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Florida man arrested in California for 1984 Tampa-area murder

Donald Santini arrest US Marshalls.jpg
Posted at 4:09 PM, Jun 08, 2023
and last updated 2023-06-10 23:54:52-04

MANATEE COUNTY, Fla. — A Manatee County man wanted in connection to a nearly 40-year-old murder case is now in custody.

The U.S. Marshals Fugitive Task Force arrested Donald Santini Wednesday near San Diego, California. He's been wanted on a first-degree murder charge since June 18, 1984.

According to the warrant issued for Santini, he's accused of killing a 33-year-old woman named Cynthia Ruth Wood.

Cynthia Wood Donald Santini HCSO.jpg

According to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, Wood was last seen leaving her Manatee County apartment with Santini five days before her body was found. Court documents show that on June 6, 1984, Wood was reported missing. Her body was later discovered on June 9, 1984, in a "water-filled ditch" in Riverview.

Those documents also show that the medical examiner at the time determined Wood had been strangled.

A witness statement from June 15, 1984, claims that Santini told a woman he knew about the killing. It also said that Santini went by several aliases, including "Charles Michael Stevens," "Donald Chapman," and "John Trimbleon."

The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office confirmed the arrest and released the following statement:

"We are aware of this arrest and have sent detectives to interview Santini, while we await extradition. This arrest allows us to reexamine evidence collected in 1984 using the technology of today, as the case is now considered open once again. While that process is underway, we want to protect the integrity of the investigation and can not release any further details."

ABC Action News spoke to a Florida Gulf Coast University forensics professor Dr. David Thomas. He told us that due to the nature of Wood’s death, Santini likely left a lot of evidence behind for investigators to gather all those years ago.

“There’s this thing called 'Locard’s exchange' — meaning that what is on me usually is left at that crime scene, so I’m going to leave some part of me there. So it may be in her clothes, it may be on some part of her body, but there’s something that he left there at that scene, and they were able to collect it, so kudos to them," he said.

And it's evidence that Dr. Thomas said if stored correctly, can still be processed

"Usually, the case is literally in a box that's stored in a room and most likely that room, depending on if the room is temperature controlled. If the room is temperature-controlled, it can probably last forever," he said.

Dr. Thomas also told us this break in a decades-old cold case is likely bringing a small sense of relief to the detectives who first worked it.

"It becomes very personal to them. Because it is the victim and that investigator that are tied to the hip and that investigator is tied to that family," he said.

Our sister station, KGTV, attended an extradition arraignment for Santini Friday morning.

They tell us that Santini was living in California under a different name, but confirmed to a judge that he was, in fact, the man deputies were searching for.

He was eventually taken back into custody and will be held without bail.

Florida officials have now 30 days to pick him, if they don't he'll have another hearing in Calfornia on July 10.