Mom who kidnapped her daughter & went on run for 20 years speaks out

‘I feel the FBI and every other law enforcement agency underestimated me’: Mother who kidnapped her daughter from South Carolina and went on the run for 20 years speaks out

  • Dorothy Lee Barnett kidnapped her daughter in 1994 after obtaining forged birth certificates and getting passports 
  • Barnett opened up to 48 Hours about her decision to take her daughter away 
  • She and her husband Harris Todd had been locked in an ugly divorce and uglier custody battle 
  • Todd was awarded custody of baby Savanna after painting a picture of Barnett as a violent and mentally unstable parent and wife 
  • He told the court he would have his daughter evaluated by a psychiatrist at the age of three if she had any signs of a similar condition to her mother 
  • Her mother said ‘I knew as a grown woman … if I couldn’t prove that I wasn’t mentally ill … how could a two or three-year-old?’
  • She went on the run for the next two decades before she was arrested in 2013

A mother who kidnapped her own daughter in Charleston, South Carolina after a bitter custody battle and spent two decades on the run before she was finally arrested, is speaking out about her decision to flee. 

In 1994 Dorothy Lee Barnett was fighting her husband Harris Todd in divorce court for custody of their daughter- then named Savanna. When the judge ultimately sided with Todd, a desperate Barnett came up with a wild plan to leave her home in the United States, and everyone she knew behind, and take her daughter with her.

‘I feel the FBI and every other law enforcement agency underestimated me,’ Dorothy Lee Barnett told 48 Hours.

While on the run, Barnett started a diary to Savanna who would be renamed Samantha explaining to her her beginnings. 

‘A few months before my mom gave birth to me, she started writing a diary. … And — it starts off on the first page saying, ”To my dear Savanna. Someday I’ll give this journal to you so that you can hopefully understand your mother.”

‘My name is Samantha Geldenhuys. I was born Savanna. But I didn’t know that. Savanna Lee Barnett.

‘I grew up on the Sunshine Coast … in Australia. …it is the most magnificent place.

Lee Barnett, who would change her name to Alexandra Geldenhuys, opened up to 48 Hours about taking her daughter on the run for two decades until the law finally caught up with her

In happier times: Barnett married Harris Todd. He did not want children. Trouble in their marriage started when she became pregnant

Savanna Barnett would not learn the truth about her biological father or her own beginnings since being kidnapped from the United States by Barnett in 1994, until her mother’s arrest in Australia in 2013

‘I knew my mom as Alex my entire life… But in reality she wasn’t Alex at all.

‘She was Lee … Lee Barnett.

‘She’s written, ‘I’ve always loved the name Savanna. It reminds me of great beauty… it also reminds me of my home and someday it will hopefully be yours too. The endless reeds, the shrimp, the blue herons…”

Things in Barnett’s marriage to Todd started falling apart when she first learned she was pregnant with her daughter, less than a year into their marriage. 

‘I need to tell the truth about what’s happened … something needs to be changed,’ Barnett told ’48 Hours,’ as she revealed her version of the events that led up to her taking her baby on the run.    

When they first met, it started as a friendship. After five years however, the relationship had changed.

‘He just professed to me that I’d made him feel different than anybody else has ever made him feel. And then one thing led to another,’ said Barnett. 

She was an outgoing explorer, he was an introvert. She wanted children, he did not.  

‘I thought I was a person that was going to help him have a more normal, fun-loving life, ’cause he was so serious,’ she explained.

‘When Lee … decided to get married … I did not agree with that choice,’ her close friend Patty Roth said. ‘Lee wanted children. …Harris was very clear– to everyone that he never wanted children.’ 

Barnett hoped she could change him. 

‘I don’t know. I just thought that I was gonna do something and he would change. And we’d have this wonderful family … and I just had this crazy dream that I’d make everything right,’ Barnett said. 

‘He kept saying over and over throughout my whole pregnancy, ”There is no baby.” Even when I was eight months pregnant. ”There is no baby. There is no baby,” said Barnett.

‘He wanted to hurt me so badly he didn’t care who he took down, and that includes a little baby,’ said Barnett. 

She contends that he never wanted children, and when she became pregnant he told her to get an abortion- a claim Todd has denied.

‘I said to him, I said, ‘I have a feeling I might be pregnant.’ And he said, ‘it’s OK. Just have an abortion,” Barnett told 48 Hours. 

‘I was heartbroken. …But I still thought, ”Ah, he’ll come right.” …Anyway, two days later, I found out I was pregnant. He was very cold and indifferent. And he remained that way.’

In the coming months, one argument became so heated that Barnett flipped over a coffee table.

When she woke up- Todd was gone. Pregnant and alone, Barnett says she was heartbroken.  

‘I just felt so abandoned. And I couldn’t figure out how somebody I’d loved and known for so long could be this cruel,’ Barnett said.

Savanna Barnett was born in 1994 in the United States. She would be renamed Samantha Geldenhuys. Her and her mother would live on four different continents in the coming two decades

A bitter divorce: Todd and Barnett’s divorce would take ugly turns as he said she was cray- and had a doctor backing him up 

Todd would be awarded full custody of Savanna and told the court he would get her evaluated by a psychiatrist at three-years-old to determine if she had the same alleged condition as her mother 

He told her he wanted her out of the house, but she refused. 

‘I thought if I left his house, I would never, ever come back,’ she said.

Barnett says he started to lay the groundwork to undermine her mental stability while she was pregnant.

‘He would say to me all the time, ‘You’re sick, you’re insane,” Barnett said. ‘And he’d say… ”Look in the mirror. See your face. It’s contorted. You’re insane. You’re insane.” 

He would tell her repeatedly that she was crazy, and when, in a bid to save their marriage, she would suggest seeing a psychiatrist recommended by her mother for couple’s counseling- the psychiatrist diagnosed her on the bipolar spectrum with a tendency towards violence. 

She told the psychiatrist: ‘I said, ”I think I’ve got a good reason to be upset.” 

He told her ‘I’ll give you something to make you feel better.”

The doctor prescribed Navane, when Barnett talked to a doctor friend who told her it was an antipsychotic drug and advised her not to take it.

‘By that time, I’d already taken three pills,’ she said.

Unbeknownst to Barnett at the time, Todd had gone behind her back and called her mother, convincing her mother she was mentally unstable. 

Todd and her mother spoke with the psychiatrist before their first visit. When they arrived Todd and the doctor acted like they had never met before. 

Barnett ultimately filed for divorce and Todd would counter with a filing that alleged he had suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for her violent outbursts.  

Todd and Barnett were engaged in a bitter custody battle.

He would paint her as a violent person who was a danger to him, and to herself.

  • Dubai’s ‘runaway Princess’ smiles as she is seen for the…

    ‘So much to be thankful for!’ Elizabeth Smart cradles…

    ‘I thought I was going to die there’: Woman held captive in…

    Man accused of snatching Georgia baby is caught with the…

Share this article

‘Came down the hallway and there she is … sitting there banging her head against the wall,’ Todd said in ’99. 

‘I’ve never, ever bashed my head against the wall,’ she told 48 Hours. 

She said she never threatened him, and while she admitted to slapping him once, she said she never struck him.    

In court the psychiatrist, Dr. Oliver Bjorksten, that had diagnosed her with being on the bipolar spectrum testified against her. 

She said that his testimony was beyond damaging.  

‘Damaging is probably not the right word. He was life destroying,’ said Barnett.

Dr. Bjorksten testified that the condition he diagnosed Barnett with ‘is associated with violence’… and that Barnett’s ‘degree of dwelling’ do ‘things which are quite serious.’  

Despite two other psychiatrists telling the court she was not bi-polar, the damage to her mental credibility had already been done. 

‘The more you claim you’re not mentally ill, the crazier you sound. …Because people look at you as a mentally ill person then.’

The judge would side with Todd for custody, and determined that Barnett’s ‘condition’ might lead her to ‘homicide or suicide.’

‘And it left me so scared and so cold, because when you label somebody as that, that means I’m such a danger to my child,’ she said.

In February of 1994 Judge Mallard awarded full custody of nine-and-a-half-month-old Savanna to her father.

Todd picked up Savanna from Barnett that same day. 

‘When they came and took her is when I lost it. And I just went to the bathroom and … sat in the bathtub and cried,’ Barnett recalled.

Worse yet, she said that Todd told the court he would take Savanna to a psychiatrist at three-years-old if she exhibited any signs of her mother’s illness.    

‘I knew as a grown woman … if I couldn’t prove that I wasn’t mentally ill … how could a two or three-year-old?’ 

After fleeing the United States, Barnett would meet Juan Geldenhuys. She said she married him because he was in love with her daughter- who now was named Samantha 

A new start, a happy family: Juan was the only father Samantha would know 

Meanwhile back in the United States, Todd was keeping his daughter, and her mother, in the news as he searched for them 

When she appealed and the judge failed to file the necessary paperwork for an in time, as she grew more desperate she realized she was going to leave.  

‘I knew nobody was there to help me,’ Barnett said. ‘I started to make my plan to leave.’

She took her last $10,000 and her baby during a scheduled visit and got into a rental car with her older brother, their faked birth certificates and subsequent passports went to the Atlanta airport and left the country. 

She was supposed to have Savanna back at 6pm, but by then she says she was probably in Paris.  

‘Oh, I don’t think I ever smiled. I never wanted to take it for granted. Every second I had of freedom was never taken for granted,’ said Barnett. 

‘I was free from them. She was free from them.’

Todd called her younger brother Cliff.    

Missing poster for Savanna and Barnett 

‘He goes, ”Where’s your sister?” I said, ‘I have no idea,” Cliff Barnett said. ‘And he goes … ”Your sister is not a fit mother. She can’t take care of a child by herself. …She doesn’t have the sense for it.” And I finally … just eventually said, ”Well, apparently, she has the sense to disappear from you.”

Barnett and Savanna traveled from Germany to France; Malaysia; South Africa; Botswana, and New Zealand.

Barnett landed on Australia’s Sunshine Coast. By now she had married the man she met in South Africa, an engineering geologist named Juan Geldenhuys.

‘I got married to him because he was madly in love with my daughter,’ she said.

Soon the redone family had an addition with a son named Reece.

‘The Sunshine Coast is known for its beaches,’ Samantha Geldenhuys told 48 Hours. ‘It’s a very wonderful and family-like environment to grow up in.’  

Samantha/ Savanna’s only father she had known, Juan, had split from Barnett after he fell in love with another woman.  

‘She stayed strong and she stayed resilient. And she was a great single mother,’ Samantha said. 

And Reece makes three: Barnett and Juan had a son together who Savanna would believe was her full blood brother 

Savanna called her mother a wonderful single mother after her split from Juan who had fallen in love with another woman 

‘The doors were always open. Everyone was always welcome.’ 

‘When she talked about America, she loved it. But at the end of the day you could see in her eye — and if you know and you love someone well enough you can see when they are hurting. And it’s not — it’s not for me to sit there and go, ”well, get sadder and tell me more and — and tell me why, and I deserve to know,” ’cause I didn’t, you know. I trusted that when she wanted to tell me, she’d let me know,’ Samantha added.

However, Barnett had slipped up and confided in someone that she was in Australia on the run from an ‘abusive’ relationship in the states. That person called Todd. 

‘I was on the telephone at 7:30 in the morning and there was a big pounding on my door,’ Barnett said. ‘I was still in my pajamas and I open the door and this man was standing there with guns … and he said, ”I’m here with a warrant for your arrest.”

‘All we really needed was a way to identify Miss Barnett under her alias. And once we had that information, it was very easy for us to then find the paper trail,’ Assistant U.S. Attorney Nathan Williams explained.  

‘One of the agents said to me, ”you must be relieved,” but I wasn’t relieved. I knew that my life would change, my children’s lives would change,’ said Barnett of the conversations during her 2013 arrest.

The law caught up with Barnett two decades later in 2013 after she slipped up and told the wrong person about how she came to be in Australia 

The man Samantha had known as her father had died just a week earlier from bone cancer. 

‘I’m very lucky to be able to say the last thing I said was, ‘I love you.’ ‘Cause people don’t get that,’ said Samantha. 

Now she and Reece were facing losing their mother to prison.  

‘My mum was sitting on the couch with … two FBI agents next to her. …I said, ‘Mum, what’s goin’ on?’ And she took me to another room. And just told me everything that happened, told me I gotta trust her. And of course, I did,’ said Reece.

Barnett called her daughter who was studying to be a nurse.   

‘I said, ‘Sammy. You know how we’ve never had communication with the family and friends in the U.S.?’ She said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘Well, I was married before … And I’m going to jail now … ’cause I’ve e been accused of kidnapping you and I said I had to keep you safe,” she explained.

‘I had to call her back and say, ‘Wait does that mean that dad wasn’t my dad?’ And then she started crying and I started crying,’ said Samantha.

The FBI sat Samantha down the following day and told her the story of how her life began.   

‘And that’s when … I learned when I was born, I learned Savanna. I didn’t know anything before that,’ she told 48 Hours.

She also learned the backstory of how her mother was depicted in court.   

‘Every characteristic they said that my mother had was wrong and incorrect. Every single thing,’ Samantha said. 

‘Like, she… she had bipolar. I mean, that was the most incredibly confronting thing. And I felt very rude because I just laughed in their faces.’ 

‘I had to laugh. And I said, ‘Whoa, you’re wrong.” 

The FBI asked if her mother had ever hurt her, and she was shocked.    

Samantha read every document and every transcript relating to the case.

‘It’s like a novel that is so sickening that you can’t put down,’ said Samantha.

Barnett told Samantha about the diary she had kept a secret from her.   

‘I’m having difficulty writing because I’m very scared… I can only wait, though, and pray it’s not our time to be found,’ Barnett writes.

‘If you think about every single little thing that she has gone through, I’ve lived this wonderful life,’ Samantha said. ‘She did everything she could and more to just keep me safe.’ 

Barnett served 21 months in prison for charges of international parental kidnapping and two counts of passport fraud. She could have been put her behind bars for 23 years.

‘The law was broken when a corrupt court system took that baby from me and took her mother away from her,’ Barnett said of her lack of remorse for breaking the law.

She believes she did not kidnap her as she is her own daughter, despite not legally being allowed to take her out of the country.  

‘Legal right be damned,’ said Barnett. 

She has no remorse over cheating Todd out of watching Samantha grow up either.   

‘There’s nothing wrong with me. I’ve never done anything violent. I’ve raised two amazingly healthy, intelligent children who are happy,’ she said. ‘So who’s telling the truth? And who’s lying?’

Source: Read Full Article