Chasing Savanna: Investigators, relocator recount case - WCIV-TV | ABC News 4 - Charleston News, Sports, Weather

20 years of chasing Savanna: Investigators, relocator recount case

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By Stacy Jacobson, Nikki Gaskins and Sam Tyson

ISLE OF PALMS, S.C. (WCIV) – On April 24, 1994, police found Dorothy Lee Barnett's car parked outside her Isle of Palms home with the keys still inside. Her home was empty.

The find came shortly after Barnett failed to return her 10-month-old daughter, Savanna Todd, to the girl's grandmother in West Ashley.

It sparked a missing persons case that spanned four continents and nearly 20 years.

A copy of the original police report shows that the infant girl's father called police shortly after 10 p.m. The report says Harris Todd's attorney had called police two other times earlier in the day asking for officers to check on Barnett and the baby.

Savanna was supposed to be returned to her grandmother's house by 6 p.m., the report states, but four hours later she and Barnett were nowhere to be found and Todd was reporting her missing.

Officers checked area hospitals and cab companies, according to the report.

However, Barnett had taken her daughter and was long gone – and operating under an assumed name, according to court affidavits released this week.

The chief of police on Isle of Palms at the time of Barnett and Savanna's disappearance was Jim Arnold.

Arnold said he searched the mother's home and found it in disarray. There were empty spaces in closets and maps in several rooms with different cities circled and routes highlighted.

"I recall just seeing the maps," he said. "There were circles of places outside South Carolina and out of the country."

Police thought she had been looking to run from the Lowcountry, Arnold said. He added it was almost like she was trying to throw police off her tracks by leaving the maps out.

Arnold said they called in the FBI because it looked as though Barnett had taken her daughter out of state or overseas. Todd told police Barnett had the finances and resources to go anywhere she wanted, Arnold recalled.

"He was very angry," Arnold said.

Todd told police that he thought his ex-wife was not thinking clearly, possibly even having mental problems.

"I just think he was saying she was not as strong mentally as she should've been," Arnold said.

But Arnold pointed out there were two sides to the story and he knew there were fights over custody and visitation. Todd had been granted custody and, based on court records, Barnett took baby Savanna on her first visitation and never returned.

In that February 1994 episode, Todd's attorney had to obtain an emergency order to return Savanna to her father. The attorney threatened Barnett that she'd be held in contempt of court. She told the attorney she didn't care.

Arnold said the entire case felt like someone was playing a trick on them. There were false leads and family in nearby Summerville and Edisto. And then there were the maps that were left behind and looked intentional, Arnold said.

"Everything was laid out there for us seemingly like it was going to be an easy case," he said. "But I know to the father, I'm sure it was excruciatingly frustrating he couldn't find his daughter."

Arnold left the Isle of Palms in 1995 and hasn't heard much since then.

Arnold said for Barnett to change her name and live another normal life, it made it very difficult for law enforcement to locate her.

"If you pay your bills, do everything like you're supposed to, there's no reason for law enforcement to find you," he said.

But ultimately Barnett was found in Australia, living her life as Alexandria Geldenhuys. She even changed her daughter's name to Samantha. She was arrested Nov. 4.

She's currently being held without bond until an extradition hearing can be scheduled.

 

Divorce documents paint a picture of long-term abuse

Documents from the couple's divorce showed Barnett grew up in Florida and overseas, in Belize. She never knew her father because he had died when she was just an infant.

Court records show she attended Auburn University briefly, but did not graduate. Instead, she became a flight attendant and needed someone to help her manage her money.

Todd grew up in Kentucky and worked as a stockbroker. His father, a doctor, died when he was only eight years old, so he, too, was raised primarily by his mother. She eventually followed him to Charleston even.

He was a smart kid, based on records. He attended prep school, then Yale for three years before transferring to the College of Charleston, where he graduated in 1980. Right after graduation, he took on a job as a stockbroker.

That job, incidentally, is how he met Barnett. She was one of his clients. The year was 1985.

While their romance burned furiously once they became a couple, it took five years for them to become romantically involved, court records show. Before Todd, Barnett had been involved with a pilot.

"The relationship, like others in which [Barnett] had been involved, soon became punctuated by temper outbursts by her, including occasional expressions of physical violence," divorce records show.

She yelled. She threw things. At one point during their romance, she reportedly called him 18 times in the course of a single day while he was away on business. Barnett accused Todd of being unfaithful and it led to Todd moving all of her things out of his house.

But it didn't last. She moved back in. She wore him down, Todd told the court, and eventually talked him into marriage on Dec. 28, 1991.

About seven months later, as both sides were threatening divorce, Barnett said she was pregnant.

According to records, a short time later, she feared a miscarriage after a bleeding episode but doctors reassured her that her baby was still growing inside her. That same weekend, she had another violent outburst, this time directed at a dog she owned.

Todd hoped the pregnancy and a new baby would help to calm his new wife, but her mood swings and violent outbursts persisted, the records show.

The couple even sought marriage counseling after Barnett's obstetrician recommended it. During that time, Barnett was reportedly diagnoses with a particular variation of bipolar disorder.

A psychiatrist recommended Barnett take Lithium, but because of the pregnancy the drug could not be prescribed. Instead, she was prescribed Navane, another drug. But the prescription help ended after Barnett learned that her own mother worked with Todd to get her medical help.

Court records show that Todd was not told his wife was going into labor. They were estranged at that point in the relationship, so he learned of the birth the day it happened and rushed to the hospital.

During the 13-day divorce proceeding, Barnett tried to battle the mounting evidence against her by making attacks on her husband's sexuality, but none of the stories she told managed to stick to Todd.

And in the end, the court found that while it was uncommon for a child to be separated from its mother, it found that Savanna's best interests were with her more stable and established father. So it was ordered that he take custody of her.

That's when Barnett ran.

 

20 years pass for Barnett's mother

For the last 20 years, Dottie Barnett had given up hope of seeing her daughter granddaughter ever again.

Dottie Barnett, who is now in her 80s, says until her daughter's arrest this week, she just assumed she never left Charleston alive. After a judge granted her daughter's ex-husband full custody of the couple's daughter, Savanna.

Two decades later, her daughter's secret life has been exposed. 

Her daughter is now awaiting extradition back to the U.S. to face criminal charges; however, according to Dottie Barnett, she wants the charges dropped and the extradition waived.

In a psychological evaluation from April 1994, Dorothy Barnett believed that her mother had aligned with her now-ex-husband in his efforts to make her appear mentally ill to professionals.

However, Dorothy Barnett said in court that she felt "her mother was particularly susceptible to male intentions and that her then husband could be very manipulative."

On Friday, Dottie Barnett said Todd "was not a nice man" and that he's made life miserable for her and many others.  She went on to say that Todd sued her, claiming that she had something to do with her daughter and granddaughter's disappearance — something she denies.

But she won't be discussing the case with anyone anytime soon.

Dottie Barnett says she's leaving the Lowcountry for six months to stay at her second home in Belize. However, after everything "calms down," she says she plans to travel to Australia and visit her daughter who she's not seen in two decades.

It's hard to know when the case will calm down, however, with law enforcement officers on two continents digging through 20 years of history, trying to piece together Dorothy Barnett's trail.

What is known is that the new mother had help.

 

Underground network removes Barnett and helps her start a new life

Feeling like she had been backed into a corner and was at risk of losing her daughter and possibly her freedom, Dorothy Barnett turned to the one woman she thought could help her – Faye Yager.

Yager, who has operated an underground network to help women and their children escape abusive relationships, recounted her meetings with Barnett and she describes a woman who is nothing like the one depicted in court records.

But Yager's story starts more than a decade earlier, before Barnett and Todd ever met.

In the 1980's, Yager, who lives in Georgia, decided to become a crusader of sorts, helping children leave their old lives for a completely new ones.  She is part of a controversial organization called Children of the Underground.

"Most of the kids I help or I am involved in have been sexually abused, but I do get involved in some of these women's rights issues," said Yager.

Yager says she got involved in Dorothy Barnett's case because she believes that's exactly what happened — her rights were violated.

"She didn't do this for vengeance," she said.

In 1994, she claims to have helped Barnett and her daughter disappear and start a new secret life thousands of miles away from the Lowcountry. In fact, police investigating the case saw Yager's handiwork firsthand.

See, it was Yager who told Barnett to quietly pack her things and leave behind maps and world books with different cities circled and routes highlighted. She was also told to call moving companies repeatedly in several states.

It was all to throw investigators off Barnett's trail, Yager said.

"She did not stay with me.  She just got information and did her thing," said Yager who wouldn't go into great detail about how she helped Barnett escape.  "I'll be quite honest with you, I wouldn't tell you. She was given contacts and different people were involved with her."

Yager said she did not know until last week that Barnett, now living as Alexandria Geldenhuys.

"I made it very clear to her that it would be best for me not to know," said Yager.  "That was my policy.  I didn't get in touch with my underground people."

Yager says shortly after the young mother and her daughter vanished, she tried to negotiate a deal with Savanna's father. 

"I thought this was simple. We just work out some type of agreement, get her back, and he agrees to drop the charges," said Yager.

Yager says Harris Todd never agreed to any terms.

"He said, ‘I've got a court order that gives me custody,' and he says he's not giving that up," she said.

In court documents, before the two fled, Barnett's ex-husband claimed she was verbally and physically abusive, but it's a story that doesn't add up for Yager.

"I think he made every damn bit of it up," said Yager.

In a 1994 psych evaluation, Barnett claimed the couple's problems started after her Todd wanted her to have an abortion.      

"She was terrified of him. He had money. He had power, control," said Yager.

Now that Yager has learned that Dorothy's secret life has been exposed, she hopes authorities will show her leniency.

"I want the government over there to set her free and let her retain her citizenship," said Yager. "In America, we talk about human rights and all this that and the other.  But where were her human rights to expect her to deliver a child and have minimal contact with her child?"


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