LAKELAND – A Lakeland man who claims his girlfriend stabbed herself while driving to work, then fell out of her car and got run over by it, is now in the Polk County Jail, facing first degree murder charges.
Detectives say the suspect killed the woman who had been reported missing by her family in April.
Jarol Santiago, 40, had been the target of a manhunt until he was arrested on Wednesday, May 16. Orlando police officers and Orange County Sheriff’s deputies found Santiago, who was the boyfriend of murder victim Diana Mercado. There had been a Polk County Sheriff’s warrant for his arrest.
The manhunt started late last month, after a Lakeland woman reported that her sister had disappeared after leaving her home to go to work. A Medical Examiner’s autopsy later determined that Mercado, 33, was a homicide victim who had been stabbed numerous times and suffered broken ribs.
Mercado was last seen early Saturday, April 28, as she left the home she shares with her boyfriend, Santiago, and her mother and sister, to go to work at the north Lakeland Dunkin’ Donuts. By 5 p.m. on Saturday, Diana still hadn’t come home, so her family called the sheriff’s office to report her missing.
Family members later found Diana Mercado’s car in the parking lot of the Wells Fargo Bank at U.S. 98 and Daughtery Road in Lakeland around 6 a.m. Sunday, and reported it to the sheriff’s office. When the car was found, detectives discovered Diana’s purse, cell phone and car keys locked inside it on the front, driver’s side floorboard, as well as her Dunkin Donuts apron.
The next day, her body was located just 50 yards behind the home at 10947 Pathfinder Trail in Lakeland, in a wooded area thick with brush, wrapped up and lying on the ground next to a chain link dog pen. She was wearing blue jeans and a white t-shirt.
The autopsy conducted by Dr. Vera Volnikh of the District 10 Medical Examiner’s Office determined the victim suffered multiple stab wounds and other injuries that included broken ribs, a broken pelvis, a fractured left clavicle and numerous abrasions.
The death was declared a homicide.
Detectives began looking for Santiago, who became a ”person of interest” in the homicide case, and who has a criminal record and is also known by an alias, Antonio Vasquez. The Polk County Sheriff’s Office noted that Santiago had an extensive criminal history out of Massachusetts, with arrests for assault and battery with a knife, attempted murder, assault, assault and battery with a weapon, and traffic, drug, and non-violent charges.
The Mercado family would later tell detectives that Diana had moved to Florida in September 2011 from Massachusetts to get away from a lifestyle of bad influences that included drug use.
On May 16 at 11:04 a.m., Santiago was found in Orlando by Orange County Sheriff’s deputies and arrested on the Polk County warrant.
Detectives first interviewed Santiago on April 29. He provided them with a Puerto Rico I.D. and said his name was Antonio Vasquez, the arrest report notes.
According to the report, Santiago said he had last seen Mercado at 5:30 a.m. the previous day as she was leaving for work. Santiago also told detectives he was supposed to ride with her to work so he could find a job, but Mercado wouldn’t take him because he woke up too late.
After being arrested in Orlando and during a Miranda interview, detectives say Santiago inititally appeared ”surprised” to learn that Mercado’s body had been found. He told them that on April 28, he woke up as she was getting ready for work, and they got into an argument because she didn’t want him to ride with her. Santiago told detectives he went anyway.
According to the arrest report, ”The suspect alleged that while driving down the road, the victim stabbed herself. The suspect alleged he and the victim exited the vehicle, at which time the victim fell down and the vehicle ran over her body.’’
Detectives say Santiago then claimed he picked up Diana, put her back in the car, and drove her home, then hid her body in the wooded area. He then drove her car away from the house, tossing his knife out the window along the way, before parking the car at the parking lot behind the Wells Fargo Bank.
He then rode a bicycle home, detectives say.
Contact us at FreelineOrlando@gmail.com.