The Florida murder suspect who evaded capture for 39 years, eventually serving on the water board of a California town before his arrest this month, claims he’s being “used as a patsy.”
Donald Santini, 65, made a trio of “America’s Most Wanted” appearances in connection with a brutal 1984 slaying, but claims he is being framed in two letters to a Tampa news station.
“Things are not as they seem,” Santini wrote to News 8 before his extradition to Florida this week. “I feel I am being set up.”
Operating under the alias Wellman Simmonds, Santini was arrested at his home in Campo, a rural community an hour east of San Diego, on June 7, where he was considered a “pillar of the community” locally.
Investigators assert he strangled friend Cynthia Ruth Wood, 33, in Tampa and dumped her corpse in a canal before skipping town almost 40 years ago.
Santini was finally booked into the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office on Wednesday, and is expected to face first-degree murder charges.
The letters — written before his extradition — revealed his family has been shattered by the stunning arrest.
“I’ve listened to my wife and granddaughter, cry and scream with hurt,” Santini wrote. “Feeling that they may never see me again. I can hardly talk without crying.”
He also addressed Wood’s family at one point and extended his sympathies to them — but did not admit to the killing.
“I feel I am being used as a patsy,” he wrote, arguing that he can’t get a fair trial in Florida and doesn’t have the money for a quality lawyer.
“My heart goes out to Cindy’s family,” Santini wrote. “For all the pain, hurt and lonelyness [sic] They must be feeling, for 40 year’s.”
Detectives said Santini was the last person seen with Wood, taking her out on a date while she was in the midst of a divorce.
Santini, who previously served time for rape while serving in the military, quickly emerged as the prime suspect in the case after his fingerprints were found at the crime scene.
The resourceful fugitive immediately bolted, with investigators chasing down leads from Texas to Thailand over the decades.
Despite being the target of several law enforcement agencies, Santini managed to serve as president of the local municipal water board in his town of 3,000, with his arrest shocking colleagues and neighbors.
“We are all flabbergasted,” a colleague of Santini on the Lake Morena Views Mutual Water Company told ABC 10.
“He was a pillar of the community. He seemed upstanding. He was an advocate, non-confrontational, and was hardly hiding. I am still trying to process all of this.”
The accused killer was a featured fugitive on “America’s Most Wanted” in 1990, 2005 and 2013.
Santini lived his life in plain sight — even speaking to local media outlets about a fatal car accident that occurred near an apartment complex he managed in 2018.
“It really was one of the most shocking things I’ve ever heard in my life,” neighbor Rick Fox told the station, adding that Santini referred to himself as “Wells” in conversation.
Santini is scheduled for a bond hearing on July 6.
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