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TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Exactly 39 years ago on Friday, Cynthia Wood’s body was found in a water-filled ditch in Riverview. She was strangled to death.
“I happened to look down and see the feet first,” Susan Thurlow previously told 8 On Your Side. “Just looked up and you could tell the body was bloated.”
Former WFLA News Channel 8 reporter Lance Williams worked for the station from 1990 to 2005, and covered Wood’s murder ten years after it happened, and had since become a cold case.
Police believed Donald Michael Santini killed the 33-year-old Wood, and an arrest warrant was issued in 1984 shortly after the murder. Williams reported that someone had attempted to make the death look like another in a string of serial killings, but detectives figured out it was something different within days. By the time police declared Santini the suspect, he was in the wind.
“Every single one of these is calculated,” Williams remembered about covering crime in the Bay Area. “They’re blood curdling, they are tragic and they were common back then.”
While some cases the journalist covered were solved within days or weeks, plenty others were not, like Wood’s death. He interviewed Heide Pareigis at the time — she and her husband rented a room to Santini in their Sarasota home.
“When he talked about violence and crime,” Pareigis recalled to Williams. “He got an actual happy feeling out of it.”
She said she overheard the murder being planned and Santini brag about it. She helped the detectives build their case.
“He pointed out where he had done it, exactly how he had done it,” Pareigis said. “He was just glowing about it.”
Court documents revealed Pareigis isn’t the only person who connected Santini to the crime. Pamela Lynn Kincaid told detectives she knew Santini, and he confessed to the murder on June 6.
For decades, police had Santini as their sole suspect, but couldn’t track him down. But on Wednesday, he was caught in San Diego County, California.
“I still can’t believe it,” Williams said. “I just love the fact that somebody didn’t give up.”
According to 8 On Your Side’s previous reporting, Wood met Santini at the Cape Vista Day Care Center in Bradenton, where he picked up his girlfriend’s kids. Detectives believed he planned to befriend, then asked her out on a date. Court documents show Wood was last seen leaving her house with Santini on the night of June 5.
Barbara Tupin worked with Wood and said she will never forget that day.
“I knew she was going out for the evening,” said Barbara Tupin. “[I said] to have a good evening, and she said, ‘I intend to.’”
After going on their date on the night of June 5, 1984, Wood was found dead on June 9.
“Almost 40 years later,” Williams remarked. “On the very day that her body is found, an arrest is made. I’ve got goosebumps.”
Williams praised law enforcement for their tenacity.
“But if law enforcement is assiduous enough, persistent enough,” Williams said. “They’ll catch the guy. Look at this one.”
Santini appeared in San Diego County Court on Friday, as he awaits extradition back to Hillsborough County.
“Good morning Mr. Santini,” the judge said in court. “My understanding is you are admitting you are Donald Santini, is that correct?”
According to his arrest warrant, Santini went by multiple aliases, including Charles Michael Stevens, Donald Chapman and John Trimble. Santini affirmed he was who the judge asked he was.
“And you are the person that is wanted in the state of Florida,” the judge said. “Is that correct?”
Again, Santini confirmed the information but then expressed concern for his safety when being asked about the extradition process.
“You’re willing to waive your right to contest the extradition,” the judge said. “Is that correct?”
“I do,” Santini replied. “I just don’t feel safe because of the families.”
But Santini did end up signing the forms that allow him to go back to Tampa.