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Campo residents stunned local leader is fugitive with alias wanted for 1984 murder in Florida

‘It has caught everybody off guard’
Donald Santini
Posted at 7:35 PM, Jun 13, 2023
and last updated 2023-06-14 12:59:19-04

CAMPO, Calif. (KGTV) — A career criminal on the run wanted for a 1984 murder of a mother of three in Florida was hiding in plain sight for years in a rural San Diego County community.

Donald Santini, 65, has been wanted for the murder of Cynthia Ruth Wood in 1984 in Hillsborough County, Florida.

RELATED: Florida cold case murder suspect appears at extradition hearing in San Diego

Santini has been living for years in Campo. The small community has less than 3,000 people and is about an hour's drive east of the city of San Diego.

“It really was one of the most shocking things I’ve ever heard in my life,” said Rick Fox, who recently bought a piece of property next to Santini, who he said went by the name “Wells.”

Fox said he bought the property after “Wells” recommended it as a development opportunity.

Santini has been on the run for decades. He's known by many names, including Wells and Wellman Simmonds.

Outside his property Tuesday, ABC 10News observed several surveillance cameras on the rural home and a barbwire fence in the backyard.

Simmonds had been serving as the president of one of two local water boards in Campo and is well known by residents.

Several confirmed to ABC 10News on Tuesday that they knew him as president of the Lake Morena Views Mutual Water Company.

Neighbor recalls 'very nice guy'

The wanted fugitive has been living in the community for years with his wife and did an interview with ABC 10News in 2018 as a property manager, speaking about a fatal crash.

Fox said “Wells” was always friendly, and just last week, when the two had an issue about his fence being on Fox’s property, he was pleasant and offered a few solutions.

“He would come over and visit and say, 'What are you doing?'" Fox said. "What are you building for my neighbor and a very cordial guy, very nice guy.”

A member of the Lake Morena Views Mutual Water Company said the board is stunned.

"We are all flabbergasted. 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 member, who didn’t want to be named, said.

Santini admitted in court last week that he is the person Florida authorities have been looking for in connection to Woods’ slaying.

The United States Marshals Service arrested him after getting a lead from the Florida/Caribbean Regional Fugitive Task Force. Authorities haven’t revealed how they were able to crack the case.

Murdered mom met the suspect about a custody dispute

The Bradenton Herald newspaper in Florida said Santini called Wood in 1984, promising to provide information about her estranged husband that she could use to get custody of her children.

Wood met with Santini and wasn't seen again until a few days later when her body was found in a ditch in Hillsborough County.

RELATED: Murder suspect arrested in San Diego after nearly 40 years on the run

The paper found Santini’s first brush with the law in 1978 for rape while serving in the Army while stationed in Germany.

He disappeared after being charged with robbery in Texas and again after Wood’s killing and used over a dozen aliases, according to his original arrest warrant avoiding arrest until last week.

Santini’s public defender stresses his client hasn't admitted guilt.

“We don't know anything about the underlying facts that are alleged. he could have not committed this,” said Douglas Miller last week.

Fox said he’s still blindsided about the arrest but hopes it will bring closure to Wood’s family.

“Anybody who would like to see an old case solved would be happy, and I’d be happy for the family of this lady who was strangled and killed, but it is totally shocking.”

Santini is in a San Diego jail awaiting extradition to Florida.

ABC 10News reporter Austin Grabish can be reached at

With files from Michael Chen and Natalie Chuck