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Second man arrested in connection to death of Pinellas County deputy

The sheriff's office says the man accused of hitting Deputy Michael Hartwick with a large front loader drove for another quarter of a mile before fleeing the area.

PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office has arrested a second man in connection to the hit-and-run death of Deputy Michael Hartwick. He is accused of helping the alleged driver get away.

Elieser Aurelio Gomez-Zelaya, 31, of Tampa, has been arrested and charged with accessory after the fact, the sheriff's office reports.

At around 10:40 p.m. Thursday evening, detectives with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office said Hartwick arrived at his traffic detail near Exit 30 in the southbound lanes of Interstate 275. Hartwick's assignment was to assist construction crews and provide a safe area for them while they worked overnight on the interstate.

Hartwick parked his patrol cruiser facing south in the southbound lanes of I-275, the sheriff's office said. Moments later he got out of the car and walked to the shoulder of the road and stood facing north. He was wearing his emergency equipment at the time, according to officials. 

That's when a construction driver struck Hartwick while driving a large front loader with forklifts used to move concrete barriers, the sheriff's office reports. Juan Ariel Molina, 32, is the accused forklift driver in the investigation.

Hartwick was pronounced dead at the scene.

Credit: Pinellas County Sheriff's Office
Elieser Aurelio Gomez-Zelaya

RELATED: Man suspected of killing Pinellas County deputy in hit-and-run crash taken into custody, deputies say

The sheriff's office said Molina continued to drive north for a quarter of a mile before stopping to speak with another construction worker. Detectives with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office said Molina told Gomez-Zelaya that "he just killed a deputy," gave him his construction helmet and vest and fled the area on foot. 

Gomez-Zelaya is accused of hiding the helmet and vest in a wooded area to the west of the scene, the sheriff's office said.

Following a nine-hour manhunt, a Pasco County Sheriff's Office bloodhound found Molina hiding in a brush area. He was taken into custody and charged with a count of leaving the scene of a crash involving death, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office reports. Pinellas County Sheriff's Office K-9s and the agency's flight unit assisted in the hourslong search. 

Credit: Pinellas County Sheriff's Office
Juan Ariel Molina-Salles

Both men were transported to the Pinellas County Jail as the investigation continues.

Since Molina's arrest, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said Molina initially gave authorities a false name and it's reported that Molina came into the U.S. illegally from Mexico back in October 2021. The sheriff's office said Molina has been in the Tampa Bay area since March 2022.

Construction on I-275 is part of the Gateway Expressway project. As a result of the deadly crash, work on the project site has been halted pending the investigation, Archer West - de Moya Joint Venture II said in a statement. The company also said it's fully cooperating and assisting with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

Hartwick served as a Pinellas County Sheriff's Office deputy for 19 years. He is survived by his mother and two adult sons. He was 51.

Law enforcement officials held a procession for Hartwick Friday afternoon as he was transported from the Medical Examiner's Office to a funeral home in Tarpon Springs.

For those who wish to make a donation toward Hartwick's family, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office has made arrangements to do so. Checks should be payable to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and include Deputy Michael Hartwick's name in the memo. They also provided the following mailing address:

Pinellas County Sheriff's Office
ATTN: Fiscal Affairs Bureau
P.O. Drawer 2500
Largo, FL 33779-2500

RELATED: Deadly hit-and-run accident involving Pinellas County deputy restricts access to Howard Frankland Bridge SB

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