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Authorities find pair of Pennsylvania fugitives at Clearwater motel

CLEARWATER — A fruitless search for a "most wanted" fugitive led federal authorities Wednesday to a Pennsylvania couple who happened to be on the run from fraud charges.

Tamara Santarelli, 44, and her husband, Victor Santarelli, 47, have been on the run since 2011, when a federal grand jury in Pennsylvania handed up an indictment accusing them of conspiring to defraud the estate of a dead relative.

On Wednesday, a team of U.S. Marshals, backed by Pinellas sheriff's deputies and St. Petersburg police, conducted an investigation into a tip on the whereabouts of a fugitive, which was generated from the TV show America's Most Wanted, sheriff's officials said.

The tip did not pan out, but it led authorities to the Flamingo Motel, 1806 Fort Harrison Ave., where they spoke with a man who wouldn't tell them his name, officials said.

"It started because they couldn't identify the individual," said sheriff's spokeswoman Cecilia Barreda. "He was just not being forthcoming about who he was."

After giving authorities multiple dates of birth, the man finally agreed to have his fingerprints taken and his image scanned into a facial recognition software program, authorities said. The information was run through an FBI database, which identified the man as Victor Santarelli.

Deputies arrested him and a woman who was with him at the motel, who was identified as Tamara Santarelli. The two were booked in the Pinellas County Jail pending extradition to Pennsylvania.

Sheriff's officials did not identify the fugitive that federal authorities were initially seeking when they came across the Santarelli's.

The couple faces charges of mail and wire fraud in connection with efforts to steal $75,000 from Joann Striminsky of Peckville, Pa., a great aunt for whom they cared until she died in January 2007, authorities said. Their plan included making themselves beneficiaries on Striminsky's insurance policies.

It isn't the first time the couple has been accused of fraud. Pennsylvania police charged them in 2009 with fraud for an alleged plot to cover up Striminsky's death and collect $13,000 in insurance money. However, the state later dropped the charges against Tamara.

Also in 2009, the couple was charged with setting fire to a home and a bathhouse they owned at a Pennsylvania campground. The charges against Victor were dismissed, but Tamara pleaded guilty to arson and reckless endangerment in 2011.

Information from the Scranton Times-Tribune contributed to this report.

Authorities find pair of Pennsylvania fugitives at Clearwater motel 01/09/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 10:36pm]
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