More than two decades after she kidnapped her own infant daughter amid an acrimonious divorce in which she lost custody to the girl’s father, Dorothy Lee Barnett is elaborating on the thought process that led her to that fateful decision — as well as the years she spent evading authorities around the world.
Barnett shared her story in an interview with “48 Hours” on CBS, explaining that she thinks “the FBI and every other law enforcement agency underestimated” her when she took off from South Carolina with her 11-month-old girl in 1994.
From there, she changed her name to Alex Geldenhuys, changing little Savanna’s name to Samantha Geldenhuys.
Now an adult, Savanna is also sharing her unusual story, including the fact that her mother began writing a diary to her before she was born.
“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,'” the daughter recalled.
After the mother and daughter disappeared from Charleston, Barnett said they lived in different places including Malaysia, Singapore, Botswana and South Africa. She said they also spent a significant amount of time across Europe and in Australia, where she was ultimately cornered by cops and arrested in 2013.
That was two years after federal authorities back home received a tip indicating Barnett and her daughter were residing in Queensland. The mother returned to Charleston to face charges of kidnapping — but now she’s speaking out against the inaccurate portrait of her painted in the media.
“I need to tell the truth about what happened … something needs to be changed,” Barnett said.
She began by recalling the less-than-storybook romance she had with Savanna’s father, Harris Todd. Five years after their friendship began, she said he made his move.
“He just professed to me that I’d made him feel different than anybody else has ever made him feel,” she recalled.
Barnett described him as “so serious,” explaining that she thought she would be able to give him “a more normal, fun-loving life.”
She also thought she would be able to convince him to have children, she said, describing it as “this crazy dream that [she’d] make everything right.”
Instead, Barnett said it was after she got pregnant that their relationship really went south.
She said her husband kept denying she was going to have a baby even when she “was eight months pregnant.”
Todd urged her to get an abortion, she said, though he denies it and said the relationship ultimately ended and he left their home because of her violent outbursts.
Some of the criticism of Harris Todd was already included in a recording Barnett sent to those in her life while she was on the run with Savanna.
Susan Poag, a childhood friend, recalled that Barnett was raised by a widowed mother who led the family on an adventurous life.
She said they “were really living an Indiana Jones lifestyle before there was an Indiana Jones,” noting that at one point they moved to Belize where “they were in the jungle, living with local families.”
That adventurous spirit stayed with Barnett into adulthood, her friend said, and “prepared her for really what was the ultimate adventure of her life.”
Barnett’s brother, Cliff, agreed, recalling that the family had to learn to “do things with no money and no resources” and “do things on the fly.”
Though Barnett denies she ever had a mental illness, she said she took three pills prescribed to her by a doctor in what she now believes was a set-up by Todd.
She thinks he met with the doctor ahead of time in hopes of having her diagnosed as mentally ill to “save his face for walking out on his pregnant wife.”
Todd has defended his behavior as an effort to get help for a woman he said exhibited violence against herself and others.
Barnett denies ever harming herself or threatening her husband, though she admits she “slapped him once.”
She also acknowledged becoming emotional, including angry outbursts, but said all the threats in the relationship came from Todd.
Then, when a court awarded Todd custody following a lawsuit when Savanna was just two months old, she said her life was destroyed by Todd’s hurtful testimony and the ruling against her.
She said it was “impossible” to try to disprove claims that she was mentally ill, explaining that the harder you try “the crazier you sound.”
Barnett and her friends said they were flabbergasted when the court awarded Todd custody.
“I think I got hyper,” she said. “I think I got stressed. I think I got scared. I was very scared, because I knew something was really, really going wrong.”
She said she “lost it” when authorities came to take Savanna away from her, noting that she got into her bathtub and started crying.
About two months later, she decided to act, obtaining fake IDs and kidnapping her own daughter during a visitation. Along with $10,000 cash and a black wig, Barnett and her daughter took off.
By the time she was supposed to return Savanna to Todd, Barnett said the two were already in Paris.
Cliff Barnett gave his sister and niece a ride to begin their life on the run and recalled talking to Todd after the they disappeared.
The angry ex-husband repeatedly complained that Barnett was an unfit mother, the brother said.
“And I finally … just eventually said, ‘Well, apparently she has the sense to disappear from you,'” he recalled.
Todd, however, has insisted that his ex-wife’s behavior was done to hurt him, “not to save Savanna.”
In 1999, he set off on an adventure of his own to find his missing daughter.
“I don’t have any specific knowledge of her whereabouts,” he said at the time, but went to Costa Rica where he said blondes “really stand out.”
Poag says she and others were caught up in an ongoing investigation Todd initiated to keep the case open and in the media.
Barnett met and married a man in South Africa who she said knew the entire story of her complicated life.
“I got married to him because he was madly in love with my daughter,” Barnett said of engineering geologist Juan Geldenhuys.
The new couple had a son and the family relocated to Botswana.
Savanna recalled moving to Australia after her mother’s marriage to the man she considered her father ended when Geldenhuys took off with another woman.
Even after that shock to their family, she said Barnett remained a great single mother with a resilient nature.
That lasted until the early morning knock on their door. On the other side were officers ready to serve a warrant two years in the making. U.S. and Australian authorities worked out a deal that came to fruition in 2013.
“One of the agents said to me, ‘You must be relieved,'” Barnett recalled. “But I wasn’t relieved. I knew that my life would change, my children’s lives would change.”
Not only did it mean the prospect of seeing her mother go to jail, it also meant Savanna would learn some painful truths about her own heritage.
After taking Barnett into custody, FBI agents began sharing the sordid details with her daughter. But Savanna said the picture they painted did not ring true.
“Every characteristic they said that my mother had was wrong and incorrect,” she said. “Every single thing. Like, she … had bipolar. I mean, that was the most incredibly confronting thing. And I felt very rude because I just laughed in their faces.”
After Barnett’s release from jail in 2015, she served two years of probation. Poag described the relief of having her friend back after so many years and Cliff Barnett described memories of their shared childhood “coming back.”
[Featured image: video screenshot]