Savanna Todd stands by mother who took her from Johns Island father, resettled in Australia
Savanna Catherine Todd is standing by the mother who smuggled her out of the home they knew two decades ago in Isle of Palms and forged a new identity for her overseas.
Speaking publicly for the first time since her mother's arrest in Australia in November, Todd said she didn't blame Dorothy Lee Barnett for abandoning their life in the Lowcountry.
Barnett had told Todd that her father had been abusive and had launched a deceptive campaign to get custody of the girl as an infant, according to a report on the "Today Tonight" television program on Australia's 7 News.
Todd didn't know of her past or her father, Benjamin Harris Todd III of Johns Island, until the FBI and authorities in Queensland caught up with Barnett. Savanna Todd has since rallied support in Australia and asked authorities to hear her mother out.
"I backed my mom on the first day because I knew who she was," Savanna Todd, now 20, said in a video posted on the program's website. "I knew what she did would be for a valid reason."
The Post and Courier's attempts to contact her have not been successful. Her father has not addressed the media since the end of his decades-long campaign to find Savanna, who disappeared during a weekend visit with Barnett in 1994. Harris Todd had custody of the girl at the time.
Barnett remains in an Australian jail while she awaits an extradition hearing Monday. She faces federal charges of international parental kidnapping and falsifying two U.S. passport applications, counts that are punishable by up to 33 years in prison.
Beth Drake, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Columbia, said prosecutors were hoping to soon have Barnett extradited to the United States, a process that can take weeks.
Harris Todd's attorney, Graham Sturgis of Charleston, brushed off the TV program's portrayal of his client, who has talked with his daughter but has not visited her.
"Harris doesn't fault her for wanting to love her mother," Sturgis told The Post and Courier. "But she only knows her mother and knows little of her father."
The program focused largely on Barnett's reasons for fleeing the country. She became known as Alexandria Geldenhuys. Her daughter was Samantha.
It depicted their roots in Charleston, referring to the city as one of "wealthy businessmen, aristocrats and staunch conservatives." She was born to parents whose 1991 marriage quickly fell apart.
The news report featured photos of the infant Savanna with a bloody nose, an injury that Barnett had deemed to be the result of abuse by her father.
Sturgis said the nearly 10-month-old girl had started to walk and had suffered the injury during a fall. Doctors found no evidence of abuse, he said.
Instead, a judge gave custody to Harris Todd after a 13-day trial, the longest child-custody proceeding in Charleston County's history at the time, the attorney said.
Experts did not falsely diagnose Barnett with bipolar disorder as part of a "smear campaign," as the report suggested, he added.
"It was up to the judge to make a (custody) decision, and he did," Sturgis said. "We're not going to revisit (in court) how this case was decided. It's done."
Barnett once refused to promptly hand over the child after a weekend visit. When the baby wasn't returned during another visit in April 1994, authorities broke into Barnett's house in Isle of Palms. She already had packed up and left.
Before she left with the girl, Barnett recorded a video of herself stating the reasons for leaving. Sturgis said he has a copy of the video, clips of which were played during the Australian news report.
Barnett called her former husband a "very, very evil man" and dubbed the custody determination "corrupt ... incestual ... and criminal."
"I will keep her safe," she said of her daughter. "I will never allow anybody to harm her again."
She stayed true to her word, Savanna Todd told 7 News.
Homemade movies show them frolicking in a swimming pool and playing inside. They found temporary homes in Germany, then France, then Malaysia. Barnett married a man in South Africa, where suspicion of her true identity arose, the report stated. The couple and Savanna Todd later settled in Australia.
The report stated that Barnett once slipped up and called her daughter by her birth name instead of her alias. Her South African husband's relatives later contacted Harris Todd, eventually leading to her arrest two years later, according to the account.
Even after learning of her past, Savanna Todd said she will not use the name given to her at birth.
"A name does not change who you are," she told 7 News.
Harris Todd still longs for a reunion with his daughter, but his attorney said that such a meeting would occur only if she agrees.
"He wants her to be safe, happy and well," Sturgis said. "Harris has not asked her to choose sides - ever."
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.