One mistake: Wanted fugitive arrested after decades-long manhunt

RIVERVIEW, Fla. – After nearly four decades on the run, a fugitive known as “a pillar of the community” in a small California town has taken a plea deal in connection with the 1984 strangulation death of a Florida single mother. Prosecutors have announced that Donald Santini, 65, is likely to spend the rest of his life in prison for the crime.

Cynthia Wood, a 33-year-old woman going through a divorce, was last seen leaving her Bradenton home on June 4, 1984, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. Her body was discovered five days later in a water-filled ditch in Riverview, about 30 miles southwest of Bradenton. Her death was determined to be caused by strangulation. She was last seen with Santini.

Santini managed to evade capture for almost 40 years, and his story gained national attention through multiple appearances on the TV show “America’s Most Wanted” in 1990, 2005, and 2013. Living under the name Wellman Simmonds, he made a new life for himself in Campo, California, where he served as the president of a water board and was highly respected within the community. However, Santini’s true identity was finally discovered this year when he applied for a passport, and his fingerprints matched those of a missing murder suspect.

The Office of the State Attorney in Florida reported that Santini accepted responsibility for the crime in court, resulting in a sentence of 50 years in Florida State Prison followed by 15 years of probation as part of a plea deal. State Attorney Suzy Lopez expressed her relief that justice was finally being served, emphasizing the impact Santini’s actions had on Wood’s family. Santini had previously served time in prison for a rape conviction in Germany and was also wanted in Texas for an aggravated robbery case.

The motive for Wood’s killing remains undisclosed, leaving unanswered questions for her family. The tragic incident serves as a painful reminder that justice can be delayed but not entirely escaped, bringing some closure to a case that had lingered for decades.