NATIONAL NEWS

California fugitive sentenced for killing Florida woman in 1984

Nov 17, 2023, 8:20 AM

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — A 65-year-old California fugitive who eluded authorities for nearly four decades before his arrest in June has been sentenced to 50 years in prison for killing a Florida woman.

Donald Santini pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in a deal with prosecutors to avoid a first-degree murder charge. Circuit Judge Samantha Ward approved the deal before issuing the sentence in Tampa on Thursday, the Tampa Bay Times reported. The case had been set to go to trial in two weeks.

“Good luck,” the judge told Santini, who has been in jail without bond since his arrest in June at his home near San Diego.

”Thank you, Your Honor,” Santini, whose hands were cuffed in front of him, replied.

Before his arrest, Santini had lived in California under the name of Wellman Simmonds. He was president of a local water board in Campo, a tiny suburb of San Diego, and he regularly appeared at public board meetings.

The life he had built in California came to an end thanks to a tip from the Florida/Caribbean Regional Fugitive Task Force. That led U.S. marshals to Campo, where Santini was taken into custody.

In 1984, Santini was known as Charles Michael Stevens, which was an alias he used to outrun a warrant for a crime committed in Texas. Hillsborough County Sheriff’s officials said he used at least 13 aliases over the years.

Prosecutors, who were prepared to present new facts about the case to jurors, said Santini was the last person to be seen with Cynthia “Cindy” Ruth Wood, 33, on June 6, 1984, and her body was found in a water-filled ditch three days later.

Assistant State Attorney Scott Harmon said during Thursday’s hearing that Wood told friends and associates she was going on a date on June 5, 1984, and neighbors later told investigators they saw a van parked in her driveway.

Harmon said a woman who was in a relationship with Santini told investigators that he borrowed a van to go on the date.

“He advised that he was taking her on a date to make sure she was intoxicated and then drop her in front of a police station,” Harmon said.

A witness told investigators that Santini had said the family of Wood’s husband paid him to get damaging character evidence, which could be used in a custody battle over the couple’s young children.

Santini told the woman the next morning that he’d killed Wood and dumped her body, Harmon said.

“That witness would have been able to identify the defendant,” Harmon said.

After the hearing, Hillsborough Assistant Public Defender Jamie Kane declined to comment on the case.

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California fugitive sentenced for killing Florida woman in 1984