What Florida found in probe of how state contractor hired migrant who killed deputy

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A nine-hour manhunt ensued after the death of Pinellas Sheriff’s Deputy Michael Hartwick.

Three helicopters hovered above as deputies with bloodhounds searched for the driver of a front-end loader that struck and killed Hartwick as he directed traffic the night of Sept. 22, 2022.

Hours later, one of the hounds detected the man they were seeking, hiding in brush: Juan Ariel Molina-Salles, a Honduran immigrant in the U.S. without legal authorization.

For Gov. Ron DeSantis, the tragedy justified his policies cracking down on illegal immigration.

“We just had a sheriff’s deputy from Pinellas County killed by a twice-deported illegal alien who came across the border illegally,” DeSantis said in a gubernatorial debate a month later. “I didn’t hear any outrage about that.”

Immediately after Hartwick’s death, DeSantis’ administration promised to conduct an internal review of its multimillion-dollar contract with the road-building company that employed Molina-Salles: Archer Western-de Moya Group Joint Venture.

About a year later, the Tampa Bay Times asked Florida’s Department of Transportation for all records pertaining to the state’s review, to see what the state had learned about how a man was hired to operate heavy machinery on a state road project even though he had no driver’s license and, according to law enforcement, used a Social Security number that didn’t belong to him.

Reporters got back two pages.

E-Verify was a DeSantis priority

Since being elected governor in 2018, and in his current bid for the presidency, DeSantis has crafted a political brand around combatting illegal immigration.

He first ran for governor promising that he would require employers to use a federal database called E-Verify to check whether new hires have the proper documents to legally work in the U.S.

The proposal faced pushback from some Republicans, as well as the state’s construction, agriculture and tourism industries that often rely on the labor of people without legal status.

In 2020, the Legislature passed a compromise bill expanding requirements for public employers and their contractors to use E-Verify. Earlier this year, two weeks before DeSantis announced his run for president, he signed a bill to require private businesses with at least 25 employees to do the same.

He’s said the crackdown is needed for public safety, calling President Joe Biden’s border policies reckless and dangerous. He has vowed, if elected president, that suspected cartel members would be shot “stone-cold dead” at the U.S.-Mexico border.

A year before Hartwick was killed, DeSantis’ office took the unusual step of reaching out to reporters in Jacksonville to highlight a murder case there involving a 24-year-old Honduran man. “This horrific crime is the latest example of how unfettered illegal migration costs Floridians’ lives,” DeSantis said in a statement to News4Jax at the time.

When the Pinellas County deputy was killed in September 2022, DeSantis’ office pledged to learn more about what happened.

“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,” the statement read. “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.”

A federal investigation begins

The Pinellas case quickly raised questions about the contractor’s hiring practices.

Molina-Salles would tell law enforcement that he struck the deputy by accident. He was charged with fleeing the scene of a crash involving a death, a felony, and has pleaded not guilty.

One of Molina-Salles’ co-workers helped him escape, Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office investigators found. That man, Elieser Aurelio Gomez-Zelaya, was also in the country without legal authorization.

Gomez-Zelaya was charged with being an accessory after the fact in state court, and has pleaded not guilty.

When deputies arrived at the site of the Florida Department of Transportation’s Gateway Expressway project on Interstate 275, they discovered that “the majority” of the workers on site were not in the country legally, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said at a news conference at the time, saying it hindered the investigation because the workers were giving them fake names.

Speaking to a room full of reporters, Gualtieri asked how a state contractor could hire unlicensed personnel to do such dangerous work.

“We’ve got a dead deputy,” he said. “We got a guy who shouldn’t be here. He shouldn’t have been driving that thing. He shouldn’t have fled. He shouldn’t have done any of this and companies are out there doing that. Why are they doing it? Of course, that is a rhetorical question and I’ll answer it: They’re doing it because they are making money off of it.”

Gualtieri also highlighted the fact that Molina-Salles, in an interview with law enforcement not long after he was found, said that his employer didn’t train him on how to drive the loader because he had experience operating similar machinery in Honduras. Molina-Salles also said that he never saw Hartwick before he hit him, in part because a light on the loader’s roof was broken.

The day after Hartwick’s death, Jessica Ottaviano, a spokesperson for the state transportation department, told the Times that it appeared the contractor had followed proper hiring procedures of Molina-Salles and Gomez-Zelaya. She added that they cleared E-Verify.

Still, Ottaviano said the department would do “an internal review on this project contract.”

Meanwhile, the case drew the attention of the federal government.

As Gualtieri later confirmed to the Times, his office started working with federal officials, including the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, on an investigation of the contractor within days of Hartwick’s death.

So far, four construction workers, including Molina-Salles and Gomez-Zelaya, have been indicted on charges related to the use of other people’s Social Security numbers.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is helping in the federal investigation, according to a September news release announcing the indictments. But the state agency has not responded to multiple requests for information about the nature of its participation.

At least one of the indicted men, Allan Oseas Gomez-Zelaya, is in negotiations for a plea deal with the federal government, according to an exchange between his defense lawyer, Jason Mayberry, and a prosecutor during a recent court hearing in Tampa. Plea deals can sometimes, though not always, indicate that a person is cooperating with authorities.

The companies’ relationship with the state continues

In the year since Hartwick’s death, the state of Florida has continued to pay Archer Western-de Moya Group Joint Venture more than $38 million in taxpayer money, records show. The Gateway Expressway is a high-profile project that includes toll roads connecting U.S. 19 and I-275, plus widening the interstate to create toll lanes from south of Gandy Boulevard to Fourth Street North.

The contractor is technically a partnership of two companies: The de Moya Group in Miami and Archer Western, a subsidiary of the Chicago-based Walsh Group. Neither company responded to emails and phone calls requesting comment.

Archer Western has also been contracted by the state, along with another company, to build the new Howard Frankland Bridge.

According to campaign finance records, the de Moya Group contributed $42,500 to DeSantis’ political committee for his two races for governor. At least two of the company’s top executives have written checks to DeSantis’ presidential campaign.

Archer Western has rarely given to any individual candidates in Florida. Neither the company nor its parent corporation has given directly to DeSantis’ campaigns for governor or president. But Archer Western has contributed tens of thousands in recent years to a Florida Transportation Builders’ Association political committee, which in turn has donated more than $280,000 to DeSantis’ bids for governor. The association is the primary lobbying group in Tallahassee for road builders.

The governor’s office did not respond to emailed questions for this story, including about the transportation department’s review or whether DeSantis was still confident in E-Verify as a tool to enforce the immigration crackdown laws he has pushed.

A year later, state officials say two pages — confirmation sheets from the E-Verify system confirming both men had passed the check — make up the entirety of the Department of Transportation’s internal review of the project contract with the Archer Western-de Moya Group Joint Venture that it promised after the incident.

Those two pages confirm what the state had already said publicly a day after the 2022 incident when it pledged to conduct the review.

Michael Williams, a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Transportation, confirmed no additional records related to the internal review existed because it consisted of confirming the men had passed E-Verify.

The department “found Archer-Western complied with their contractual obligations to comply with federal law and the review was closed,” he said in a statement.

Williams added that the department “is not an investigative body” and the question of whether the two men were using false identification was better suited for law enforcement.

Gualtieri said he understands that the Florida Department of Transportation is “very limited” because it does not have the same investigative tools that law enforcement does.

“That’s of course what the investigation on our side is trying to uncover: Who, if anyone, and at what levels within the company had knowledge of it,” Gualtieri said, referencing the hiring of workers without legal immigration status.

Two months ago, the Florida Transportation Builders’ Association announced a slate of “Best in Construction” awards for various projects around the state. The winners are chosen from nominations by the Florida Department of Transportation.

Archer Western and the de Moya Group were among the 14 winners.