Donald Santini, a 65-year-old California fugitive who evaded authorities for nearly four decades before his arrest in June, has been sentenced to 50 years in prison for the murder of Cynthia “Cindy” Ruth Wood in Florida.
Santini pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, striking a deal with prosecutors to avoid a first-degree murder charge.
Circuit Judge Samantha Ward approved the agreement before issuing the sentence in Tampa on Thursday, according to CBS affiliate WTSP, sparing the case from going to trial in two weeks.
Santini, who had been living under the alias Wellman Simmonds in California and served as the president of a local water board in Campo, a suburb of San Diego, had managed to maintain an everyday life for years before a tip from the Florida/Caribbean Regional Fugitive Task Force led to his arrest.
The arrest warrant revealed that a medical examiner determined Wood had been strangled, and Santini’s fingerprints were found on her body, as reported by WFTS-TV.
“Santini was featured on America’s Most Wanted several times throughout his decades on the run but was only discovered by federal authorities this year when he applied for a passport, and his fingerprints were found to be a match for the missing murder suspect,” a spokesperson with the State Attorney’s Office stated in a news release obtained by WTSP.
In 1984, Santini used the alias Charles Michael Stevens, which he adopted to avoid a warrant for a crime committed in Texas.
According to Hillsborough County Sheriff’s officials, he used at least 13 aliases during his years on the run.
Prosecutors had new evidence to present to jurors if the case had gone to trial. They argued that Santini was the last person seen with Wood on June 6, 1984, and her body was discovered in a water-filled ditch three days later.
Fugitive Sentenced to 50 Years for Florida Murder
During the hearing, Assistant State Attorney Scott Harmon revealed that Wood had told friends and associates that she was going on a date on June 5, 1984, and neighbors reported seeing a van parked in her driveway.
Harmon disclosed that a woman in a relationship with Santini told investigators he had borrowed a van for the date.
A witness also reported that Santini had admitted to killing Wood and disposing of her body, claiming Wood’s husband’s family hired him to gather damaging character evidence for a custody battle.
Hillsborough Assistant Public Defender Jamie Kane declined to comment on the case after the hearing.
In a handwritten 16-page letter sent from jail to ABC 10News after his arrest, Santini claimed that he had volunteered with the Rotary Club, owned a Thai restaurant, and managed an apartment block while evading authorities. He asserted, “The reason I have been able to run so long is to live a loving, respectful life.”
Notably, Santini had previously served time in prison for raping a woman while stationed in Germany, according to officials.
State Attorney Suzy Lopez stated in a statement obtained by CBS affiliate WTSP, “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 he also left a family without their mother and answers. Our thoughts are with the victim’s family and friends as they close a painful chapter and move toward healing.”
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