Former Isle of Palms woman nabbed in Australia to plead guilty in daughter’s 1994 abduction

Dorothy Lee Barnett, 54, on Oct. 20.

A former Isle of Palms mother is expected to plead guilty Tuesday to kidnapping her infant daughter two decades ago and starting a new life in Australia, her attorney confirmed Wednesday.

Dorothy Lee Barnett, 54, who didn’t have custody of Savanna when she left the country in 1994, had mounted an initial attempt to fight the federal charges of international parental kidnapping and falsifying two passport applications.

But after a failed bid to have the counts dismissed, she will instead appear at 9 a.m. Tuesday in a Charleston courtroom to enter a plea and be sentenced by U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel, according to court records.

Barnett has been jailed since her arrest in November 2013, and her supporters have said that her health has deteriorated during her more than 14 months behind bars.

Her attorney, Russell W. Mace III of Myrtle Beach, declined Wednesday to share details of any sentencing agreement with prosecutors.

“We’re still hoping for a positive resolution to the case,” Mace said. “My client is looking forward to completing this part of the criminal process.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Nathan Williams, who is prosecuting the case, said he could not immediately comment on the plea hearing because the case was still pending. The development came after Barnett indicated during a proceeding Tuesday that she planned to change her plea.

She could face up to 30 years in prison on the three charges.

Her former husband, Benjamin Harris Todd III of Johns Island, had custody of their daughter in April 1994 when Barnett left her home with the girl during a court-supervised visit and never resurfaced in the United States.

Barnett had accused Todd of abuse during their divorce proceedings, but a judge found no evidence of her claims and granted him full custody of Savanna.

After she left, Barnett made her way to foreign countries and eventually married a South African man and gave birth to a son. The family called Australia’s Queensland their home after her second husband’s death.

The FBI and Australian authorities tracked down Barnett, who was using the name Alexandria Geldenhuys, after Todd was tipped off to her whereabouts. U.S. officials said they had never given up hope of finding Savanna and arresting her mother.

But Barnett’s daughter and a host of supporters from Down Under and in the Lowcountry have stood by the woman whose lone concern at the time of her flight, they said, was Savanna’s well-being.

Mace also said in court documents that Savanna, now a 21-year-old college student known as Samantha Geldenhuys, did not consider herself a victim in her mother’s criminal case.

But an order late last year in which U.S. Magistrate Judge Bristow Marchant denied Barnett a chance to post bail while awaiting trial indicated the seriousness of the charges she faces. The document stated that she “willfully and through a course of careful planning abducted a minor child from the lawful custody of her father, left the United States, and for the last 20 years has engaged in extensive travel to various countries through the use of multiple false-identification documents in order to avoid detection.”

But on Wednesday, Barnett’s attorney said his client was anticipating a future reunion with Savanna.

“She’s looking forward to seeing her daughter,” Mace said, “whether it’s in the courtroom or once she’s eventually released from jail.”

Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.