Murder suspect on run 39 years pleads guilty to strangling Florida mom, prosecutors say

A man known as “a pillar of the community” in a small California town likely will die in prison after taking a plea deal in the 1984 strangulation death of a Florida single mom, according to state prosecutors.

Donald Santini, 65, had been at large long enough to be featured three times on the TV show “America’s Most Wanted” (1990, 2005 and 2013), officials say.

“The man who spent nearly four decades on the run ... accepted responsibility for the crime in court today,” Florida’s Office of the State Attorney, 13th Judicial Circuit, reported in a Nov. 16 news release.

“Donald Santini was sentenced to 50 years in Florida State Prison followed by 15 years of probation as part of a plea deal with the State Attorney’s Office.”

He was accused of killing Cynthia Wood of Bradenton, a 33-year-old who was going through a divorce, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office reports. She was last seen leaving her home June 4, 1984, officials say.

“On 06/09/84 at 3:30 pm the body of the victim was found in a water filled ditch at Alsobrook Dr., Riverview,” the sheriff’s office said in a news release. “Autopsy results determine the cause of death as strangulation. The victim is last seen with Donald Santini.”

Bradenton is about 30 miles southwest of Riverview.

A motive in the killing was not revealed.

Santini was captured in early June and extradited from San Diego, McClatchy News reported. He had been living in Campo, California, where he served as president of a water board and was considered “a pillar of the community,” WKGT reported. Campo is in San Diego County.

“He eluded capture by living under the name Wellman Simmonds in Texas and California, abandoning his old life and assuming a new identity,” the Office of the State Attorney reports.

“Santini was featured on America’s Most Wanted several times throughout his decades on the run but was only discovered by federal authorities this year when he applied for a passport and his fingerprints were found to be a match for the missing murder suspect.”

State Attorney Suzy Lopez says Santini was scheduled to go on trial for first-degree murder this month when he accepted a plea deal.

“No family should have to spend decades waiting for justice to be served in the cruel murder of their loved one,” she said in the news release.

“This defendant not only stole an innocent life, but he also left a family without their mother, and without answers.”

Santini previously served time in prison “for raping a woman while stationed in Germany,” and was wanted in Texas in an aggravated robbery case, officials said.

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