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"America's Most Wanted" fugitive who eluded authorities for decades sentenced for killing Florida woman

A 65-year-old California fugitive who eluded authorities for nearly four decades before his arrest in June has been sentenced to 50 years in prison for killing a Florida woman. 

Donald Santini — who appeared on the TV show "America's Most Wanted" in 1990, 2005 and 2013 — pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the death of Cynthia "Cindy" Ruth Wood in a deal with prosecutors to avoid a first-degree murder charge. Circuit Judge Samantha Ward approved the deal before issuing the sentence in Tampa on Thursday, CBS affiliate WTSP reported. The case had been set to go to trial in two weeks.

"Good luck," the judge told Santini, who has been in jail without bond since his arrest in June at his home near San Diego.

"Thank you, Your Honor," Santini, whose hands were cuffed in front of him, replied.

Before his arrest, Santini had lived in California under the name of Wellman Simmonds. He was president of a local water board in Campo, a tiny suburb of San Diego, and he regularly appeared at public board meetings.

The life he had built in California came to an end thanks to a tip from the Florida/Caribbean Regional Fugitive Task Force. That led U.S. marshals to Campo, where Santini was taken into custody.

The arrest warrant said a medical examiner determined she had been strangled and Santini's fingerprints were found on her body, WFTS-TV reported

"Santini was featured on America's Most Wanted several times throughout his decades on the run but was only discovered by federal authorities this year when he applied for a passport and his fingerprints were found to be a match for the missing murder suspect," a spokesperson with the State Attorney's Office said in a news release obtained by WTSP.

In 1984, Santini was known as Charles Michael Stevens, which was an alias he used to outrun a warrant for a crime committed in Texas. Hillsborough County Sheriff's officials said he used at least 13 aliases over the years. 

Prosecutors, who were prepared to present new facts about the case to jurors, said Santini was the last person to be seen with the 33-year-old Wood on June 6, 1984, and her body was found in a water-filled ditch three days later.

Assistant State Attorney Scott Harmon said during Thursday's hearing that Wood told friends and associates she was going on a date on June 5, 1984, and neighbors later told investigators they saw a van parked in her driveway.

Harmon said a woman who was in a relationship with Santini told investigators that he borrowed a van to go on the date.

A witness told investigators that Santini had said the family of Wood's husband paid him to get damaging character evidence, which could be used in a custody battle over the couple's young children.

Santini told the woman the next morning that he'd killed Wood and dumped her body, Harmon said.

"That witness would have been able to identify the defendant," Harmon said.

After the hearing, Hillsborough Assistant Public Defender Jamie Kane declined to comment on the case.

After his arrest,  Santini told ABC 10News in a handwritten 16-page letter sent from jail that he volunteered with the Rotary Club, owned a Thai restaurant and ran an apartment block. "The reason I have been able to run so long is to live a loving respectful life," he wrote to the station. 

Santini previously served time in prison for raping a woman while stationed in Germany, officials previously said. 

"No family should have to spend decades waiting for justice to be served in the cruel murder of their loved one," State Attorney Suzy Lopez said in a statement obtained by CBS affiliate WTSP. "This defendant not only stole an innocent life, but he also left a family without their mother, and without answers. Our thoughts are with the victim's family and friends as they close a painful chapter and move toward healing."

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