Missing from Isle of Palms since 1994, girl found safe; mother arrested in Australia

Savanna Catherine Todd in a handout photo from the time of her disappearance in 1994.

Nearly two decades ago, Dorothy Lee Barnett left her Isle of Palms home with her infant daughter, flew oversees and started a new life, according to federal authorities.

Barnett didn’t have custody of Savanna Catherine Todd in 1994, when she was accused of abducting the 10-month-old.

She married a man in South Africa, moved to New Zealand and, five years ago, wound up in Australia, according to The Australian newspaper.

But her ex-husband, former Charleston stockbroker Benjamin Harris Todd III, and his loved ones clung to a hope that they would see his girl again. Todd had parted ways with Barnett before Savanna’s birth and had been awarded custody of the unborn child.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation didn’t give up either. Agents alleged that they came across evidence that Barnett tried using an alias a decade ago to get an American passport. They knew she was still trying to hide.

It was in the Australian state of Queensland where authorities finally caught up with Barnett and Savanna on Nov. 4. The 53-year-old mother was arrested. The daughter, now 20, was “safe, healthy and otherwise living a normal life,” U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles said in a statement announcing the development Thursday.

“The commitment demonstrated by the FBI agents in this case in locating Barnett and the missing child after so many years,” Nettles said, “was tireless and is an inspiration.”

The Post and Courier’s attempts to contact Todd on Thursday were not successful. Telephone numbers that he once answered were no longer in service.

His ex-wife faces a federal charge of international parental kidnapping and two counts of making a false statement on a passport application. If convicted, Barnett could face three years in prison on the kidnapping charge and 10 years on each of the passport counts.

In Australia, where Barnett appeared before a magistrate with her daughter, her bail was denied Wednesday. She is expected to appear later for an extradition hearing.

Barnett, a flight attendant, and Todd got married in December 1991 in Beaufort.

She filed for divorce in February 1993, alleging in court documents that Todd had left her because he was angry about her being pregnant. Todd countered, saying Barnett physically and emotionally abused him.

That month, Todd was given temporary custody of his unborn daughter. Savanna was born May 6, 1993.

When Barnett moved out of her Isle of Palms home on April 23, 1994, she apparently took Savanna with her. During a court-supervised visit, the two left for a birthday party without an escort and never returned, the police reported at the time.

Barnett’s disappearance prompted a probe by the FBI, which obtained a warrant for her arrest in April 1994. Todd pleaded for the public’s help in finding his daughter.

“I remember her in her little Easter dress,” he said in 1995. “Someone, somewhere must know where my baby girl is.”

Savanna’s picture was posted on websites. Artists created images depicting what she might look like today.

During her alleged time on the lam, Barnett used aliases such as Alexandria Maria Canton, federal authorities said, to evade detection.

Citing court papers, The Australian reported that she got married in 1995 to Juan Geldenhuys in South Africa. She gave birth to a son.

Once in March 2003 and again in March 2004, Barnett used her new name, Alexandria Maria Geldenhuys, to attempt to get a U.S. passport, according to the indictment against her.

She and her new husband later became citizens of New Zealand, then moved to Australia in 2007, The Australian reported. Her husband later left Barnett and died of cancer.

The newspaper reported that Barnett had been living in Queensland with her two children. Savanna was known there as Samantha, the newspaper reported, and had been studying nursing at a university. Her mother had a mortgage.

Exactly how U.S. authorities caught up with her wasn’t stated in federal courts papers in South Carolina.

The Australian reported that Todd learned of her whereabouts when a friend of Barnett’s second husband grew suspicious and contacted him.

The Department of State and the Australian Federal Police had roles in her ensuing capture.

After her arrest, Barnett appeared in an Australian courtroom for bail hearings. During one proceeding, The Australian reported, her daughter held up a sign that said, “We love you Mom.”

She’s expected to fight extradition in Australia, where she was said to have a host of supporters.

Glenn Smith contributed to this report. Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.

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