Donald Santini, a 65-year-old California fugitive who evaded authorities for nearly four decades, has been sentenced to 50 years in prison for the murder of Cynthia “Cindy” Ruth Wood in Florida. Santini, who had appeared on “America’s Most Wanted” multiple times, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder as part of a deal with prosecutors to avoid a first-degree murder charge. The sentencing was approved by Circuit Judge Samantha Ward in Tampa.
Santini’s arrest in June marked the end of his life in California, where he had been living under the alias Wellman Simmonds and served as the president of a local water board. A tip from the Florida/Caribbean Regional Fugitive Task Force led U.S. marshals to Campo, California, where he was taken into custody.
The arrest warrant revealed that a medical examiner determined Wood had been strangled, and Santini’s fingerprints were found on her body. Authorities discovered Santini’s true identity when he applied for a passport, and his fingerprints matched those of the long-sought murder suspect.
In 1984, Santini went by the alias Charles Michael Stevens to evade a Texas warrant. Over the years, he used at least 13 different aliases. Prosecutors asserted that Santini was the last person seen with Wood in 1984 before her body was found in a water-filled ditch three days later. Wood had told friends she was going on a date on June 5, 1984, and neighbors reported seeing a van in her driveway, which Santini had borrowed for the date, according to a woman in a relationship with him.
A witness disclosed that Santini claimed he had been paid by Wood’s husband’s family to obtain damaging character evidence for a custody battle over the couple’s children. Santini admitted to the woman that he had killed Wood and discarded her body.
Santini, who had volunteered with the Rotary Club, owned a Thai restaurant, and managed an apartment block, had previously served time in prison for raping a woman while stationed in Germany. His arrest and sentencing bring a measure of closure to the decades-long pursuit of justice in Wood’s murder case.
State Attorney Suzy Lopez remarked, “No family should have to spend decades waiting for justice to be served in the cruel murder of their loved one. This defendant not only stole an innocent life but also left a family without their mother, and without answers. Our thoughts are with the victim’s family and friends as they close a painful chapter and move toward healing.”