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Not long after Harris Todd was granted full custody of his baby daughter, she was gone.
His child, Savanna, disappeared, alongside Todd’s ex-wife, Dorothy Lee Barnett, in April 1994 during a weekend visitation with her mother, leaving few clues to her whereabouts.
“The most important thing in my life was taken from me,” Todd told “Dateline: Secrets Uncovered,” airing Thursdays at 8/7c on Oxygen, describing the realization she was gone as “instant horror.”
For nearly two decades, Todd would tirelessly search for his daughter — even recruiting the help of former “America’s Most Wanted” host John Walsh to film a public service announcement pleading for Savanna’s return.
FBI investigators were unable to determine how Barnett, a former flight attendant, had gotten out of the country or where she might be living. With only an empty crib, some home movies, and the memories of his daughter, Todd filmed messages for Savanna as the years stretched on.
“Losing you took most of the life out of me,” he said in one video, adding, “And I — sometimes I feel like I’m already dead and just haven’t fallen over yet.”
Then, nearly two decades after Savanna disappeared, Todd received an email that would blow the case wide open and finally lead to the answers Todd had spent years of his life trying to find.
A Promising Beginning
The romance between Todd, a financial advisor, and Barnett began full of promise.
“When she’s at her best, she’s a very vivacious and attractive and alluring person,” Todd said of what drew him to the beautiful flight attendant.
Barnett was also smitten and had been looking to settle down and begin a family.
“Lee and I both wanted marriage, we wanted children, we wanted animals. We wanted the picket fence,” her friend and fellow flight attendant Patty Roth told Seven Network Australia in a clip obtained by “Dateline” of the early days of the courtship.
The pair married in December 1991, but the romance soon started to sour. Todd said he was unsettled by his wife’s frequent mood swings.
“I never knew what was going to face me when I came through the door after work,” he said. “It could be nothing and it could be nothing but screaming and yelling and throwing pots.”
A Battle In Court
Todd asked for a divorce, but Barnett was already pregnant by that time.
Although Todd contends that the marriage began to crumble because of his wife’s erratic behavior, Roth said Todd had not wanted to keep the pregnancy.
“Everything fell apart when she told him that she was pregnant,” she said. “He wanted her to terminate the pregnancy and that was just not an option for Lee. It broke her heart.”
Todd denied that he ever wanted her to end the pregnancy, but either way, there was no repairing the marriage.
Savanna was born in May 1993. Her birth would spark a contentious custody battle as both parents fought for primary custody of the infant.
Barnett argued that she was the better fit for her nursing daughter, but Todd questioned Barnett’s mental health. Psychiatrists testified that Barnett had erratic mood swings and one believed she had a personality disorder.
However, several psychiatrists hired by her legal team countered back that they saw no signs of any emotional disorders.
A judge in the case ultimately sided with Todd and awarded him full custody, writing that “the psychological and emotional problems experienced by the mother, if left untreated, will create conflict and havoc in the child’s life.”
Barnett was awarded visitation rights every other weekend. Just two weeks after the judge’s ruling, Barnett arrived to pick up her daughter and found she had remnants of a bloody nose and several bruises on her face after Todd said his daughter had fallen while in his mother’s care, according to “Dateline: Secrets Uncovered.”
Barnett rushed her daughter to a hospital and although a treating emergency room physician found “no signs of abuse” and ruled the injuries were consistent with a minor fall, Barnett was furious.
Not long after the incident, she disappeared with Savanna in tow.
One Last Message
Just days after she disappeared, Barnett’s friends and family members received one last communication from her. It was a videotaped message and letter explaining why she went on the run.
“Savanna and I belong together and nobody besides God has a right to destroy that,” she said in the tape obtained by “Dateline: Secrets Uncovered.”
She blamed the situation on Todd, who she called a “truly evil person,” and vowed to protect her daughter.
An Unexpected Email
For years, Barnett’s whereabouts would remain a mystery. Todd told “Dateline: Secrets Uncovered” he spent “everything I had and everything I could borrow” searching for his missing daughter.
The case was featured on “Unsolved Mysteries” and Walsh recorded that public service announcement. The publicity translated into hundreds of leads in the case, but none panned out.
“You run through the cycle of excitement and disappointment enough times and you just say, ‘Well, look, do you really want to put yourself through that again?’ Because there’s a wealth of pain associated with this and I can only dip into it so often and survive,” Todd said.
Todd moved on the best he could, spending time with his young niece and continuing to work as a financial advisor until one day he received an unexpected email from a couple saying they had information about his daughter.
The couple was living in a beach town off the coast of Australia and claimed to have known Lee and Savanna for more than 12 years by the names Alex and Samantha.
Todd realized his search was finally over when the couple sent a photo of the mother and daughter and he recognized Barnett.
The realization left him “completely floored.”
“You know how wonderful it is to have a picture of your grown daughter, to just see how pretty she is?” he said.
Todd immediately passed the lead onto the FBI, but it would take nearly two years before Barnett was arrested as authorities worked with the state department and Department of Justice to get a provisional warrant the Australian government would accept.
Investigators learned that two months before she disappeared with Savanna — and even before she had claimed to have found signs of abuse — Barnett had gotten a fake birth certificate with the name Alexandria Marie Canton and used that to get a Texas driver’s license and passport in the same name.
With the alternate identity secured, she fled with Savanna to Malaysia and then South Africa, where she married a man named Juan Geldenhuys and had a son. The family moved again to Botswana in 1999 before heading to New Zealand and finally making their way to Australia.
Barnett was arrested in the coastal town she called home on Nov. 4, 2013 and was extradited back to Charleston, South Carolina.
A Daughter Learning Secrets Of Her Past
The sudden arrest came as a shock to Savanna — known for nearly her entire life as Samantha — who had always believed that Geldenhuys was her father.
“The first thing that popped into my head, I said, ‘Does that mean Dad isn’t my dad?’” she later told the Seven Network of learning her true identity in a phone call with her mother.
But while Todd was frantically searching for his missing daughter, Savanna said she had grown up with a great family.
“I had a lot of friends, I had animals, I was educated. I had dancing, did piano. I had a mom, I had a dad, I had a brother. I had a house and I was given everything they possibly could afford,” she said. “It was normal. It was so normal.”
Savanna also didn’t believe the claims made by Todd and others that her mother had suffered from mental health issues.
“I’ve never, ever seen anything like that in my entire life,” she said. “She’s not got a mental illness, she’s not violent, you know, unless she’s done this whole 180 and changed her entire attitude, then it’s not who she is.”
Todd had flown to Australia hoping to meet his long-lost daughter, but Savanna — who by this time was in college — wasn’t ready for the meeting and Todd returned to the United States without seeing her.
Savanna continued to support her mother, even flying to Charleston for court proceedings in the case, but eventually decided to meet Todd as well.
“I need to have a mature adult relationship and see for my own eyes and gauge myself what kind of person he is,” she said, according to “Dateline: Secrets Uncovered.”
Savanna described the meeting as “natural” and “pleasant.”
Todd recalled giving his daughter a hug and showing her the room where her crib still stood.
“To be honest, I was trying to make sure that I didn’t fall apart,” he said of the meeting. “I didn’t want to just stand there and cry or anything like that.”
Despite the meeting’s success, Todd and Savanna were not in touch when “Dateline: Secrets Uncovered” profiled the story.
“You know, my daughter is her own person now, she can make her own decisions and whether my daughter wants to contact me or not, she knows where I am and she knows I want to hear from her, whatever happens,” Todd said.
Barnett was charged with three federal counts of international parental kidnapping and passport fraud, pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to 21 months behind bars.
Yet, as of last year, Australia has refused to allow her to return to the country where her daughter, now married, still lives, according to 9 News.
Barnett is now the one yearning to be closer to the daughter she loves.
“I don’t want to get our hopes up as it always tears us apart,” she said of not being allowed to return to the country. “It’s so devastating.”
To learn more about this case and others like it, watch “Dateline: Secrets Uncovered,” airing Thursdays at 8/7c on Oxygen or stream episodes here.
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