Feds investigating state-funded contractor tied to Florida deputy death

The DeSantis administration has paid millions to the firm since officials said one of its workers, who was in the U.S. illegally, killed a Pinellas deputy.
Tony Karlhofer, of Largo, places flowers near a makeshift memorial for Deputy Michael Hartwick, at the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office headquarters on Friday, Sept. 23, 2022, in Largo.
Tony Karlhofer, of Largo, places flowers near a makeshift memorial for Deputy Michael Hartwick, at the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office headquarters on Friday, Sept. 23, 2022, in Largo. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published Sept. 8|Updated Sept. 8

Federal and local law enforcement officials are investigating a prominent construction contractor that hired several workers who were in the country illegally, including a man who was later charged in connection with the death of a Pinellas County sheriff’s deputy last year.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri confirmed his office is involved in an investigation into the firm — technically a partnership of two construction companies, Archer Western and The de Moya Group. He said the investigation has been going on since September 2022, when Deputy Michael Hartwick died after being struck by a front-end loader being operated by a construction worker at a roadwork site on Interstate 275.

A spokesperson for Homeland Security Investigations also said that there was an “ongoing investigation.” The Department of Homeland Security houses U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Gualtieri declined to give a timeline for the investigation. He said state or federal charges are possible.

Gualtieri previously said the contractor had hired “a bunch” of migrants not able to legally work in the U.S., but the existence of the investigation has not previously been reported.

Gualtieri said Friday that the investigation into the company was “warranted” after the facts of the case prompted “concerns about their practices in hiring and verification and fictitious identification.” He added, “There were indications it was beyond just the limited circumstance” of the worker who was charged in connection with Hartwick’s death.

Archer Western, a subsidiary of the Walsh Group construction company, is headquartered in Atlanta but has an office in Tampa. The de Moya Group is based in Miami. Neither company responded to requests for comment made by phone and email.

The Archer Western-de Moya Group Joint Venture does millions of dollars’ worth of business with the state of Florida on various highway construction projects, and it has been paid more than $37 million by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration in the year since Hartwick’s death, records show. Locally, it was hired to complete the Gateway Expressway project, which includes constructing new toll roads to connect U.S. 19 and I-275, plus widening the interstate to create express lanes from south of Gandy Boulevard to Fourth Street North.

The joint venture employed Juan Ariel Molina-Salles, a Honduran immigrant in the U.S. without legal authorization, when law enforcement said he hit Hartwick with a front-end loader, killing him instantly. Hartwick was directing traffic away from the work crews near Roosevelt Boulevard.

Molina-Salles was charged with leaving the scene of a crash involving death, a first-degree felony that carries a maximum prison sentence of 30 years and a mandatory minimum of four years. Another worker, Elieser Aurelio Gomez-Zelaya, also in the country without legal authorization, took Molina-Salles’ construction vest and helmet and hid them in the woods while he ran away, deputies said. Gomez-Zelaya was charged with being an accessory after the fact, a felony. Both criminal cases are ongoing and both men have pleaded not guilty.

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DeSantis, who has made cracking down on illegal immigration a major part of his presidential campaign, attended Hartwick’s funeral last year. He also referenced the killing during a 2022 debate as he sought reelection, saying he “didn’t hear any of the outrage” about Hartwick’s death while Democrats criticized DeSantis’ move to charter planeloads of migrants to liberal cities like Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.

Logos for Archer Western can still regularly be seen at an active construction site in the same area as last year’s incident, on I-275 in St. Petersburg.