A Florida police officer working the night shift guarding a construction zone was killed when he was accidentally struck by a front-end loader being operated by a worker in the United States illegally, authorities said Friday.
Pinellas County Sheriff Michael Hartwick had started his shift shortly before the crash Thursday night on Interstate 275, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said Friday during a pair of news conferences.
The name the worker initially gave, Víctor Vázquez Real, was false, Gualtieri said. His real name is Juan Ariel Molina Salles, 32, who the sheriff says is a migrant from Honduras who arrived in March and had previously been deported.
“I shouldn’t have been here. I shouldn’t have been driving that thing,” Gualtieri said, referring to the front loader. “I shouldn’t be working.”
Molina fled the construction site on foot, allegedly with the help of a co-worker, but was eventually tracked down by sniffer dogs, the police chief said.
Gualtieri said Hartwick had blocked the two southbound inside lanes of the interstate and was standing on the shoulder of the highway when he was struck by the front-end loader traveling about 20 miles per hour. Hartwick died instantly, Gualtieri said.
The worker continued driving for about a mile before stopping in a parking lot, the sheriff said.
He then told another worker that he had killed a policeman. That worker took Molina’s equipment and hid it in a wooded area, Gualtieri said.
The sheriff said Molina will be charged with leaving the scene of an accident resulting in death, which carries a minimum sentence of four years in prison. The other construction worker is accused of being an accessory after the fact.
It was not immediately known if Molina has an attorney who can speak on his behalf. As of early Friday afternoon he had not yet been booked into jail.
Gualtieri said he referred the matter to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has jurisdiction over immigration matters.