TAMPA — A man who evaded the law for almost 40 years while wanted for the slaying of a Manatee County woman whose body was found in Hillsborough County pleaded guilty Thursday and was sentenced to 50 years in state prison.
Donald Santini, 65, admitted to the 1984 strangulation death of 33-year-old Cynthia “Cindy” Ruth Wood as part of a negotiated plea with prosecutors. Circuit Judge Samantha Ward accepted the plea and delivered the sentence, which included 15 years of probation.
Before entering the plea, Santini answered Ward’s questions with yes or no answers.
”Good luck,” Ward told Santini, who stood before her in red jail garb, his hands cuffed in front of him. He’d been held in jail without bond since his arrest in June.
”Thank you, Your Honor,” Santini replied.
Hillsborough Assistant Public Defender Jamie Kane declined to comment after the hearing.
Santini was the last person to be seen with 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.
The plea comes about two weeks before the case was scheduled to go to trial.
During Thursday’s hearing, Assistant State Attorney Scott Harmon laid out some of the facts of the case that prosecutors were prepared to present to a jury.
On June 5, Wood told friends and associates that she was going on a date that night. Neighbors would later tell investigators they saw a van parked in Wood’s driveway in Bradenton.
Three days later, two passersby found Wood’s clothed, shoeless body. An autopsy found she’d been strangled to death. She also had bruises on her arms, shoulder and buttocks.
A woman who’d been in a relationship with Santini told detectives that he needed to borrow her van to take a woman on a date.
“He advised that he was taking her on a date to make sure she was intoxicated and then drop her in front of a police station,” Harmon said.
According to the witness, Santini said the family of Wood’s husband paid him money to get damaging character evidence to use against her in a contentious custody battle over the couple’s two young children. The children were 3 and 5 when Wood was killed. Wood also had a son from a previous relationship.
Witnesses who lived near Wood said a van was in front of her house around 9 p.m. that night. Another witness was on the phone with Wood when the person came to pick her up for the date.
Harmon said investigators determined Wood went willingly on the date with Santini. The witness who lent Santini her van told police that he came home later that evening and parked the van around the corner from her house.
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Harmon said the next morning, Santini told the woman he’d killed Wood and dumped her body in Hillsborough County.
“That witness would have been able to identify the defendant,” along with other evidence that implicated Santini, Harmon said.
Harmon said Wood’s next of kin — an older brother — lives in Pennsylvania and was not able to attend the hearing because of an illness in the family. Wood’s older son, who was 14 at the time, died by suicide four years after Wood was killed, while her other son is in jail in Manatee County and her daughter is homeless, Harmon said.
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 on 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.
This is a breaking news story. Check back at tampabay.com for updates.