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Fugitive arrested in 1984 killing of mother of 3, Hillsborough officials say

The body of Cindy Ruth Wood, 33, was found in a water-filled ditch in Riverview in 1984.
 
Donald Michael Santini, left, and Cynthia “Cindy” Ruth Wood are seen in these file photos from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. Authorities have been searching for Santini for nearly four decades in connection to the strangulation death of Wood, a mother of three whose body was found in a Riverview ditch June 9, 1984.
Donald Michael Santini, left, and Cynthia “Cindy” Ruth Wood are seen in these file photos from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. Authorities have been searching for Santini for nearly four decades in connection to the strangulation death of Wood, a mother of three whose body was found in a Riverview ditch June 9, 1984. [ File photos / Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office ]
Published June 8, 2023|Updated July 7, 2023

A man who has been on the run for nearly 40 years was arrested in San Diego on Wednesday in connection with the slaying of a woman whose body was found in Hillsborough County in 1984, according to authorities.

Related: UPDATE: Fugitive suspected in 1984 killing of young mother held without bond in Hillsborough

Donald Michael Santini called 33-year-old Cynthia “Cindy” Ruth Wood, promising to provide information about her husband that could help her win custody of her children, according to previous reporting from the Bradenton Herald. Wood met with Santini on June 6, 1984. Wood wasn’t seen again until June 9, 1984, when her body was found in a water-filled ditch in Riverview, according to Hillsborough court documents. An autopsy determined the mother of three from Bradenton had been strangled.

Witness Pamela Lynn Kincaid told Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office detectives that Charles Michael Stevens, an alias used by Santini, had confessed to her he killed Wood, the records said. Stevens was one of three aliases authorities determined Santini had used prior to Wood’s death.

Santini’s trouble with the law began in 1978, when he was convicted of rape while serving in the U.S. Army in Frankfurt, Germany, according to a 1985 Herald article. Upon returning to his home state of Texas, he was charged with aggravated robbery in connection to a convenience store robbery in 1983. He confessed, then disappeared from the state just days later. The next time he resurfaced, he was working as a janitor in Longboat Key under the Stevens alias.

He became friends with Kincaid while living in Florida, eventually moving in with her, the Herald reported. Kincaid’s children attended a day care center just a few blocks away called Cape Vista Child Care Center — where Wood worked as a manager.

Wood had a complicated history of her own. She filed charges against her estranged husband, Barry Wood, accusing him of physically abusing her and her son from a previous marriage. She had two children with Barry Wood, and the two were involved in a contentious custody battle at the time of her death, the Herald reported. The charges against Barry Wood were dropped after she died and the court records were sealed.

After Wood’s death, Santini pulled a disappearing act once again — this time for almost 40 years. He evaded law enforcement using at least 13 different aliases, according to an arrest warrant from the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office.

A fugitive task force arrested Santini on Wednesday, according to jail records from the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department. He is being held in San Diego Central Jail.

According to KGTV, an ABC affiliate in San Diego, a tip from the Florida/Caribbean Regional Fugitive Task Force led U.S. marshals to Campo, located in southeastern San Diego County, where they arrested Santini.

In an email to the Tampa Bay Times, the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office said it has sent detectives to California to interview Santini while he is awaiting extradition.

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“This arrest allows us to reexamine evidence collected in 1984 using the technology of today, as the case is now considered open once again,” said Amanda Granit, a spokesperson for the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office.

Times staff writers Dan Sullivan and Tony Marrero contributed to this report.