HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. (TCD) — Deputies arrested a 65-year-old man near San Diego this month on suspicion of fatally strangling a woman whose body was found in a Florida ditch almost four decades ago.
According to a June 12 news release from the U.S. Marshals Service of San Diego, San Diego Fugitive Task Force deputies arrested Donald Santini in Campo in connection with the 1984 death of Cynthia Wood. The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Department announced that he was extradited back to Tampa on June 28 and faces a charge of first-degree murder.
On June 9, 1984, at approximately 3:30 p.m., detectives found 33-year-old Cynthia Wood’s body in a drainage ditch on Alsobrook Drive in Riverview, Florida, the Sheriff’s Office said in a news release. She was reportedly going through a divorce with her husband at the time.
According to The Associated Press, Wood was reported missing three days before her body was found in the ditch. An autopsy determined she died of strangulation.
Santini was allegedly the last person seen with Wood, and his fingerprints were found on her body.
WESH-TV reports Santini met Wood at a day care center when he was picking up his girlfriend’s children. Court documents obtained by the news source allege he wanted to become Wood’s friend and ask her out on a date.
According to WESH, a female witness told authorities that Santini told her he strangled Wood before dumping her body in a canal.
Santini was identified as the primary suspect and fled Hillsborough County. As the search for him continued, he was reportedly featured on the television show “America’s Most Wanted” in 1990, 2005, and 2013.
The Associated Press reports that detectives believed Santini fled to several different parts of the world, including Texas, California, and Thailand.
At the time of his arrest in California, he was reportedly living under the alias Wellman Simmonds and worked as the president of a local water board near San Diego.
Santini allegedly used several different aliases while on the run, including “Charles Michael Stevens,” “Donald Chapman,” and “John Trimbleon,” WFTS-TV reports.
In a handwritten letter addressed to KGTV-TV, Santini wrote, “The reason I have been able to run so long is to live a loving respectful life.”
In his letter to KGTV, Santini also claimed that he was a volunteer for the Rotary Club, owned a Thai restaurant, and operated an apartment block.
In addition to the first-degree murder charge, the Sheriff’s Office said Santini was wanted for aggravated battery out of Texas and previously served time for raping a woman when he was stationed in Germany.
Santini was eventually booked into the Falkenburg Road Jail and is awaiting trial. The investigation is ongoing.
Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said in a statement, “The arrest of Donald Santini brings closure to a long-standing cold case and provides justice for the victim and her family after nearly four decades of waiting.”
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