It’s 1994 in Charleston, South Carolina, and Dorothy Lee Barnett and Harris Todd are embroiled in an unpleasant divorce. Throughout the ordeal, the former couple hurl insults, each hoping to secure custody of their baby daughter, Savanna. Then, after Barnett’s mental health is questioned, she takes Savanna and vanishes without a trace – sparking a massive manhunt that will span almost 20 years.
It’s fair to say that from the very beginning, Barnett lived an extraordinary life. Although her father had passed away when she was young, her mother, Dottie, threw herself into the role of single mom. And Barnett, along with her two brothers, enjoyed an adventurous childhood, despite the fact that the family often struggled to get by.
Making the most of the little money that was available to them, the Barnett family pursued a nomadic lifestyle. And this unorthodox existence ended up taking them from Florida and South Carolina to the wilds of Belize. “They were really living an Indiana Jones lifestyle before there was an Indiana Jones,” Susan Poag, a childhood friend of Barnett’s, told 48 Hours in 2016.
In fact, Poag recalls that Barnett’s unusual life made a memorable first impression. “When I first met Lee – when she was five, and I was seven – she had a big black snake around her neck. And so, I took one look at her, and I said, ‘Oh, that looks like an interesting family. I want to be friends with her.’”
Apparently, Poag’s plan worked, and she and Barnett remained friends into adulthood. By this point, it had become clear that Barnett would follow in her mother’s adventurous footsteps. And she and Poag even ventured to Africa together. However, neither woman could have known that the most challenging journey was yet to come.
While working as a stewardess out of Charleston, South Carolina, Barnett met a stockbroker named Harris Todd. And with Todd’s southern charm and passion for literature, he appeared to many to be the perfect catch. At first, though, the pair’s relationship was strictly platonic.
Five years later, however, Todd seemingly admitted that his feelings for Barnett went deeper than friendship. “He just professed to me that I’d made him feel different than anybody else had ever made him feel,” Barnett recalled in a 2016 interview with 48 Hours. “And then, one thing led to another.”
However, not everyone believed that the couple were well-suited to each other. Todd tended to be withdrawn, apparently, while Barnett had a more confident personality. “They wanted very different things out of life,” Patty Roth, another friend of Barnett’s, told 48 hours. “She was very outgoing, and [Todd]… kind of kept her to himself.”
Yet on top of these differences, there was another early red flag that perhaps should have been a deal-breaker. You see, while Barnett was keen to start a family of her own, Todd did not want kids – and he’d been very vocal about this position. Remarkably, however, the couple still decided to take their relationship to the next level.
On December 28, 1991, Barnett and Todd tied the knot. And apparently, Barnett remained hopeful that her new husband would change his mind about children. But when she announced that she was pregnant just seven months after the wedding, it was the start of a drama that would ultimately tear the couple apart – and upturn many other lives along the way.
According to Barnett, you see, Todd was against her pregnancy from the start. “I said to him, ‘I have a feeling I might be pregnant.’ And he said, ‘It’s okay. Just have an abortion,’” she explained. “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.”
Later, however, Todd would repeatedly deny having asked Barnett to abort the pregnancy. But whatever the truth, it seems as if their relationship began to deteriorate soon afterwards. According to Barnett, Todd’s disinterest in their future child left her feeling abandoned and confused. Meanwhile, Todd alleged that it was his wife’s violent temperament that was causing the troubles in their marriage.
Apparently, things came to a head when Barnett was less than three months into her pregnancy. After an alleged violent outburst during an argument, the expectant mother woke up to find that Todd had disappeared. And even though Barnett’s husband subsequently asked her to leave the home that they shared, she seemed determined to make the relationship work.
In a show of cooperation, then, Barnett and Todd agreed to attend couples’ therapy with a psychiatrist, whom Dottie had recommended. But the appointments with Dr. Oliver Bjorksten would end up tearing apart Barnett’s life. Instead of solely receiving tips on how to rescue her relationship, you see, the woman found herself suddenly diagnosed with a mental disorder – something that would prove to have drastic repercussions.
According to Dr. Bjorksten, Barnett was suffering from hyperthymic temperament – a condition that was making her prone to emotional outbursts. But for the mother-to-be, who claimed never to have had a history of mental illness, the diagnosis came as a complete shock. And she also pointed out that her relationship and pregnancy should have given her every reason to be emotional.
After being discharged with a prescription of antipsychotic drugs, Barnett made an alarming discovery. Allegedly, Todd and Dottie had conspired behind her back, reaching out to Bjorksten before the appointment with apparent concerns about Barnett’s mental stability. But while Barnett believed that the situation had been a setup, Todd claimed to have been simply trying to make his wife better.
However, as Barnett’s pregnancy progressed, the problems kept on coming. In a 1999 interview with 48 Hours, for instance, Todd claimed that his wife was continuing to suffer from violent episodes. “[I] came down the hallway, and there she is – sitting there banging her head against the wall,” he said of one alleged occasion. But Barnett denied that the incident had ever taken place.
In fact, Barnett claims that Todd was the one with the emotional problems. According to her, he threatened her throughout her pregnancy, attempting to convince her that she was insane. Moreover, Barnett alleges that her husband continued to deny that they were about to have a baby – even when the birth was just weeks away.
Seven months into her pregnancy, Barnett decided to file for divorce. And in response, Todd claimed that his wife’s emotional abuse had left him with post-traumatic stress. Then, on May 6, 1993, Barnett welcomed a daughter into the world. Named Savanna, the baby girl soon became the light of her mother’s life.
When Savanna was just over two months old, however, there came another unsettling twist in the tale. Todd – who Barnett claimed had never even wanted a baby – decided to sue for full custody of the little girl. And soon, the couple were tearing each other apart in a courtroom. So while Todd stated that his wife was unstable and promiscuous, Barnett accused him of trying to take Savanna away as a form of revenge.
But then, Dr. Bjorksten took to the stand. And in his testimony, he claimed that Barnett’s condition could have led to violence. Moreover, the psychiatrist suggested that those with similar issues had been known to act in ways that he considered to be “quite serious.” On the other hand, Barnett’s friends testified that the mother was indeed stressed – but nevertheless sane.
In an attempt to break this deadlock, the court invited another specialist to evaluate Barnett. And this medical professional, too, stated that she was suffering from a hyperthymic temperament. To make matters worse, the odds were already stacked in Todd’s favor. Not only did the father tell the court that he was open to joint custody of Savanna – which Barnett was not – but he also brought in a more reliable salary as a stockbroker.
So, on February 18, 1994, Todd was given full custody of Savanna, who by then was almost ten months old. And later that same day, he arrived to collect his daughter. “When [Todd] came and took her is when I lost it,” Barnett recalled. “And I just went to the bathroom and… sat in the bathtub and cried.”
According to Barnett, one of the most unsettling parts of the whole experience was a statement that Todd had made in court. Apparently, the dad had said that he would be watching his daughter for any signs of her mother’s alleged mental disorder. And Todd was prepared to take her to a therapist from the age of three if necessary, too.
Believing that Todd had fabricated her own mental health issues, Barnett claims that she grew terrified that the same thing might happen to Savanna. But when the mother found herself unable to lodge an appeal against the custody agreement, she took drastic action. Inspired by a television segment on illegal documents, Barnett traveled to Los Angeles, California, and began forging new identities for herself and her daughter.
Barnett acquired a false birth certificate identifying her as Alexandria Maria Canton – as well as one for Savanna, who would become a baby boy called Nick. Next, the mother stopped in Houston, Texas, where she was able to obtain a driver’s license matching her new name. And after that, she secured a pair of new passports, too.
Finally, some two months after Todd had gained custody of Savanna, Barnett put her desperate scheme into action. Withdrawing $10,000 from the bank, she took her daughter during a prearranged visit and subsequently left Charleston. And after stopping at a gas station to disguise herself with a new hairstyle, she traveled onwards to Atlanta Airport.
By the time that Todd realized something was wrong, Barnett and her daughter were long gone. And although the FBI launched an investigation, they were unable to track down the runaway pair. So, in 1999 Todd decided to take control of the situation. Accompanied by a TV crew from 48 Hours, the father traveled to Costa Rica in search of his missing daughter.
Although Todd had no evidence that Barnett and Savanna were in Costa Rica, he suspected that they might have ended up there. And so, the man began to comb the region, searching schools and markets for any sign of the pair. “If I have to spend the rest of my life doing this, so be it,” he said.
Meanwhile, Todd began making appearances on national television, appealing for help in locating Savanna. According to him, Barnett was dangerous, sick and unfit to be a mother to their young child. And at the same time, hired investigators began to hound Barnett’s friends in South Carolina, accusing them of being involved in a kidnapping conspiracy.
But while Todd was searching for his daughter, Barnett and Savanna had begun a whole new life. After leaving Atlanta, Barnett – now going by the name of Alex – had made her way to Malaysia. There, the mother began covertly writing a diary for Savanna, who was now referred to as Samantha. And in it, Barnett confessed to the isolation that she was feeling after leaving all her family and friends behind.
After seven months, Barnett and Samantha found themselves in South Africa, where they met geologist Juan Geldenhuys. Within months, Barnett and Geldenhuys were husband and wife, and eventually the couple welcomed a son named Reece. Then, the new family relocated to Botswana in Southern Africa.
There, Barnett and her children enjoyed an idyllic existence. “We had giraffes walking outside our house and on the streets and buffalo and all that sort of stuff around the river,” Reece recalled in a 2016 interview with 48 Hours. “It was fun all the time.” And over a decade since Barnett had left America, the family moved again – this time to the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia.
But despite Barnett and Geldenhuys’ beautiful surroundings, their marriage did not last. On her own once more, then, Barnett refused to give up and remained determined to support her children. “She was a great single mother,” Samantha recalled. However, there were moments in which Barnett grew nostalgic for the United States – although she wouldn’t tell her daughter why.
But in September 2013, the new life that Barnett had created for herself came crashing down. When she answered her front door that morning, she was terrified to see the police. Two years previously, you see, a friend had betrayed Barnett by reaching out to Todd and revealing the crucial clue to the mother’s whereabouts: her new name. But even after Todd had learned the alias that Barnett had been using, the Australian and American authorities had been slow to work out an arrangement for the impending arrest.
Barnett was subsequently detained by the authorities and locked up in Brisbane. And with her mother behind bars, Samantha finally uncovered the truth about her upbringing from the FBI agents who had been on her trail for years. Understandably, Samantha – now twenty years old – was shocked to learn that she had once been Savanna and that Geldenhuys was in fact not her real father.
However, when the investigators explained their reasons for hunting down Barnett all these years, Samantha did not recognize the person that they were describing. “Every characteristic they said my mother had was wrong and incorrect,” Samantha said. “Every single thing. 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.”
In fact, Samantha flat-out denied that there had been any element of abuse in her relationship with Barnett. And while helping to fight her mother’s extradition, she finally got to read the diary that had been written for her while the pair were on the run. “If you think of every single little thing that she has gone through, I’ve lived this wonderful life,” Samantha explained. “She did everything she could and more to just keep me safe.”
But despite the loyalty of Barnett’s daughter and friends, she was eventually extradited to the United States. There, she was handed a 21-month sentence to serve behind bars. But even though the authorities berated Barnett for taking justice into her own hands, she claims to feel no remorse over depriving Todd of a relationship with his child.
Now, Barnett is out of prison and continues to be a permanent fixture in Samantha’s life. Todd, however, hasn’t been so lucky, and his attempts so far at getting to know his daughter have largely failed. “There is no way I am letting go of my mom,” Samantha confirmed. Meanwhile, Barnett is releasing a book about her experiences – another chapter in this twisted saga that has left many lives forever changed.