An Elsmere man who kidnapped a 4-year-old girl from her home in Pike Creek, then raped her and threw her into a pond to drown has been sentenced to life plus 50 years behind bars.
The abduction and attempted murder took place in April 2017. Daniel M. Santucci, now 25, had taken the child to a remote pond in Banning Park, nearly nine miles from her home.
The girl survived because her mother, a local aquatics instructor, had taught her to swim, sources familiar with the case told WHYY.
The 4-year-old was found, nearly naked, walking near the pond about two hours after the abduction, which occurred when Santucci lured her into his car outside her home in the Village of Plum Run townhouse community. Police have said he did not know his victim or her family.
Days after the abduction, Santucci staged his own disappearance, leaving his black Honda Civic abandoned with its driver’s door open. He fled on a Greyhound bus to Tampa, Fla. Police there picked him on a fugitive warrant and he was formally charged and returned to Delaware, where was held on $1 million-plus bond.
This August, with a September trial date looming, Santucci pleaded guilty to first-degree attempted murder and kidnapping, as well as second-degree rape.
As part of the plea deal, prosecutors dropped a child pornography possession charge that New Castle County police had also filed against Santucci in April 2017.
During the abduction investigation, a county police detective found an image on Santucci’s cellphone of children who appeared to be between ages 4 and 8 “engaged in prohibited sexual acts,” courts records showed. The image had a time stamp of March 25 — just 12 days before Santucci abducted the Pike Creek girl.
The girls’ abduction and rape had horrified parents throughout Delaware, and infuriated the county’s police chief, Col. Vaughn Bond, who had said that catching the “heartless monster” was the force’s top priority.
“There is nothing lower that a person can do than to take advantage and sexually abuse and take the innocence of a 4-year-old child,” Vaughn said during a news conference.
A WHYY investigation found that as a teenager Santucci had been charged with another violent attack on a young girl, as well as a bizarre, vulgar crime involving another teenager.
In 2010, Santucci, then 16, was charged with kidnapping and other charges by Elsmere police for “strangling” a girl who was sleeping at his family’s home and dumping her outside in bushes after she pretended to be dead. That case unraveled, however, and in June 2011 then-Attorney General Beau Biden’s office dropped the kidnapping, assault and other counts amid questions about the girl’s ability to positively identify Santucci.
Carl Kanefsky, a spokesman for current Delaware Attorney General Matt Denn, told WHYY in 2017 that a prosecutor dropped the 2010 charges because “there were major evidentiary issues.” Court records showed the girl had given conflicting accounts about the identity of her abductor.
Santucci’s lawyer for the 2010 case was Kathy Jennings, who was elected in November to succeed Matt Denn as state attorney general. Jennings is a former chief deputy general who was in private criminal practice when she defended Santucci. Five months after the case was dropped, she returned to work for Biden as the state’s chief prosecutor.
In April 2017, when Santucci abducted the girl in Pike Creek, Jennings was the chief administrative officer for New Castle County, a job that put her in charge of the county police. Jennings would not discuss the past or current case, but a spokesman for County Executive Matt Meyer said that as soon as Jennings learned about Santucci’s suspected involvement, she “removed herself from any involvement in the case.”
Court files reviewed by WHYY also revealed that 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, then stole her bra, left a condom on her bed, and set off a firecracker before fleeing. He later sent obscene, sexually harassing messages to the girls’ phone and the phone of another girl.
When Delaware prosecutor Phyllis Scully was pursuing the 2010 kidnapping case against Santucci, she opposed Jennings’ bid to have his bail reduced in large part because of that “disturbing episode.”