For Johns Island father, ‘constant agony’ over daughter’s 1994 disappearance turns to joy
When Benjamin Harris Todd III and his attorney went to his ex-wife’s Isle of Palms house on a Sunday night in 1994, it was the second time they set out in search of his daughter, Savanna.
Todd’s former wife, Dorothy Lee Barnett, had visitation rights every other weekend, a result of their 13-day divorce trial earlier that year.
After the first time she didn’t return the infant girl, Barnett was found in contempt of court and ordered to undergo psychiatric treatment for bipolar disorder, according to court papers.
The second time, Todd and his lawyer, Graham Sturgis of Charleston, showed up at Barnett’s front door on Carolina Boulevard. No answer. Isle of Palms police officers helped them get inside.
But the house had been cleared of some personal belongings. A map remained. It showed Central America, where Barnett had often traveled but provided no exact clues about where she and Savanna might have gone.
Over the next two decades, Todd and Sturgis did find some clues. None panned out until recently, when information led authorities to Todd’s ex-wife and daughter north of Australia’s Brisbane.
“He never stopped looking,” Sturgis said. “Now, this provides a long-awaited opportunity for him to develop a relationship between father and daughter that should have continued from the moment he became a father.”
The attorney on Friday would not discuss Todd’s whereabouts or say whether he had traveled to Queensland to reunite with his daughter. Savanna was known there as Samantha and her mother as Alexandria Geldenhuys.
To one woman who once considered Barnett a friend, the recent development didn’t come as a total surprise.
Attorney Melinda Lucka had known Barnett for years before her disappearance. She knew of the dueling allegations of abuse between them, but Lucka said Todd should not have been denied a chance to know his daughter as she grew up.
Lucka was serving as the court- appointed supervisor of Barnett’s visits with her daughter when the two went missing.
She figured that one day, someone somewhere would figure out that Barnett was in hiding.
“You can’t do something like that and expect nothing to be done about it,” she said. “This was bound to happen. It was always just a matter of when and where.”
Todd still lives in the Johns Island home where Savanna once spent most of her days. But a neighbor said he was last seen there two weeks ago, when he mowed the lawn.
On Friday, an old Volkswagen Beetle and an aluminum travel trailer were parked outside, but no one was around. He keeps to himself there. A fence with a sign saying “private” blocks his long, dirt driveway.
Barnett remains jailed as she awaits an extradition hearing, which Sturgis said would likely come in February. Federal authorities announced Barnett’s arrest Thursday, when the 2012 indictment against her was made public.
She faces up to 33 years in prison if convicted in the United States on charges of international parental kidnapping and falsifying two U.S. passport applications.
Sturgis said Friday that he and his client didn’t want to belittle Barnett’s contributions to raising Savanna Catherine Todd, now 20 years old and attending James Cook University.
He said Todd doesn’t want to damage any relationship he might strike up with Savanna.
Loved ones of Todd’s also declined to offer their reaction for that reason. John Todd of Spartanburg, his brother, said he wanted to wait for the saga to play out in the weeks and months to come.
Todd, a stockbroker, and Barnett, a flight attendant, met in the 1980s when she sought financial advice from him.
Following a common Southern fashion, they each used their middle names as their first. He was Harris. She was Lee.
They got married in late 1991, a decision that Todd regretted soon after.
By the time Savanna was born in May 1993, they had already split apart. Barnett had filed for divorce earlier that spring.
Todd had a place on Johns Island’s dirt-surfaced Exchange Landing Road, where his property had access to a tributary off the Wappoo River. Barnett lived in a home two blocks from the Atlantic Ocean in Isle of Palms.
Their divorce proceedings took place in February 1994 in Charleston County Family Court. Barnett alleged abandonment, and Todd said his wife had hit him and berated him.
During the two-week trial, Judge Robert Mallard considered who should have custody of Savanna and who would get visitation rights, according to court documents. That determination didn’t come while Barnett was pregnant, as some news media, including The Post and Courier, had reported.
Ultimately, Todd’s attorney said, the judge’s decision hinged on which parent could provide the best life for Savanna and which parent would welcome the girl’s connection with the one who didn’t have full custody.
“(Todd) never tried to sever Savanna’s relationship with her mother,” Sturgis said. “(Barnett), on the other hand, was not supportive of her husband’s relationship to her daughter.”
Mallard issued an oral ruling Feb. 18, 1994, that awarded Todd full custody and allowed Barnett to visit Savanna every other weekend from 6 p.m. Friday to 6 p.m. Sunday. The written order wasn’t filed until May 4.
After her first visit, Barnett refused to return the girl to Todd, the documents stated. That resulted in emergency contempt-of-court proceedings in which a judge ordered the mother to seek psychiatric evaluation and treatment at Medical University Hospital.
But she didn’t lose her visitation rights.
Instead, the judge appointed Lucka to keep tabs on the sessions. Lucka, a private attorney who also serves as Charleston’s city prosecutor, had met Barnett by chance a few years earlier as Barnett walked her two great Danes on the beach. Lucka thought she was funny and energetic, and they struck up a casual friendship.
Lucka supervised Barnett’s weekend visits with Savanna through phone calls and random visits. A few of the sessions happened without incident.
But at some point during the weekend of Friday, April 22, 1994, through that Sunday, Barnett packed up and left with Savanna, the documents stated.
A car and a stroller were left in Barnett’s driveway. But when Todd and his attorney looked inside, they found Barnett’s house in disorder.
Lucka and the police also were there. She saw food on the kitchen counter, as if Barnett had quickly made sandwiches to pack.
“It was clear that she had taken that child,” Sturgis said. “That began a massive effort, and over the years, we had some leads, but we never got close enough to find Savanna.”
As a USAir flight attendant, Barnett was well-traveled. Her mother was too.
They had visited Africa together. They often flew to Belize, which some people thought was her first hiding spot.
“There was no telling what she would do because she was used to traveling,” Lucka said. “We were always wondering what lengths she would go to not to be found.”
The search drained Todd emotionally and financially.
The intensely private man appeared on Robert Stack’s “Unsolved Mysteries” and on talk shows with Sally Jessy Raphael and Montel Williams.
He was profiled by GQ magazine and in a series of newspaper articles about missing children by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children paid particular attention to the disappearance on its website.
Then in 1999, Todd and Sturgis sued Barnett, her mother and Lucka. The lawsuit alleged that Barnett got financial help in skipping town from her mother and some of her friends. Lucka was later dropped from the suit.
Widespread reporting by newspapers, television stations and websites also implicated the Children of the Underground, a group that specialized in providing new identities for victims of abuse — whether actual or alleged.
But Sturgis said he doubted the accounts because he had warned group leader Faye Yager not to intervene if Barnett ever asked her for help.
“(Barnett) was determined,” Sturgis said. “But there are reasons to believe that she got help from other people.”
The lawsuit explained how Todd had “extreme heartbreak” and “constant agony” over his daughter’s disappearance.
As a financial consultant with Merrill Lynch, it stated, Todd lost earnings during a stock market boom because of the time and money he spent in looking for her.
Todd felt deprived of a chance to love Savanna and an opportunity for her to love him. He felt robbed of the small moments of parenthood that make life “monumental.”
“He has never attended her birthday party nor shared the wonder of Christmas morning with her,” the suit stated. “He has not been able to rock her to sleep ... or pack her book bag and lunch for school.
“He survives on the hope that someday even if he cannot find Savanna ... perhaps she will find him.”
Todd eventually won civil judgments totaling $50 million that he never saw because no one was around to pay it.
But money wasn’t the point, Sturgis said. The objective was to ferret out Barnett’s whereabouts through subpoenas and evidence discovery.
With the court action and his media appearances, Todd hoped to flush out Barnett, to catch the attention of someone who knew his daughter.
For a long time, it didn’t work.
But earlier this month — 19 years, 6 months and 12 days after Savanna went missing — federal authorities finally got in touch with her.
“He was ecstatic,” Sturgis said. “He was as excited as a father with a missing child could have been.”
Though he wouldn’t discuss specifics about how Barnett’s life on the lam started to unravel, Sturgis said Todd’s website had played a part. The Australian newspaper reported that someone who knew Barnett from her time in South Africa contacted Todd, who called the FBI.
Federal authorities arrested her Nov. 4 on Australia’s Sunshine Coast.
But Todd’s ecstasy over the prospect of seeing his grown daughter was soon tempered with apprehension. He feared what Barnett had or hadn’t told Savanna about her biological father.
“It’s going to take time for her to acclimate to the fact of having a father,” Sturgis said. “But he is amazingly kind and gentle. ... He will be a daddy again.”