NewsTeam 10 Investigates


‘I’ve been living a lie’: Daughter of captured fugitive Donald Santini speaks out

Prosecutors allege he committed 1984 contract killing and watched himself on America’s Most Wanted
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Posted at 7:20 PM, Jul 14, 2023
and last updated 2023-07-18 19:40:21-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — Elyxadra Rettew was on a plane when her daughter left her a frantic message last month.

"She said it's about grandpa. Call me back. And I had no idea what was happening, and I thought that maybe he had a heart attack and died or something. And like honestly it had been a lot easier if that was the case."

Rettew’s daughter, whom her father is raising, said that he had been apprehended by U.S. Marshals in Campo.

Rettew said her sister then told her that her father, Wellman Simmonds, had been arrested for murder.

The 33-year-old Hawaii resident, who grew up in San Diego County, searched her dad’s name on Google but couldn’t find any news of his arrest.

Then she learned another bombshell. Her father’s real name was Donald Santini.

“So that's when I Googled his name and the FBI wanted poster came up. It was really weird though, because the only reason why the wanted poster came up was because it was for sale on eBay.”

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

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

Court documents filed by prosecutors say he committed aggravated robbery in Texas in 1983 before going on the run to Florida, where he allegedly killed the mother of three.

He appeared on America’s Most Wanted several times in 1990, 2005, and 2013, but didn’t get caught until last month despite living an incredibly open public life.

Rettew, who was born with the last name Simmonds, is trying to piece together how her dad was able to live a lie for more than 30 years and evade capture.

“It sucks because I've been living a lie,” she said, expressing concern about not being able to properly search her family tree.

Her dad ran a Thai restaurant, had an auction house, and managed apartment buildings over the years. He even did a broadcast interview in 2018 with ABC 10News for an unrelated story.

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Donald Santini is seen in this Americana wanted poster for sale on eBay. His daughter found the listing and said she knew immediately the man on the poster was her dad, who she knew as "Wellman Simmonds."

In a motion for pretrial detention document filed in Florida court, prosecutors said he used multiple fake names and identities for over 39 years to evade capture.

In a June 8th interview in a San Diego jail, he spoke openly with a detective about living life on the lam.

“The defendant stated that he saw the story of himself on America’s Most Wanted,” a court document says.

“The defendant further stated that he stopped using fake driver’s licenses when he became aware of facial recognition.”

Santini, 65, wept as he wore a red prisoner’s jumpsuit at his first court appearance in Florida on July 6th, where he was extradited last month.

Caught while trying to renew passport

Federal agents found him while he was allegedly committing identity fraud while trying to obtain a passport, according to court documents in Florida.

Rettew said her dad told her something wasn’t right when he was asked for the last 40 years of tax returns and didn’t get his birth certificate back after renewing his passport in the mail.

“When his passport expired, he wasn't able to notarize things for the water company.”

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

Several told ABC 10News reporter Austin Grabish they were stunned he was a wanted fugitive, with a water board colleague calling him a “pillar” in the community.

Donald Santini
Donald Santini was wanted for the 1984 murder of Cynthia Wood, a then 33-year-old going through a divorce with her husband.

The State Attorney’s Office in Florida alleges Santini was contracted to kill Wood, who had been going through a custody dispute over her kids at the time.

Santini’s public defender hasn’t returned a request from ABC 10News but Santini himself is talking.

In a letter sent to ABC 10News last month from jail, he said, “Things are not as they seem” and admitted to committing an unrelated rape. He didn’t address the murder of Wood and he said his wife of more than 30 years in San Diego had no idea who he really was.

Still, Rettew refuses to believe her father was a hitman. “He doesn't act like a killer."

“He was never violent, and I was never spanked as a kid, and like, I mean, I was pretty bad kid.”

Rettew is slowly piecing together just how big of a lie her dad lived. He recently told her on the phone about his other wife that he’s still married to in Texas and the baby he left behind with her before going on the run.

"It's hard for me to accept the fact that my dad did have a wife and (that I have) a sister from him, which is weird."

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Elyxadra Rettew told Team 10 reporter Austin Grabish she feels like her life has been based on a lie. Her maiden name was a fake that her father had.

She is worried about her father’s well being behind bars and said he’s been put in solitary confinement, which two people who’ve spoken to Santini have now told ABC 10News.

"He's not doing very good since he arrived in Florida. They don't treat him like half as good as they treat, treated him here in San Diego."

But despite everything she's learned, she is standing by her father.

“I just kind of want everybody to wait until he's convicted of the murder to actually start saying things about him."

Santini is set to be back in a Florida court on July 28.

Do you have a tip about this story? Contact ABC 10's Austin Grabish: