After nearly twenty years on the run, Dorothy Lee Barnett had all but transformed herself into her alias, Alexandra Geldenhuys, a 53-year old single mum working as a sales rep on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. But it’s always one careless moment that brings a fugitive undone.
Barnett’s came as she enjoyed a few drinks with friends after a day’s sailing in 2011. She referred to her then 18-year old daughter Samantha by an unfamiliar name“Savanna” and mentioned that she had fled an abusive relationship in the US.
The chain of events in Charleston South Carolina all those years befor – the divorce, the custody battle and her flight with her baby girl – must have seemed another life ago, perhaps several lives ago, because Barnett had reinvented herself many times. But now she was damned from her own mouth.
One of her friends searched the website of the US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and found details and a picture of 11-month Savanna Todd from 1994.
Alongside was an “age-advanced” picture of the child who bore a striking resemblance to the hazel-eyed girl she knew as Samantha. Pictures of Barnett also matched.
According to court documents, the friend contacted Savanna’s father, Charleston stockbroker Benjamin Harris Todd III, who reported the information to the FBI.
So began the painstaking process of confirming Barnett’s progress around the globe, a path that led to her door at Mountain Creek, near Mooloolaba.
Not surprisingly, Savanna Todd is said to be in a state of deep confusion over her identity right now. She had no idea of the tortured history that led to her mother’s arrest, according to sources close to the family.
The vivacious blonde 20-year old was living life as Samantha Geldenhuys, a first-year nursing student at Townsville’s James Cook University. She wrote in an affidavit that she had recently returned from a six-month stint volunteering in a hospital in Peru, having overcome a battle with clinical depression to pursue her dreams.
As far as she knew, her father was a South African man named Juan Geldenhuys. Barnett had met and married Geldenhuys in South Africa and they had another child, Reece, now 17.
According to documents filed in Barnett’s extradition case, they had lived in South Africa, New Zealand and Mountain Creek before that relationship had foundered. Geldenhuys had returned to South Africa but tragically succumbed to bone cancer just weeks before Barnett’s capture.
The only father Savanna had known was dead. Then her mother rang her after being arrested to tell her another man, Harris Todd, was her real father.
Savanna had always known that she had American relatives. Her mother after all had an American accent, but she couldn’t work out why her mother had kept her away from them. Now everything is falling into place.
Barnett and Todd had been an odd couple, sharing little else but the fact their fathers had died young.
The son of a Kentucky doctor and a nurse, Todd was described in a 1997 media report as “the very picture of Southern White Anglo-Saxon Protestant propriety: a graduate of Andover and Yale. Todd speaks softly, opens doors for women and can converse on everything from John Barth to Beethoven without missing a beat.”
He had gone straight from college to Merrill Lynch’s Charleston office where he remained for his entire career.
A judge noted Dorothy Lee Barnett, on the other hand, had been raised by her eccentric mother in a dysfunctional family supported by her stepfather’s social security cheques. They moved frequently between different homes in Florida and Belize in Central America.
Barnett wanted to be a vet but dropped out of college to run a piggery in Belize and then moved to Africa where she bought jewellery for sale in the US.
She had become a flight attendant in 1988 , but she complained the work was below her intellectual capacity.
The couple met when Todd became her stockbroker in 1985 and five years later began dating when she was disengaging herself from a tumultuous relationship with an airline pilot, according to US court documents.
In granting their divorce in 1994, Judge Robert Mallard noted that Barnett’s “troubled” relationships with men had been characterised by “arguments, temper outbursts and occasional physical violence”.
Trouble soon began. In April 1991, Todd threw Barnett out of their home after she had called him 18 times while away at a seminar accusing him of infidelity. According to Todd, Barnett pursued him until she finally wore him down. In December 1991, they eloped and were married.
It was the only daring thing the southern gent had perhaps done apart from making some arty nude films of himself and friends in the 1970s.
Six months later the marriage was falling apart with him claiming that Barnett was regularly brutalising him physically and verbally. Two days after they decided to divorce, Barnett discovered she was pregnant.
Barnett told a psychiatrist that Todd did not want the baby and demanded she have an abortion, which had further intensified the conflict.
The psychiatrist noted in a report to the court that she claimed to have had a miscarriage in August 1992 and believed she was no longer pregnant. In fact, she later discovered she had been carrying twins and still bore one foetus, Savanna, she told the psychiatrist. Todd’s longtime lawyer, Graham Sturgis, would not confirm whether this was true.
The couple began joint therapy sessions with a psychiatrist, Dr Oliver Bjorksten, who diagnosed Barnett as having “hyperthymic temperament”, which he said was a form of bipolar disorder, according to the court judgement.
He prescribed Navane, a psychotropic drug rarely given to pregnant women. Barnett began to suspect that Todd and her mother (whom she claimed was susceptible to male intentions) were conspiring with Bjorksten to make her appear mentally ill.
By October 1992 they had split permanently but their skirmishes continued right up until Savanna’s birth in May the following year.
A grim struggle for custody of the child began. In the divorce proceedings, Barnett claimed that Todd was gay or bisexual, citing his nude home movies and writings as evidence of perversion and unfitness as a father.
None of this was accepted. Meanwhile expert witnesses lined up to say that Barnett was mentally unstable, promiscuous and volatile, causing her to become increasingly unhinged in the court.
The judge repeatedly cautioned her for making remarks, “talking excessively or too loudly (and) getting up and down from her seat”. She had gone through a variety of moods “from tearfulness, abjection, agitation, anger to near euphoria”. Perhaps this was understandable, given Barnett must have known she was about to lose custody of her nine-month-old daughter.
She had been tailed by a private detective who discovered she had gone out with at least five men since Savanna’s birth, one of whom was married.
She had been “alone in either her house or the houses of her male companions late at night under circumstances under which adulterous conduct could occur”.
In conservative, God-fearing Charleston, such behaviour was regarded as a scandal.
In his judgement, Judge Mallard blamed Barnett entirely for the break-up of the marriage and awarded sole custody of Savanna to Todd, determining that a stockbroker working full-time was best placed to look after a child who was still being breast-fed.
“The psychological and emotional problems experienced by the mother, if left untreated, will create conflict and havoc in the child’s life and she will suffer accordingly,” Judge Mallard concluded.
Todd was “a caring, conscientious and stable person who tried to get help for his wife but failed”, according to the judge.
While Todd had been prepared to allow joint custody, Barnett had made it clear she believed her daughter should have no contact with her father whatsoever.
Overwhelmed in court by her husband’s battery of psychologists and pediatricians, Barnett would walk from the marriage with a $9000 emerald engagement ring, a ride-on lawnmower and a set of steak knives. She would only be allowed to have Savanna two weekends a month.
On the first weekend visit, she failed to return the child and the court ordered her access to Savanna be supervised.
Faye Yager, the founder of Children of the Underground, which claims to have helped 7000 women escape abusive spouses, says Barnett never had a chance. “He stomped on her like an ant. They set out to prove she was crazy so they could strip her of all her rights as a mother,” according to Yager, who claims to have helped Barnett while on the run.
Todd was awarded $50 million in damages claim against Barnett by a South Carolina court after she fled, which Sturgis concedes is “uncollectable.”
Remarkably, another court-appointed psychiatrist in April 1994 found Barnett was not suffering from any mental illness or personality disorder. In a Dr Madelaine Wohlreich reported that Barnett was suffering from no more than an acute reaction to the stress of being separated from her baby in the crucial first year of life.
“Hyperthymic personality” was not even a recognised diagnosis, according to standards set by the American Psychiatric Association, Dr Wohlreich wrote.
Sturgis claims this report was “rigged” as the doctor had been sympathetic to Barnett’s case.
It mattered not because by the time, Dr Wohlreich had submitted her report, Barnett and Savanna had disappeared. On April 24, 1994, she persuaded her custody supervisor that she could take Savanna to a birthday party alone and never returned.
Two days later, seven friends, family and co-workers received videotaped and written messages from Barnett she and her daughter had left because she “had to do something because of the custody order” Barnett’s camp also an alleges that when Barnett picked up Savanna for her last access visit, the child had facial injuries. This may have been another factor in Barnett abducting Savanna, they say.
Media reports over the years suggested that Todd had expended nearly all his assets in a global pursuit of his daughter. Early efforts focussed on Belize after Todd found a map of South America at Barnett’s residence, but it was a red herring.
Apparently, she had learned how to create a false identity from watching a segment on 60 Minutes. According to documents filed by the FBI in the Queensland court, she left the country on a passport under the name Alexandra Canton bound for Frankfurt in Germany with
Savanna. She then moved to South Africa’s Western Cape region before moving on to New Zealand and finally to the Sunshine Coast.
As Todd paid private detectives across the globe to track her, Barnett was raising her children by the ocean in Queensland where they excelled in competitive swimming and surf life-saving, friends say.
Todd’s life remained more or less static, according to his lawyer. He never re-married or had any other children, instead playing father to his niece and nephew. All along, he kept Savanna’s room, awaiting her return, updating the decor to suit her age as the years rolled by.
On the Sunshine Coast, Barnett made a new circle of mostly female friends who have rallied around her. No-one but the friend who betrayed her had suspected her secret and even now they staunchly defend her as she remains in custody awaiting an extradition hearing in February.
“I know her as a loving, supportive, and totally devoted mother and a loyal and loving friend with a strong work ethic, an extroverted fun personality with a welcoming home,” one said in a character reference.
“I don’t know the circumstances of what happened 20 years ago, but whatever it was, it would have been in desperation that only a mother would understand,” said another.
Todd has reportedly travelled to Queensland seeking a meeting with his daughter, but has refused media requests for interviews.
“His entire focus is on Savanna and creating a relationship with her,” says Sturgis. “But he’s going to be patient. He’s going to give her time to come to him.”
So far Savanna has rejected his offer of a meeting while her father is backing the FBI’s efforts to extradite her mother back to the US where we she will face up to 20 years in prison. “That Lee would leverage her daughter’s emotions to win her freedom demonstrates the depth of her selfishness,” says Sturgis.
There’s no doubt, her actions two decades ago are still causing trauma for her children. Coming up to Christmas, seventeen year son Reece finds himself with no father and a mother in a Brisbane jail. He has gone to New Zealand to stay with friends on a pre-arranged trip but faces an uncertain future when he returns. Savanna has so far rejected Todd’s overtures for a meeting but having just finished her university exams she wants some breathing space to process all that has happened, sources close to the family say.
She faces a delicate balance between her mother who claims she is terrified of Todd and a daughter’s right to know her father and her family in the US. At least as an adult, she will be able to choose for herself in this tug of war.
Far from hating her mother for depriving her of a life of privilege in Charleston, Savanna is sticking by her mother.
At her mother’s recent bail hearing she held up a sign that read “I love you Mom”.