Pinellas mourns death of deputy killed in construction accident

Deputy Michael Hartwick, 51, died Sept. 22 after he was struck by a construction worker operating a front end loader on a road project near Roosevelt Boulevard on I-275.

A 51-year-old Pinellas County Sheriff’s deputy died Sept. 22 after he was struck by a construction worker operating a front-end loader on a road project near Roosevelt Boulevard on I-275.

Deputy Michael Hartwick was a member of an overnight traffic detail assigned to provide safety for the project’s construction workers.

According to Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, Hartwick started his shift about 10:40 p.m. He used his cruiser to block the two inside southbound lanes of I-275 before exiting his vehicle. He was standing on the shoulder facing north when he was struck by a front end loader traveling about 20 mph.

Hartwick was killed instantly, Gualtieri said.

After hitting Hartwick, the driver of the front-end loader kept on going, Gualtieri said. He reportedly called another construction worker and told him he had struck and killed a deputy. Gualtieri said deputies were told he was “crying and not making any sense.”

The construction worker then reportedly called another worker to whom he gave his helmet and vest before fleeing on foot.

Soon thereafter, law enforcement in Pinellas and Tampa initiated a 9-hour manhunt, using about 100 deputies, police officers, K-9 deputies with assistance from the sheriff’s helicopter, all looking for a suspect that did not exist.

As it turned out, the man deputies thought they were looking for is actually in the United States illegally. Gualtieri said he lied when he told deputies that his name was Victor Vazquez-Real and when he said he was from Puerto Rico.

His real name is Juan Ariel Molina Salles. He entered the United States from Texas in 2021 and made his way to Tampa in March of this year. He was arrested Friday morning. Gualtieri said he will be charged with one count of leaving the scene of an accident involving a death, a second-degree felony.

The man he gave his helmet and vest to also is in the country illegally, Gualtieri said. He will be charged as an accessory after the fact, Gualtieri said.

The sheriff was obviously upset about the time and resources spent hunting a man that he said should not have been in the United States, much less working on a construction job in Pinellas County. He said many of the construction workers on the state contract job on I-275 appeared to also be undocumented immigrants.

But the sheriff has no jurisdiction to enforce immigration law.

“I can’t put them in jail. I can’t do anything,” Gualtieri said.

All he can do is call U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which Gualtieri has already done.

In addition, there is a retainer on Salles, meaning if he tries to bond out when he is booked into jail he won’t be able to get out.

Gualtieri thanked Hartwick for his 19 years of service as a patrol deputy. He worked out of the north district station and preferred the night shift.

“He was a cop doing his job,” Gualtieri said. “He worked night shift by choice. It’s just sad. It really is. It leaves a knot in my gut.”

Gualtieri noted that the sheriff’s office had gone 110 years with no line-of-duty deaths only to experience the loss of two deputies in 18 months.

Deputy Michael J. Magli, 30, was killed in the line of duty of Feb. 17, 2021, while attempting to stop a drunken driver fleeing from other deputies.

A procession escorted Deputy Hartwick on Sept. 23 from the Medical Examiner's Office in Largo to the Thomas B. Dobies Funeral Home in Tarpon Springs.

Deputy Hartwick is survived by two adult sons.

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.