NBC’s ‘Dateline: Finding Savanna’ features the tale of a resilient mother, Dorothy Lee Barnett, who escaped international borders with her infant daughter after losing her custody to her former husband. Unbeknownst to her daughter, Dorothy changed their identities and continued to live together until she was eventually caught by the FBI nearly two decades later. So, who is Dorothy, and where is she now? Let’s find out.
Who is Dorothy Lee Barnett?
Dorothy Lee Barnett and her two brothers were raised by a free-spirited Dottie — their mother — after their father died. One of the brothers, Cliff Barnett, recalled how they were not financially well-off, living on their dad’s social security. However, they had a lot of adventures, traveling between South Carolina, Florida, and the jungles of Belize. Cliff said, “We had to learn … how to do things with no money and no resources … and get by and do things on the fly.”
Dorothy’s oldest friend, Susan Poag, remembered her as this “little barefoot girl with the blue, blue eyes, and a big smile.” She recounted, “When I first met Lee … when she was five, and I was seven … she had a big black snake around her neck.” Dorothy inherited the free-spiritedness and love of adventure from her mother as she and Susan traveled deep into Africa. It took a new turn when she, working as a flight attendant, met Harris Todd, aka Benjamin Harris Todd III, a stockbroker with a love of poetry.
On the show, Harris reminisced about his former wife, “When she’s at her best, she’s a very vivacious and attractive and alluring person.” Dorothy stated their relationship began as being close friends until it changed five years later. She recounted, “He just professed to me that I’d made him feel different than anybody else has ever made him feel. And then one thing led to another.” While her friends expressed their apprehensions about the relationship, stating the different natures, Dorothy took 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.”
Dorothy’s former co-worker and friend, Patty Roth, explained, “Lee wanted children. …Harris was very clear– to everyone that he never wanted children. When she told him that she was pregnant is when all the problems started between the two of them.” However, Harris claimed it was Dorothy’s uncontrollable temper that caused issues. After a few arguments turned into alleged violent altercations, the couple attended marriage counseling. Their psychiatrist, Dr. Oliver Bjorksten, stated she had a hyperthymic temperament – characterized by blaming and temper outbursts.
Where is Dorothy Lee Barnett Now?
Dr. Bjorksten’s statement tipped the scale in Harris’ favor when the couple battled out in court over parental custody when Savanna was 2-and-a-half months old. On February 18, 1994, the court awarded full custody of 9-and-a-half-month-old Savanna to Harris. Sixty-four days after losing custody, Dorothy fled with Savanna during one of her regularly scheduled visitations. Before escaping, she left a tape stating, “Savanna and I belong together, and nobody besides God has a right to destroy that.”
She also blamed the situation on Todd, calling him a “truly evil person,” and vowed to protect her daughter. From Charleston, South Carolina, the mother-daughter duo boarded a plane to France using fake documents she had made for the two. They would spend time in Germany, France, Malaysia, Singapore, and more while evading the authorities. Within a year of fleeing the US, she married Juan Geldenhuys, an engineering geologist in South Africa, and became known as Alex Geldenhuys.
She also changed Savanna’s name to Samantha Geldenhuys. The Geldenhuys eventually moved to Australia after Barnett had been on the run for about 13 years and settled down on the Sunshine Coast, Australia. Dorothy and Juan divorced after moving to Australia when the latter fell in love with another woman. According to Savanna, the single mother raised her daughter alone. Savanna described her as a “strong and resilient mom.” According to reports, she gained New Zealand citizenship in 2008.
However, her past finally caught up to her in 2013 when she was arrested in Queensland, Australia. According to reports, the calculative Dorothy made a misstep when she confided about her past to the wrong friend. That friend and their partner informed Harris, and the authorities arrested her from the Australian beach town of Mooloolaba. She ultimately pleaded guilty to three federal counts of international parental kidnapping and passport fraud and was sentenced to 21 months behind bars after being extradited to the US in the fall of 2014.
Even after she finished serving her sentence in May 2015, Australia has continued to decline to allow her into the country and stay with her daughter. Savanna had to shift her wedding to Fiji in 2019 so her mother could attend the ceremony. It is Dorothy who is now yearning to be closer to her daughter. She said, “I don’t want to get our hopes up as it always tears us apart. It’s so devastating.” A court judgment has since ruled she can have no contact with Harris and is not allowed to own firearms or other weapons.
Read More: Where is Harris Todd Now?