NewsTeam 10 Investigates


America’s Most Wanted fugitive Donald Santini used bankruptcy to finance life on the run

Former FBI special agent says cons with fake IDS often use business loans to fund their lives
Donald Santini Tampa Bay Times AP Photo July 6, 2023
Posted at 3:31 PM, Aug 22, 2023
and last updated 2023-08-22 20:18:27-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — Donald Santini, the alleged hit man who was featured on America’s Most Wanted for a cold case murder, filed for bankruptcy under an alias at least three times as he owed dozens of people and companies hundreds of thousands of dollars while living life on the run.

Over 20 years of court records reviewed by Team 10 are giving a glimpse into the life of Santini, who had been living in Campo, Calif., under the alias “Wells/Wellman Simmonds” for years until he was arrested in June by U.S. Marshals.

“How did he do it? He had to have excellent fake documents, including birth certificates, including driver's licenses, including social security cards that could pass muster,” said former FBI special agent Jennifer Coffindaffer, who served on a fugitive squad for many years.

Santini, who is currently in custody in Florida, was wanted for the 1984 strangulation of Cynthia Ruth Wood, a mother going through a custody dispute, and managed to evade capture for nearly 40 years.

He admitted in a San Diego courtroom in June before being extradited that he was Donald Santini and not Wellman Simmonds, the name he had spent at least two decades living under.

Court records show Wellman Simmonds filed for bankruptcy in 2001, 2004, and 2012. He owed everyone from the San Diego Union-Tribune to business partners and credit card companies thousands of dollars.

Several surveillance cameras could be seen on the Campo home Donald Santini had been living in. His neighbors knew him as "Wells," and are still stunned about his arrest.

In 2004, Simmonds listed over $161,000 in liabilities. His creditors included American Express, and a couple owed $3,200 in business debt in San Diego. A woman in El Cajon was owed another $5,000, while the San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper was owed over $10,000 in business debt. These are just a few examples.

Santini is a convicted criminal with numerous aliases who served time in prison in 1978 for a rape he committed while in Germany with the Army. Before being wanted for Wood’s murder, he had been charged with aggravated robbery in Texas.

Donald Santini is seen in this historic photo in newly filed court records.

After fleeing to California, he reinvented himself as Wellman Simmonds and used that name to build a new life with his wife and kids. In San Diego County, he served on a water board, ran an antiques store, worked as an apartment manager, and at one point, had a Thai restaurant in La Mesa with his wife.

Santini told ABC 10News in a letter from jail that his wife in Campo had no idea about her husband’s past. He has another wife in Texas who still has the last name Santini and a daughter in that state he last saw in person as an infant.

Daughter thought parents had money

U.S. Marshals arrested him in June after he allegedly was caught committing identity fraud while trying to obtain a passport fraudulently, according to Florida court records.

Along with every business enterprise, Santini started came a string of debts. One man was owed $24,000 in La Mesa for giving Simmonds a personal loan, according to bankruptcy filings that were submitted under penalty of perjury.

In a recent interview with Team 10 investigative reporter Austin Grabish, Santini’s daughter Elyxadra Rettew said her parents put on a “façade” giving the impression they had money.

“It never seemed like we were struggling.”

Rettew said her dad owned an auction house after selling the Thai restaurant. “He was like an auctioneer. He like spoke all fast and stuff.”

Evicted tenant says fugitive duped him thousands

Santini also worked as an apartment manager and, in that role, was sued for over $91,000 by a tenant he hired to do building maintenance.

The construction worker alleged in a 2013 lawsuit reviewed by Team 10 that Wells Simmonds committed fraud, intentional deceit, negligence, and misrepresentation.

The worker moved into an apartment in Lakeside, Calif., in 2010 and said he was supposed to be paid $25 an hour for his work.

But the employee alleged that Simmonds pocketed his checks, which he had endorsed to him on the promise he would forward them to pay his rent.

Donald Santini Tampa Bay Times AP Photo July 6, 2023
Hillsborough County cold case murder suspect Donald Santini weeps moments before he is denied bond by Thirteenth Judicial Circuit Court Judge Catherine Catlin during his hearing on Thursday, July 6, 2023, in Tampa, Fla. Santini is accused of strangling Cynthia Wood in 1984.

“Not only did Simmonds not pay or return the excess of the plaintiff’s monthly salary to the plaintiff after allegedly deducting the monthly rent, but Simmonds also failed to pay the plaintiff’s monthly rent,” the lawsuit alleged.

The tenant eventually got evicted for unpaid rent by the company Simmonds worked for as a property manager, according to court documents.

Coffindaffer expects the court records obtained by Team 10 to be just the tip of the iceberg.

“I would expect a whole slew of frauds to be in his wake that he committed. Remember, not as him, but probably in another name,” said Coffindaffer, who said it is common for criminals to use business loans to finance their lives before declaring bankruptcy.

“This is something we see over and over again on white-collar criminals.”

She said it was amazing Santini, who was featured on America’s Most Wanted three separate times, was arrested after 39 years on the run. She said it’s next to impossible to disappear in the United States.

“You are going to meet people. People are going to see you. You have to have ID to do everything, even if it's fake. So, it really comes down to being able to link together the small clues you get that they leave behind.”

Team 10 investigative reporter Austin Grabish can be reached at