Runaway Mum

Savanna Todd (left) at court in Maroochydore last  month

Savanna Todd (left) at court in Maroochydore last month

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.

Savanna at 11 months old before her abduction in 1994

Savanna at 11 months old before her abduction in 1994

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 lawyerHe 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”.



13 thoughts on “Runaway Mum

  1. This is all that she doesn’t know please her mom left the young boy’s dad as well-on accusations that he was having the affair, also it was a search for samantha kibalo in australia AND SOUTH AFRICAa on facebook that led samantha geldenhuys facebook and the striking physical similarities, and then the STEP FATHERS OBIT from SOUTH AFRICA, is she hadn’t been renamed samantha she’d still be out there UNAWARE of her situation, most likely, unless of course there was a different tip that canadian and or fbi officials acted on .
    Also this is the 2nd web tip that’s caught an alleged children of the underground, and it all has to do with the internet and LOCATIONS no matter the ALIAS, look up the sigourney chisholm case that Valedictorian picture is one of many suspected young woman’s photos that were e-mailed to Alberta, picked bc it started with an A and I thought that some people in VICTORIA, CANADA might already be in on in with the mother, but that Sigourney/ Thea as she was known with an alias last name.

    Oh and if anyone’s going to track down the long older cases it’s going to be young person-X generation or Y generation that or a PRIVATE INVESTIAGATOR OF ANY AGE, and Technology ETC. or just MORE news publicity etc. bc you don’t have that now except in the immediate area of where the child went missing. in this case isle of palms but isle of palms is incorporated in CHARLESTON.SC a much bigger area. and most of the underground parents/whether officially connected to Faye Yager or NOT move OUT OF STATE even COUNTRY.
    Also the Sigourney tip being a Web tip isn’t public record and DO NOT EXPECT THIS CASE TO END LIKE THAT ONE. Dorothy BARNETT is way too out of line crazy for that, or is it antisocial personality or narcisist I don’t know but ironically or rather nonironically it was her exhusband’s OBIT OCTOBER 30th or 31st of 2013 that “DID HER IN” oh and there was a tip sent to FBI about her Samantha/Savanna has a younger brother, also so that’s where facebook and twitter come in.
    A woman 4 yrs younger than me also born in Charleston SC I wonder if she even wants to MEET ANY of her father’s extended family, I doubt she’s reading anything on the internet disparaging at all towards her mother…and this is mainly an attack on Faye Yager, heard about those Brevard,NC women shelters she used to run, how about a story on THOSE and her LACK OF PAYING EMPLOYEES, oh and she’ll turn on you if your a LESBIAN OR GAY PERSON trying to run with a child, there’s that southern charm we’re looking for…she’s f-ing insane regardless of her own daughter’s circumstances, but she’s left a LEGACY don’t even think she’s involved since a few years ago but whose to say(police don’t think she is I personally never would want to know the woman)

  2. leave the woman alone..It’s 20 years ago.the daughter has a life in Australia and I think the father will just cause upset and sadness. Why isn’t the FBI looking for many of those evil pedophiles instead of a mother who loved and cared for her children.

    • I agree she only fled when her baby daughter had bruises on her head and blood in her nose when she picked up her for her weekend access, maybe the US court need to look at the father because she was in his care when this happened and they have photo’s to prove it.

      • Agreed also, there’s been no evidence of bipolar whatsoever since Lee lived in Australia. She’s brought up two children who are proving to be exceptional adults. If this is what a ‘friend’ that you helped emigrate does to you, be thankful that Lee has many true friends rather than the Schofield family in Mooloolaba.

      • Maybe bc that story is just he-said she said, and more of neglect rather than physical abuse.
        Also really bc I thought that she had a court supervisor who had to be with her at that time to pick the child up, or did that come later? (the child was under 1 yo when Lee took her, so how would those bruises have happened, from the child being dropped). I didn’t see her calling the police then and there, but perhaps this didn’t come out in court, or perhaps it’s brand new, bc surely one of Lee’s advocate’s Faye Yaeger would have brought it up yrs ago.
        They have photos that can’t possibly legally prove causation, unfortunately of Baby Savannah’s bruises, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen on his watch though legally it’s shaky ground.
        Also unless she did, I didn’t see her bringing this up in court at ALL (of course isn’t that sealed), also she said that she left him BC she thought he was/might be a gasp HOMOSEXUAL, absolutely no evidence of that , not bc he was abusing their child.

        Also this case is odd in that in a non-joint custody world-yet. That’s how the first court-ruling went, right?
        Not in the favor she wanted it. (and no I don’t think it went that way just bc he’s self-made wealthy)

      • I have a lot of respect for her. She was young and left all of her family and the town she had grown up in to protect her daughter, I have felt all along that Todd had her set up and that the good ole boy system in Charleston sided with him.

  3. Thank you for writing about Alexandra Lee. She is a good person. I knew her in Charleston. I was a neighbor of her mothers, where she grew up. Sometimes you have to do what you have to do. I feel she didn’t have choice. She did the right thing…

    • How about going to court again, with an actual witness and calling the police right away if she’d actually ever suspected this one incident of neglect and abuse.
      I know He’s rich, good old boys, Charleston SC.
      Alexandra Lee ?, you mean “Alexandra Guldenhuys” really Dorothy “Lee” Barnett .

      I bet her only regret still is that somehow this unravelled .
      You can be an over all good person and still do something horrible in nature .
      She knew what she wanted and she did everything in her power to get it, no other choice, BS. This was a judge who primarily ruled in the MOTHERS FAVOR BACK THEN, she still had some Custody. The fact is that even if her accusations were true they were unfounded, also that these new accusations are just that NEW.(unless of course they were brought to court before and ignored? which wouldn’t be public knowledge I believe)
      Once again look through the propaganda, she devised a plan when the court ruling didn’t HAVE HER ONLY GETTING FULL CUSTODY of a Child from a MAN SHE either Barely knew and/or HATED and didn’t want HIM TO HAVE ANY CONTACT with THEIR CHILD .

  4. That’s bullshit there is evidence of bipolar, in fact Savannah has it as well, she’s stated that which is another reason she thinks that the courts were biased against her mom Dorothy “Lee” Barnett.

    Also sorry but look up Faye Yaeger and ALL THE PROPAGANDA that was said for YEARS by the CHILDREN OF THE UNDERGROUND ABOUT HARRIS TODD. You think he deserved that HOW ABOUT LEAVE THE DEVASTATED FATHER ALONE, not the MOTHER WHO SEEMINGLY GOT WHAT SHE WANTED. Oh and who said that it was Family friends that actually turned her in, if that were so THEY WOULD HAVE TURNED HER IN RIGHT WHEN those comments where made regarding Samantha actually being named Savannah. That’s not what happened. Of course only the FBI knows how they got a tip to look in South Africa, and yes it has to do with Sam’s facebook as well as an obituary in South Africa.
    There were suspicions of Lee going as far as Australia long ago, but they’ve only been in Australia for a couple of yrs.
    Oh and officially she never once and neither did children of the underground ever say oh he physically neglected and abused Savannah, that’s NEW INFO coming out of the mouth of Lee, and old allies of hers.
    I don’t think that’s what she was screaming about in a Court house yrs ago, Trust me my whole family’s from Charleston. This took place all in the wealthy area of Daniel Island,etc.
    Oh and Lee’s patterns, going and dating wealthy men, and then shortly after having a child with them, you can bet that had a lot to do, their son that is,(who is around 3-4 yrs younger than Sa.) with her next husband, then ex-husband, not turning her in, even after her crazy(and no I’m talking about her REAL PERSONALITY coming out not the BP DISORDER) turned up.

    I mean she never even told HER MOTHER WHERE SHE WAS, her OWN MOTHER.(Sav’s Grandmother) She just lived her life by HER TERMS, A LIE, for 19+ yrs .

  5. Hi Scarlett, why don’t you tell us what really happened? You seem to know a lot more than you have said so far. I’d love to be filled in on the full story if, as you say, there has been propaganda. Cheers

  6. There has but honestly a lot of this traces back to Faye Yager and the city I grew up in for most of my 25 yrs of life, Charleston,SC and a little group called the children of the underground-also Sam/Savanna was found through social media -just like say Sigourney Chisholm aka Thea Whelan was found,-in that case a known was thought-that she had taken her to victoria,canada-remember a newspaper of all things-though also seen online yet over 2 yrs after published solved that case, and honestly I think Lee Barnett’s reasons where far more convulated that Patricia O’Byrne(sigourney’s mother, and such the father was VERY forgiving-and thus the Canadian courts) there were locations thought to where she would be-which one of those for abductor Lee Barnett was on atleast the website charley project put as Australia.
    -there has been propaganda, also another thing is that what led authorities to Sav. Todd’s facebook etc. was her step-father’s obituary page- so maybe two things did come together-but honestly her step-father’s friends wouldn’t have waited till he was dead from a cancer that at the time he didn’t have-when she was called Savannah by the mother at age 18-would they really wait 2 1/2 yrs to take that to authorities-no it took bureacrats that much info to zoom in-from America, bc honestly australian courts aren’t particurally friendly when it come to The Hague Convention, especially almost 20 yrs after the fact.
    In saying I’m from Charleston I’ve never met the Todd’s or their relatives.

    Also it’s usually Charleston,SC where the underground has operated-not where they’ve had to help a mother hide from.
    -oh and the fbi once had Faye Yager on their most wanted list as well, but that was in the 90s – honestly if they thought they stood a chance of tracking her down I think she’d be on their most wanted list now.-oh and speaking of propaganda isn’t faye yager herself such a sympathetic figure-and that statement is only veiled contempt for her.
    oh and it’s not just mothers she’ll help but fathers which honestly is a BIT contradictory but yeah where’s Lee Todd’s emerald ring now,hmm?
    I know you were either being coy or sarcastic in thinking that I was just going off on a stream of concious rant when I decided to post here and honestly things in South Carolina courts are kept in private very well-have to read in the post and courier AFTER the fact to even know that Dorothy “Lee” Todd’s already had here first appearance.

    Anyway life’s too short,Bye forever.

  7. I meant life’s too short to be concerned of whether people think your off for seeming to have insider knowledge that’s somewhat public-yet the fbi interpol,etc. all need their anonymous tips, and yeah I know that sounds cryptically knowing and arrogant of data mining skills so yeah . I still can’t believe that already she was 100 percent behind her mother so early on after her life is changed forever with that knowledge, but I know part of that support is shock and denial . oh and then the propaganda, isn’t it odd that the supposed physical abuse allegations came out way later- do you really think people would have been that tight-lipped for 20 yrs? !

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