Florida Judge to Murder Suspect on Run for 40 Years: ‘You Knew You Were Running From Something’

Florida Judge to Murder Suspect on Run for 40 Years: ‘You Knew You Were Running From Something’
Hillsborough County cold case murder suspect Donald Santini is led out of the courtroom moments after he is denied bond during his bond hearing in Tampa, Fla., on July 6, 2023. (Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times via AP)
The Associated Press

TAMPA, Fla.—A judge in Florida has ordered a 65-year-old California fugitive held without bond in connection with the death of a woman nearly 40 years ago.

Donald Santini was arrested by U.S. marshals in California last month, and extradited to Florida. He had used at least 13 aliases over the years.

Mr. Santini was the last person seen with 33-year-old Cynthia “Cindy” Ruth Wood. The arrest warrant said a medical examiner determined she had been strangled, and Mr. Santini’s fingerprints were found on her body.

“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 Mr. Santini during a hearing in Tampa on Thursday.

Photos taken in the courtroom showed Mr. Santini weeping before the judge denied bond.

Ms. Wood’s stepdaughter, Denise Kozer told the Tampa Bay Times she’s hoping to find closure in a case that resulted in “total devastation” for her family.

Back in 1984, Mr. Santini was known as Charles Michael Stevens, which was an alias he used to flee a warrant in Texas. At the time of his arrest, he was living under the name Wellman Simmonds in Campo, California, which is in southeastern San Diego County. He served on the local water board.

“He has a wife and children in California, and I feel sorry for them because they probably didn’t know, either,” Ms. Kozer said. “But they’re all still alive. Our lives were devastated, changed forever.”

Ms. Kozar told the Times that both Barry Wood and the older son of Ms. Wood had died since the slaying, and her younger half-siblings have suffered from mental health issues since their parents’ deaths.

She told the newspaper she’s spent years knowing that the man who destroyed her family has been free. The case has been featured on “America’s Most Wanted” several times.

Ms. Wood met with Mr. Santini, who had called her with promises of providing information about her husband, Barry Wood, that could possibly help her win custody of their two children, who were 3 and 5, according to previous reports by the Bradenton Herald. Ms. Wood also had a son from a previous relationship. Ms. Kozar was Mr. Wood’s daughter from another marriage.

Ms. Kozar, who was 20 when Ms. Wood was killed, said she hopes Mr. Santini doesn’t get 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,” Ms. Kozer said.

Mr. Santini’s attorney asked the judge for bail. But prosecutors noted that Mr. Santini killed Ms. Wood after fleeing a charge in Texas related to a convenience store robbery.

The judge didn’t need extra evidence.

“You are the definition of flight risk,” the judge told Mr. Santini during the hearing. “There is nothing I can do to preserve the safety of this community if I was to let you go.”