SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Donald Santini stunned his neighbors and fellow community volunteers when U.S. Marshalls with the Fugitive Task Force arrested him last week.
And the accused murderer, who once was featured on America’s Most Wanted and went on to live life in the open as a community leader, says not even his wife of more than 30 years knew about his real identity.
Santini had been living under the name Wellman Simmonds in Campo, Calif. in San Diego County for years.
Santini, who was wanted for the 1984 murder of Cynthia Ruth Wood near Tampa Florida, has detailed parts of his life in a new 16-page letter sent from jail to ABC 10News.
“The reason I have been able to run so long is to live a loving respectful life,” Santini says in the handwritten letter.
Santini does not address the murder of Wood but does admit he committed rape in 1978, which 10News reported last week.
He appears frustrated with his public defender in San Diego, who told him to be quiet in court at his recent extradition hearing.
“Things are not as they seem. I need a lawyer that doesn’t try to push me through the system to keep me quiet. The problem is I have no money.”
Retired FBI special agent Bobby Chacon called this a “really unique case.”
Santini, while on the run from law enforcement in Florida, seamlessly lived a public life in Campo where he served as president on one of the community’s water boards. He even did an interview with 10News for an unrelated story in 2018.
Donald Michael SANTINI was arrested by Deputies of the San Diego Fugitive Task Force in Campo, CA. SANTINI was wanted in Hillsborough County, FL for the murder of Cynthia Ruth Wood in 1984. SANTINI was featured multiple times on America's Most Wanted #fugitive #USMarshals pic.twitter.com/p4kXeLJvAW— USMS San Diego (@USMSSanDiego) June 12, 2023
In his letter, he mentions how he volunteered with the Rotary Club, owned a Thai restaurant, and ran an apartment block.
“In this case, he seemed to be able to put that all behind him and that takes a certain level of sociopathic mindset that this is not going to catch up with me,” said Chacon, who was a writer on the TV show Criminal Minds and appeared as an expert on America’s Most Wanted.
Santini’s letter does not say how he got the alias “Wellman Simmonds,” but his 1984 arrest warrant listed other multiple aliases.
Chacon has put ex-cons into witness protection and said it’s not often someone can reinvent themselves like this so seamlessly.
“In this case, it's so unusual that he would choose to live such an exposed lifestyle as a kind of a public official and then giving media interviews and things like that.”
Santini told 10News in his letter that he was abused as a child and mentioned having to kill animals.
He said he grew up in New Haven Connecticut, Houston and Rosharon Texas.
Santini is awaiting extradition to Florida where he’s expected to be prosecuted for Wood’s slaying.