TAMPA — A man who evaded the law for almost 40 years while wanted in connection with the slaying of a Manatee County woman whose body was found in Hillsborough County will be held in jail without bond until his trial, a Hillsborough County judge ruled Thursday.
“You being on the run for almost 40 years is a consciousness of guilt. You knew you were running from something,” Judge Catherine Catlin told Donald Santini during a court hearing in Tampa.
Santini was the last person to be seen with 33-year-old Cynthia “Cindy” Ruth Wood, of Bradenton, on June 6, 1984; her body was found three days later in a water-filled ditch in Riverview, according to Hillsborough County court documents.
Wood’s stepdaughter, Denise Kozer, was 20 years old when her stepmother was killed. Now nearly 60, she hopes to finally find closure in the case that she says resulted in “total devastation” for her family. Ahead of Thursday’s trial, she had one plea for the judge: Do not allow Santini another chance to escape.
“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,” Kozer said. “I asked them not to let him out on bond. That was our one request we had.”
At the time of Wood’s death, Santini was known as Charles Michael Stevens, an alias he used to outrun a warrant for a past Texas crime. In the nearly four decades since Wood’s death, Santini has used at least 13 different aliases, according to an arrest warrant from the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.
Most recently, 65-year-old Santini lived a quiet life in San Diego County, California, as Wellman Simmonds, the president of a local community water board, according to reporting from East County Magazine. However, his life as “Wells” came to an end June 7 when 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.
“He has a wife and children in California, and I feel sorry for them because they probably didn’t know, either,” Kozer said. “But they’re all still alive. Our lives were devastated, changed forever.”
Wood met with Santini in 1984 after he called her, promising to provide information about her husband, Barry Wood, that could help her win custody of the two children the couple shared, according to previous reporting from the Bradenton Herald. The children were 3 and 5 when Wood was killed. Wood also had a son from a previous relationship, and Kozer was Barry Wood’s daughter from an earlier marriage.
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Cindy Wood’s son and Barry Wood have died since the slaying, Kozer said, while her younger half-siblings have battled mental health issues and homelessness since the deaths of their parents. Kozer said she spent the last 39 years being constantly reminded that the man she says destroyed her family got to walk free, while she sat at home and watched him on “America’s Most Wanted” episodes in 1990, 2005 and 2013.
“He’s had his freedom for 40 years, that’s all you get,” Kozer said.
Catlin denied a request from Santini’s attorney to release Santini on bail Thursday after state attorneys argued Santini couldn’t be trusted to await trial without fleeing. Prosecutors told the judge that Santini killed Wood after he fled Texas while out on bail on charges related to a convenience store robbery in which authorities say he was armed with a knife.
“You are the definition of flight risk. There is nothing I can do to preserve the safety of this community if I was to let you go,” Catlin said.