NATIONAL NEWS

Fugitive suspect in 1984 killing returned to Florida following arrest in California

Jun 29, 2023, 6:09 PM

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — A man arrested earlier this month in California has been returned to Florida to face charges in the 1984 killing of a woman, authorities said.

Donald Santini, 65, was booked into a Florida jail early Wednesday morning on a charge of first-degree murder, according to a Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office statement. Florida detectives had traveled to San Diego, California, following Santini’s June 7 arrest, and he was later extradited to Tampa, Florida.

“The arrest of Donald Santini brings closure to a long-standing cold case and provides justice for the victim and her family after nearly four decades of waiting,” Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said in a statement. “Let’s not forget the tireless work that has gone into this case over the years, the resources, and expertise to pursue justice for Cynthia Wood.”

Santini had been on the run since June 1984, when Florida authorities obtained an arrest warrant linking him to the strangling death of Wood, a 33-year-old Bradenton woman.

Wood’s body was found in a watery ditch three days after she went missing on June 6 of that year. Santini was the last person seen with Wood. The arrest warrant said a medical examiner determined she had been strangled, and Santini’s fingerprints were found on her body.

Santini appeared several times on the television show “America’s Most Wanted” in 1990, 2005 and 2013. Over the years, officials said Florida detectives sent lead requests to Texas, California and even as far as Thailand, but Santini was never located. He used at least 13 aliases while on the run, according to an arrest warrant from the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office cited by USA Today.

Santini was arrested while living for years under the name of Wellman Simmonds in San Diego County, where he was president of a local water board in Campo, a tiny suburb of San Diego. He regularly appeared at public board meetings.

“The reason I have been able to run so long is to live a loving respectful life,” Santini told ABC 10News in a handwritten 16-page letter sent from jail, the San Diego station reported earlier this week.

Santini wrote that he volunteered with the Rotary Club, owned a Thai restaurant and ran an apartment block, the TV station reported.

Santini previously served time in prison for raping a woman while stationed in Germany, officials said. He was also wanted in Texas for aggravated robbery.

Santini was being represented by the public defender’s office, which didn’t immediately respond to an after-hours telephone message seeking comment.

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