The NBC show “Dateline: Finding Savanna” tells the story of Dorothy Lee Barnett, a strong mother who ran away with her baby daughter across international borders after losing custody of her to her ex-husband. Dorothy changed their names and kept living with her daughter, but she didn’t tell her daughter. The FBI finally caught her nearly 20 years later. Who is Dorothy, and where is she now? Let’s find out.
Who is Dorothy Lee Barnett?
After their father died, Dorothy Lee Barnett and her two brothers were raised by their free-spirited mother, Dottie. Cliff Barnett, one of the brothers, said that they didn’t have much money because they were living off of their dad’s Social Security. But as they went from South Carolina to Florida to the jungles of Belize, they had a lot of exciting experiences. Cliff said, “We had to learn how to do things without money or resources, and how to get by and figure things out as we went along.”
Susan Poag, Dorothy’s oldest friend, thought of her as a “little barefoot girl with big blue eyes and a big smile.” She said, “When I first met Lee, she had a big black snake around her neck. She was five years old, and I was seven.” Dorothy’s mother gave her a sense of freedom and a love of adventure, which she took with her when she and Susan went deep into Africa. It changed when she met Harris Todd, aka Benjamin Harris Todd III, a stockbroker who liked poetry while she was working as a flight attendant.
Harris talked about his ex-wife on the show. “When she’s at her best, she’s a very lively, attractive, and alluring person,” he said. Dorothy said that they were close friends at first, but that changed five years later. She said, “He just told me that the way I made him feel was different from the way anyone else had made him feel. Then something else happened.” Even though her friends were worried about the relationship because of how different they were, Dorothy saw it as a challenge. She said, “I thought I was a person that was going to help him have a more normal, fun-loving life ’cause he was so serious.”
Harris told everyone very clearly that he never wanted kids. All of their problems began when she told him she was pregnant. Harris, on the other hand, said that things went wrong because Dorothy’s temper was out of control. The couple went to marriage counselling after a few disagreements turned into what was said to be violent fights. Their psychiatrist, Dr. Oliver Bjorksten, said she had a hyperthymic temperament, which means she was quick to blame others and lose her temper.
Where is Dorothy Lee Barnett Now?
When Harris and Bjorksten went to court to fight over who would have custody of Savanna when she was 2 and a half months old, Dr. Bjorksten’s statement tipped the scales in Harris’ favour. On February 18, 1994, Savanna, who was 9 and a half months old, was given to Harris by the court. Sixty-four days after she lost custody of Savanna, Dorothy ran away with her during one of her regular visits. Before she ran away, she left a tape that said, “Savanna and I belong together, and only God can break that up.”
She also said that Todd was to blame and called him a “truly evil person.” She also promised to protect her daughter. The mother and daughter left Charleston, South Carolina, and flew to France with fake documents that the mother had made for the two. They would hide out in places like Germany, France, Malaysia, Singapore, and other places. Within a year of leaving the US, she married a South African engineer named Juan Geldenhuys and changed her name to Alex Geldenhuys.
She also gave Savanna the name Samantha Geldenhuys instead of Savanna. After Barnett had been on the run for about 13 years, he and his family moved to Australia and settled down on the Sunshine Coast. Dorothy and Juan broke up when Juan fell in love with another woman after they moved to Australia. Savanna says that the single mum raised her daughter by herself. Savanna said that her mother was “strong and tough.” Reports say that she became a New Zealand citizen in 2008.
But in 2013, she was arrested in Queensland, Australia, because of things that happened in her past. Reports say that Dorothy, who is always thinking ahead, made a mistake when she told the wrong friend about her past. That friend and their partner told the police about Harris, so she was taken into custody in the beach town of Mooloolaba, Australia. She was brought back to the US in the fall of 2014 and pleaded guilty to three federal counts of international parental kidnapping and passport fraud. She was given 21 months in prison.
Even though she finished serving her sentence in May 2015, Australia has still not let her stay with her daughter there. Savanna’s wedding had to be moved to 2019 so that her mother could be there. Dorothy is the one who wants to be closer to her daughter now. She said, “I don’t want to get our hopes up because it always drives us apart. It’s so terrible.” A court ruling said that she couldn’t talk to Harris and couldn’t own guns or other weapons.
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