Mother who fled with daughter to Australia sentenced to 21 months

Dorothy Lee Barnett

A former Isle of Palms mother who kidnapped her infant daughter two decades ago and started a new life in Australia was sentenced Tuesday morning to 21 months behind bars.

Dorothy Lee Barnett, 54, didn’t have custody of Savanna when she left the country in 1994. She was charged with international parental kidnapping and falsifying two passport applications.

Barnett pleaded guilty to the charges in Charleston federal court, and U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel sentenced her. Whether Barnett will receive credit for time served will be decided on a later date, Gergel said. She has been in custody since her arrest in November 2013.

Gergel said he gave Barnett the maximum under federal sentencing guidelines, which consider various factors such as her criminal history and the nature of the crime.

“This was a calculated, methodical crime,” he said. “It is important that others be deterred from essentially taking the law into their own hands.”

Shortly before she disappeared with her daughter in April 1994, Barnett used a fake birth certificate to get a driver’s license in Texas, then used the driver’s license and a fake work ID to get a passport, according to court testimony that nobody disputed.

Barnett’s daughter, who was renamed Samantha Geldenhuys in Australia, asked for leniency. The 21-year-old college student told the judge she wanted to be able to resume spending time with her mother as well as get to know her biological father, Benjamin Harris Todd III of Johns Island.

“I was loved beyond belief,” she said of her time with he mother.

Speaking of her reunion with her father, she said, “It was an experience I cannot describe in words.”

Todd’s attorney, Graham Sturgis, told the judge his client spent years searching the world for his daughter and asked for the maximum sentence.

“He recognizes the need to love her mother,” Sturgis said. “Very few of us will ever know the experience of having lost a child. ... No punishment will ever make good the loss that Mr. Todd has suffered.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Nathan Williams, who prosecuted the case, made no recommendation on sentencing.

“It’s a very complicated and difficult case,” he said.

Barnett’s attorney, Russell Mace III of Myrtle Beach, asked the judge at the least to let his client stay out of jail on house arrest.

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.

Andrew Knapp contributed to this story. Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553.