Delaware dropped 2010 child kidnapping case against suspect in girl’s April abduction

 Charges against Daniel Santucci in a 2010 attack at his Elsmere home were dropped. He's now facing charges in the kidnapping and sexual assault of a 4-year-old girl who was found after being thrown in a pond in April. (Photos clockwise from left Cris Barrish/WHYY; NCCPD; WHYY file)

Charges against Daniel Santucci in a 2010 attack at his Elsmere home were dropped. He's now facing charges in the kidnapping and sexual assault of a 4-year-old girl who was found after being thrown in a pond in April. (Photos clockwise from left Cris Barrish/WHYY; NCCPD; WHYY file)

The police accusation that Daniel M. Santucci Jr. abducted and sexually abused a 4-year-old girl in April, then tossed her in a pond to die, was not the first time the 23-year-old Delaware man was charged with kidnapping and harming a child.

In 2010, Elsmere police charged Santucci, then 16, with “strangling” a girl who was sleeping at his family’s home and dumping her outside in bushes after she pretended to be dead.

But in June 2011, then-Attorney General Beau Biden’s office dropped the kidnapping, assault and other charges amid questions about the girl’s ability to positively identify Santucci.

Almost seven years to the day after he allegedly kidnapped that girl, though, police say Santucci committed another violent child abduction.

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WHYY also has learned that the girl, who was tossed in a remote pond at Banning Park, nearly nine miles from her home, was able to swim to safety. The 4-year-old  learned to swim from her mother, who is a local aquatics instructor, sources familiar with the case told WHYY.

The child was found, barely clothed, in the park two hours after she was abducted. Police have said there is no indication he knew his alleged victim.

Santucci, who is being held at Howard Young Correctional Institution in Wilmington in lieu of $1,076,000 cash bail, faces charges of first-degree attempted murder and kidnapping, and unlawful sexual contact of a child under 13. If convicted of the attempted murder count alone, he would spend 15 years to life behind bars.

Court files are sealed in the new case and Santucci, through attorney John S. Malik, waived a preliminary hearing last week where more evidence gathered by police would have been been made public.

New child porn case, ‘disturbing’ 2008 arrest

Details about Santucci’s 2010 case and other previous brushes with the law are contained in court records examined this week by WHYY.

Among the previously undisclosed revelations in the files:

  • New Castle County police, who are handling the current kidnapping case against Santucci, also have charged him in a separate case with possession of child pornography. A search by a county detective of Santucci’s Samsung Galaxy cellphone in April — while he was in custody in Florida — found an image of children who appeared to be ages 4 to 8 “engaged in prohibited sexual acts.” The image had a time stamp of March 25 — just 12 days before Santucci allegedly abducted the girl from her home in the Plum Run townhouse complex in Pike Creek.
  • While out on $105,000 secured bail in the previous kidnapping case, Santucci was arrested twice for criminal trespassing for being on the CSX railroad tracks near his Elsmere home. Those charges also were dropped in June 2011 when he pleaded guilty to violating his bail conditions and was given one year of “intensive” supervision.
  • In 2008, when he was 14, Santucci committed a bizarre series of crimes. He broke into a girl’s home near Newark while she slept. He stole her bra, left a condom on her bed, and set off a firecracker before fleeing. He later left obscene, sexually harassing messages on the girls’ phone and the phone of another girl.
  • When Delaware prosecutor Phyllis Scully was pursuing the 2010 kidnapping case against Santucci, she opposed his attorney’s bid to have his bail reduced in large part because of the “disturbing episode” with the firecracker, stolen bra, condom and vulgar calls.

Top county official defended Santucci in 2010

Santucci was represented in the 2010 kidnapping case by prominent Delaware criminal attorney Kathleen M. Jennings, a former chief deputy attorney general who went into private practice in 1995.

Jennings argued in court papers before Scully dropped the case that the child could not positively identify Santucci as her attacker and that she was being coached by her grandmother, who is her guardian, to pin the crime on him.

Less than five months after the case was dropped, however, Jennings rejoined the Attorney General’s Office as Biden’s chief prosecutor.

She served in that role until January, when she left to become the No. 2 official in New Castle County government. In that role she oversees the county police department, which is the lead agency in the new kidnapping and attempted murder case against Santucci.

Neither Jennings nor Scully would agree to an interview for this story.

But Carl Kanefsky, spokesman for current Attorney General Matt Denn, said Scully dropped the charges because “there were major evidentiary issues.”

Jason Miller, spokesman for County Executive Matt Meyer, said in a written statement that “as soon as” Jennings learned the man she represented in the 2010 kidnapping was a suspect in the Pike Creek kidnapping, she spoke with Meyer and county police chief Col. Vaughn Bond “and removed herself from any involvement in the case.”

‘I’m sorry I have to do this’

The five-page arrest affidavit in the April 2010 case describes the 8-year-old girl’s harrowing ordeal at the Santucci home in the 600 block of New Road, Elsmere.

Along with another child, the girl was sleeping in a rear bedroom but woke up when “someone came and started choking her … and she couldn’t breathe,” the affidavit said.

The attacker then “carried her outside” through a hallway and the back door. He continued choking her, then “began twisting her neck” and said, “I’m sorry I have to do this.”

He had “Danny’s voice,” the girl later told authorities. Santucci was then a sophomore at Alexis I. du Pont High School.

The girl “pretended she was dead” and the attacker deposited her among some bushes. She lost consciousness but when she woke up “ran back to the home,” where the first person she encountered was Santucci.

The teenager said “he was so worried” because he didn’t know “where she was or anything,” she told authorities.

The girl was taken to Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children, where she had extensive facial bruises, marks and broken blood vessels on her neck, and other injuries.

Police found no evidence of a struggle in the house or a theft, Elsmere police Cpl. Gregg W. Shelton wrote in the affidavit.

Girl gave conflicting accounts on attacker’s identity.

A review of the case files, however, illustrates how difficult it can be to use a child victim’s testimony or statements to get a conviction, especially without corroborating evidence.

The girl gave conflicting accounts of her attacker’s identity, but all signs pointed to Santucci.

At the hospital, she told one doctor the attacker looked “like Danny” but not “exactly like him.” She told another doctor that while it looked like Santucci, it “wasn’t Danny because he was wearing different clothing.”

A social worker’s report said the girl didn’t speak except when Santucci was discussed. On about five occasions, the girl “became agitated and would try to get them to stop talking,” the social worker’s notes said.

Her grandmother told police that when the girl was discharged from the hospital two days after the attack, she said, “It looked like Danny, with a buzz haircut but I know he wouldn’t do that because he likes me.”

A few minutes later, the girl said, “Maybe he was just trying to play with me, and it was an accident.”

Two months later, the grandmother gave Elsmere police a note she wrote at the girl’s direction. The nine-paragraph letter was a transcription of the girls’ verbal account, police wrote.

“I was afraid to say it was Danny because I didn’t want him to come to my house again and do it to my mommy and me again,” the letter said.

The letter also said, “I just don’t’ want him to do this to nobody else.”

While police continued to investigate, that July the girl was interviewed for a second time by a forensic investigator for the Children’s Advocacy Center of Delaware.

During that interview she identified Santucci as “the boy who tried to murder” her.

She said she didn’t tell the investigator it was Danny during their initial interview because “she was scared that she was going to jail.”

Asked how she knew it was Santucci, the girl said she “saw his face when she was outside” and that when she apologized during the attack, she knew it was “Danny’s voice.”

As trial loomed, state dropped 2010 case

Police charged Santucci in December 2010 — eight months after the attack.

Four days after his arrest, Jennings filed court papers in Family Court asserting that in the audiotaped interviews with police and the Children’s Advocacy Center, it’s clear the girl “did not identify” Santucci as her attacker.

Instead, the girl told police hours afterward that he “looked somewhat like Danny but was an older man with scars,” Jennings wrote.

The next day she told the CAC’s forensic investigator, “I never knew who did this.”

It wasn’t until July, after “repeated coaxing” by her grandmother, the girl’s guardian, that she “first” said it was Santucci.

Jennings also argued that the girl’s identification was the “only directly incriminatory evidence” in the case.

There were no other witnesses. Nor do court files indicate that DNA evidence was available to prosecutors.

Trial was set for September 2011.

Scully had sought court approval to have the girl testify by closed circuit television, but after an office conference with Judge Barbara D. Crowell, she withdrew that bid on June 11.

Two weeks later, though, Scully dropped the charges.

As part of the deal, the judge ordered Santucci not to have any contact with his alleged victim or her family.

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