- Donald Santini, 65, who was caught after 40 years on the run, has entered a plea deal for a 1994 murder that will likely see him die in prison
- Santini was placed on America’s Most Wanted three times – in 1990, 2005 and 2013 before finally being caught earlier this year
- He has now been sentenced to 50 years in Florida State Prison followed by 15 years of probation
America’s Most Wanted fugitive, who was caught after 40 years on the run, has entered a plea deal for a 1994 murder that will likely see him die in prison.
He appeared on America’s Most Wanted three times – in 1990, 2005 and 2013 – and remained on the list until cops received a tip-off in June when he applied for a passport.
Santini was remanded in custody without bail and called the ‘definition of a flight risk’ by a judge in Tampa.
On November 16, Santini was entered into a plea deal with the State Attorney’s Office and was sentenced to 50 years in Florida State Prison followed by 15 years of probation.
Pillar of the community… and a fugitive on America’s Most Wanted list: Santini and his wife pictured together in 2013
Santini was the last person seen with Wood, 33, before her body was discovered strangled and left in a canal. The arrest warrant said a medical examiner determined she had been strangled and Santini’s fingerprints were found on her body
‘The man who spent nearly four decades on the run…accepted responsibility for the crime in court today,’ Florida’s Office of the State Attorney, 13th Judicial Circuit said in a statement on Thursday.
After his arrest in the summer Santini wrote a letter to a local news station where he said: ‘The reason I have been able to run so long is to live a loving respectful life.
‘Things are not as they seem. I need a lawyer that doesn’t try to push me through the system to keep me quiet. The problem is I have no money.’
In the the nearly four decades before his arrest, Santini lived just outside of San Diego in the small town of Campo – which has a population of 3,000 – under the name Wellman Simmonds.
Records show that he married a woman in Nevada in March 1990, and the couple had a daughter shortly afterward.
In the wake of Santini’s arrest, his daughter has made several posts online protesting his innocence.
In one, she said: ‘My dad didn’t do it.’
In another she posted alongside a video of him being perp walked into a police station, and wrote: ‘I miss you papa. Stay strong.’
Cynthia Wood met Santini as the suspect’s girlfriend’s children were attending the day care where the victim worked
Santini was caught in San Diego in early June, after evading arrest for 39 years
Santini pictured during his first court appearance in San Diego in June
Santini’s daughter, who goes by Whitney, has maintained her father’s innocence in a series of social media posts
In 2018, Santini was interviewed by ABC San Diego after the deaths of two people who lived in an apartment building that he managed
Santini – who told local residents he was 80 years old despite only being 65 – lived in a rural home where he’d installed surveillance cameras and barbed wire while serving as the president of the Lake Morena Views Mutual Water Company, according to a local news report.
He often appeared at public meetings and was considered a ‘pillar of the community’ by neighbors who said they were stunned by the news.
A colleague who witnessed his arrest said that Santini was ‘very involved with his granddaughter in gymkhana (an equestrian sport).’ She added that the child lives with him and his wife, and is enrolled in a local school.
In Santini’s letter protesting his innocence while in jail awaiting extradition in San Diego, he claimed he was active in the local Rotary Club and owned a Thai restaurant.
Santini went on to write in the letter to ABC San Diego that he was abused as a child and that he would kill animals in his youth.
He apologized for his past mistakes but made no reference to Wood’s murder.
Officials say Wood’s murder wasn’t Santini’s first foray into violent crime.
In 1978, he was convicted on rape charges while serving in the US Army in Frankfurt, Germany. The suspect’s birth announcement shows that he was born into a military family on Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene, Texas.
Santini has appeared multiple times on America’s Most Wanted
The area where Cynthia Wood’s body was found in 1984
Cynthia Wood’s stepdaughter, Denise Kozer, was 20 years old when the murder occurred, she says her entire family have suffered the after effects of the awful crime
After his discharge from the service, Santini was arrested on aggravated robbery charges in his home state, he was accused of holding up a convenience store with a knife. Following a confession, he fled for the Sunshine State while out on bail.
He left behind another wife and and daughter in Texas, his estranged wife Marla Santini told WFLA this week.
Marla, who has since kept the last name Santini, told the station that one of her daughters saw the suspect on the news and recognized.
‘I hadn’t seen him in 40 years. I haven’t heard nothing. I have not talked to anybody. Everybody, his family, no one’s heard anything from him,’ she told the station, adding that she thought he was dead.
After confirming his identity, Marla said that she set up a video call with her estranged husband. The pair are still legally married.
‘He got on the first video. He says, ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t think I know you. Do I?’ I went, ‘Really? Really? I have your daughter.”
Marla described her interactions with Santini as ‘pleasant.’
A Facebook post made by Santini’s daughter shortly after his arrest
‘He don’t act like he’s the same person,’ she said.
Marla said that he told her he left her and his child because of ‘demons’ and that it was nothing personal.
Once in Florida, Santini began working as a janitor in a hotel under the name Charles Michael Stevens. During this time, he started a relationship with a woman named Pamela Kincaid, and eventually moved in with her and her two children.
Wood was the manager of a daycare center which Kincaid’s children attended, and police allege that Santini had tried to date her.
He’s accused of killing her on June 6, 1984 after arranging to meet up with her with the promise of giving her information that could have helped her win a bitter custody battle over her three children.
Her body was found fully clothed in a watery grave in Riverview, just outside of Bradenton, about two days later. But the hunt for her killer went cold for 39 years.
Heidi Pareigis, shown here, rented a room to Santini around the time of the Cynthia Wood murder
Pareigis said that she heard Santini openly talk about the murder. ‘When he talked about violence and crime, he got an actual happy feeling out of it,’ she said
At the time of her death, Wood was embroiled in a custody battle with her estranged husband, Barry Wood, whom she accused of being physically abusive during their marriage. Those charges were expunged after she was murdered.
In the intervening years both Barry Wood and the victim’s son have died.
‘She was sort of a hippy woman. She would have went to the ends of the Earth for all of us. Even though I wasn’t hers by blood, but just growing up with and around her, we were a family,’ Wood’s stepdaughter Denise Kozer told ABC Tampa last month.
Kozer said she was 20 years old when her stepmother was murdered, and her siblings were three, five and 12. All have suffered various mental health and homelessness issues throughout their lives.
‘My siblings really didn’t get the full life with her, which angers me,’ she added.
‘If they need extra evidence, we’re willing to let them exhume the body – whatever it takes to make sure that he doesn’t go anywhere. I asked them not to let him out on bond. That was our one request we had,’ Kozer said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times following Santini’s court appearance on July 6th.
‘He has a wife and children in California, and I feel sorry for them because they probably didn’t know, either. But they’re all still alive. Our lives were devastated, changed forever,’ Kozer also said.
The Bradenton Herald described the suspect in Wood’s death as a ‘tall, slender, blond man’ who sported a blond moustache. The Herald’s report mentions that the last witness to see Wood was her 14-year-old son, Thomas, who told police that he saw her getting in the suspect’s brown Ford.
Santini alluded to the fact Wood’s murder being a contract killing during an interview with prosecutors
The newspaper’s report goes on to say that the Texas Rangers were involved in the search for Santini as authorities believed the suspect headed for Kentucky before going to the Lone Star State.
After Wood was killed, Santini absconded, this time headed for California. At this stage, authorities estimate that Santini was using 13 different aliases, reports the Tampa Bay Times.
The Herald article lists Santini’s other known aliases as Donald Chapman and John Trimble.
Santini was interviewed by KGTV in 2018 in relation to the deaths of the parents of seven children in San Diego. He’s named as ‘Wellman Simmons’ in the story and referred to as the manager of the family’s apartment building.
‘It really was one of the most shocking things I’ve ever heard in my life,’ neighbor Rick Fox said of Santini’s arrest in an interview with ABC San Diego. Fox said that Santini was known to many as Wells.
‘Anybody who would like to see an old case solved would be happy, and I’d be happy for the family of this lady who was strangled and killed, but it is totally shocking,’ he added.
Another colleague, Karen Russell, told East County Magazine that she was there when US Marshals but the cuffs on the suspect.
Investigators at the scene of Wood’s murder in 1984
‘I was there when he got arrested. He has a wife and granddaughter. He was very involved with his granddaughter in gymkhana. His granddaughter lives with them and goes to school out here,’ Russell told the website.
‘It makes me very angry, because the community didn’t deserve this. Too bad he landed here It’s a distraction for the water company,’ she added.
She also said that Santini would tell people that he was 80 years old even though he was only in his 60s.
Shortly after Wood’s murder, a woman named Heidi Pareigis told NBC Tampa Bay that she and her husband husband rented out a room to Santini. At one point, she said that she heard him openly discuss the murder.
‘He pointed out where he had done it, exactly how he had done it and such. He was just glowing about it, you know? When he talked about violence and crime, he got an actual happy feeling out of it.’
Santini was arrested after he attempted to apply for a passport in early June. The tip that led to his arrest came from the Florida/Caribbean Regional Fugitive Task Force.
He was held at San Diego Central Jail until being extradited back to Florida. ‘This arrest allows us to reexamine evidence collected in 1984 using the technology of today, as the case is now considered open once again,’ a spokesperson for Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office told the Times.
Documents stated that Santini should not be eligible for parole because of his ‘past and present patterns of behavior.’ His ability to evade police is cited in the complaint.
While in jail awaiting extradition in San Diego, Santini sent a letter to ABC San Diego in which he apologized for his past mistakes but made no reference to Wood’s murder
‘I’m pleading with the district attorney and the sheriff’s office; please do not give him any bond; he doesn’t deserve anything. My stepmother didn’t deserve what happened to her either,’ Kozer told the ABC affiliate.
‘You will pay for what you’ve done to our lives and so many lives. And I hope you get the death sentence,’ she also said.
‘[Santini has] committed two violent dangerous crimes, and has demonstrated the skill and wherewithal to deviously and adeptly evade justice by hiding his true identity and living under multiple fake names and identities for over 39 years,’ prosecutors say in documents.
He was represented by a public defender named Daniel Miller in San Diego and is now represented by Hillsborough County public defender Jamie Kane.
‘We don’t know anything about the underlying facts that are alleged, he could have not committed this,’ Miller told ABC San Diego. In his first appearance in court, Santini admitted that he was the man police were seeking.
He did not fight the extradition order but did say that he did not ‘feel safe’ going back to Florida. Santini made his fist appearance in court in Florida on his 65th birthday which was also the anniversary of Wood’s murder.
In court, Kane said that there’s no evidence that the suspect left Texas with an outstanding warrant.
‘Where is the failure to appear warrant? Where is the circuit court case number? Where is the evidence that he was on pretrial release? Other than a simple statement of Mr. Santini, who is not a legal expert,’ Kane said.