honduras before being hired. He gave the company a fake ID card, authorities said.
"He didn’t have a driver’s license. He’s got nothing. He shouldn’t have been here to begin with, and he shouldn’t have been driving," Gualtieri said. "He shouldn’t have been working…He has no qualifications to drive a front loader."
The state Transportation Department told Fox News it follows strict hiring procedures as well as its contractors.
"While it appears that 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 on this project contract. FDOT will also continue to support law enforcement efforts as investigations continue," the agency said.
The office of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis told Fox News it was investigating the matter and looking to determine if illegal immigrants have used false information to obtain employment with contractors working with the state.
"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," the statement said. "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."
Fox News has reached out to 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 flying Venezuelan migrants in Texas to Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts, a move that infuriated Democrats.