Seeking Savanna: How a father dealt with 20 years of searching - WCIV-TV | ABC News 4 - Charleston News, Sports, Weather

Seeking Savanna: How a father dealt with 20 years of searching

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This is a text-only version of Harris Todd's story. To see more video, slide shows, and a fully interactive version of the story, click here.

Happy Beginnings

In 1994, Harris Todd was happier than he ever imagined. He had a new baby girl, a purpose in life, and everything was great. Then his daughter and her mother disappeared.

Savanna Todd was born on the sixth day of May in 1993. After a custody battle with her mother, Harris had custody and was happy this tiny baby girl in his life. 

"It was the most idyllic, unimaginably happy period in my life," he said, sitting in his quaint three-bedroom home on Johns Island.

He was the perfect doting father capturing as many of Savanna's earliest moments of life on video. Harris and Savanna are in the back yard watching a frog jump into a little pond. Harris watches as baby Savanna plays with a toy on the living room floor. Harris records Savanna sleeping in her crib.

He calls the curious infant "Daddy's girl," and seems entranced by his new daughter.

"This was the one thing in my life I simultaneously wanted to do and was good at, really good at," Harris said. "I wanted to be a dad. And there wasn't anything else I wanted to do."

The videos catch some of Savanna's earliest steps about a month before her first birthday as she tries to play catch with her cousins. In the background, Harris talks with family members about how quickly she's growing.

One video captures Savanna's first Christmas. Sunlight pours through the blinds while lights on the tree twinkle. The area around the tree is littered with presents. Slowly, Savannah's cousins trickle in and survey the presents.

Savanna is perched on a cousin's lap watching as everyone unwraps presents.

When Harris points the camera at her and says, "There's my baby girl," tiny Savanna grins and crawls across the room for her father.

There are nearly five hours of videos that last through Easter of 1994.

At night, as his little girl slept in her crib, Harris would doodle and paint on pieces of paper. The little pieces of art eventually spelled out her name:

S – A – V – A – N – N – A.

"I never expected to have more love in my heart for any other person in my life and I do for my daughter. Nothing is going to change that – nothing," Harris said.

The doodles have been matted and framed and hang in Savanna's bedroom above her crib.

Draped across the rails of her crib is a blanket knit by Harris' aunt. The crib sits in the middle of the room. The crib has a lot of history. Harris' brothers and sister were raised in it. Two of their children used it. Then Savanna came and Harris refinished it.

 "I had to sand them out," Harris said of the bite marks left by his eldest niece. "She really went to work on it. And her brother. But I sanded it down."

Just feet away sits and old wooden rocker.

"That was the chair I would sit in when I fed her before she went to bed," Harris said.

Above the chair is a tiny bird cage with several plastic birds perched on bars. "I'd move that around and whistle, acting like the birds were alive," he said. "She would pop up out of bed with a smile. I'd shake it and whistle like the birds were singing. She loved it. She thought it was great."

 

Years of Silence

While life with Savanna was serene and happy, life with Savanna's mom, Dorothy Barnett, was tumultuous. The couple was mired in a custody battle as part of their divorce proceedings.

For 13 days, Dorothy attacked Harris in court, making allegations against him. However, the court sided with Harris. A family court judge said that while it was uncommon for such a small child – Savanna was just 9 months old – to be separated from her mother, Savanna was better off in the custody of Harris.

But that all changed three weeks before Savanna's birthday. The unimaginable happened.

In April, Dorothy was granted a supervised visit with Savanna. She was supposed to drop off Savanna at Harris' mother's home in West Ashley, but she was late. One hour late turned to two; two turned to four. From there, it was clear Dorothy was not coming back and Harris had no idea where she had taken Savanna.

***

What investigators know now is that Dorothy had help.

Dorothy had enlisted an underground network called Children of the Underground to get her and baby Savanna out of the country and away from Harris. Faye Yager, the director of the network, said she got involved because she thought Dorothy's rights had been violated. With Faye's help, Dorothy left a bogus trail behind that threw off investigators. Maps were strewn about her home with cities circled. Routes were highlighted. Moving companies were called.

All of it was for show.

What was real was the new identity. Dorothy became Alexandra Canton. A week before Savanna's first birthday, on April 23, 1994, the mother and daughter flew to Frankfurt, Germany.

Meanwhile back on Johns Island, the search for Savanna became frantic for Harris.

"When she didn't return by the time she was supposed to return, it was suddenly frantic," Harris said. "It was days before I really understood what had happened, before it sunk in on me."

Harris said at first he thought everything was going to be fine, that it would all work out and he would be with Savanna again. That lasted about two months. That's when the quest began to find his daughter, though. Every day was a fight to get Savanna's face out there in front of an anonymous public that might recognize her.

"I was desperate. I did the best I could," Harris said.

But it was 1994. There were no automatic systems like there are now. The AMBER Alert system was still more than six years away from becoming a national reality. Investigators could only do so much and were bogged down with dead end leads from Dorothy's home. Finding Savanna was a matter for Harris.

Posters were hung in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Fiji, and Australia.

"I was in a different mode at that point. I was frantic, determined to do whatever I could do to find her," Harris said. "My desperation began at that point and went on for many, many years."

 "I felt so bad at times that I physically thought I would die. I thought my heart couldn't handle it," he said.

But his heart held on to that indescribable father-daughter bond even though they were separated by an unknown distance. Harris found outlets for his turmoil with the same video camera he used to capture Savanna's first moments.

He began recording messages to her from the same chair in which he held her each night. In a 1996 video, Harris sits in Savanna's bedroom in a pressed white shirt and striped tie. Rarely, he looks into the camera's lens. Most of the time he stares past it into nothing at all. The happiness in his face is replaced with anguish. He speaks directly to Savanna.

"I don't know what to tell you. In the last year or so they put your story on TV twice. There was a magazine article that went out to a lot of people, but nothing's come about it really," he said.

He says it's hard looking at Savanna's pictures. It's also difficult walking into her bedroom.

"I don't want anything special out of life. I just want the decent goodness of watching you grow up."

***

Her bedroom door would eventually close for several years.

The bedroom remains almost untouched. The walls are painted pink; two different wallpaper borders run around the top edge of the room. One pictures tiny cartoon elephants holding balloons and stars. That runs into the pastel Southwestern banner about eight inches from one corner.

It's been 20 years. The print has faded and in some places the glue holding the wallpaper has given up; the paper buckles and bubbles off the wall. An assortment of cousins spent nights in the room over the years.

But it's still Savanna's room.

There are the photos of her sitting in the rocking chair underneath the cage of tiny birds. There's the tiny cast of five-month-old Savanna's hand and foot. Her crib is still there, moved from its original place to make room for a bed. 

In the bottom drawer of an old wooden dresser are Savanna's toys.

"I cried for years. I had to keep the door to my daughter's room closed," he said.

Time was not on Harris' side. His heart had been torn wide open, but he never stopped moving. Just up the stairs in his home are years of reminders of the time he spent searching for Savanna. There are huge binders filled cover to cover.

"I wrote to the president. I wrote to Bill Clinton," Harris said.

There are copies of the Christmas cards missing children organizations send out each year. There are flyers of Savanna. There are letters of support from strangers all over the country.

Finding Savanna became a second job. All of the records of his search, all of the tips and words of support spent years at Harris' fingertips in case someone called with a question or to give a lead that would put him closer to his daughter.

He says there's a network of fathers searching for missing kids that helped a lot over the years just by giving words of encouragement. They're men just like him, Harris says.

In the garage there are more files in a trio of filing cabinets that will need to move upstairs eventually if only to make room for his other means of passing time: car restoration. The hobby started when he was a young man with very little money. He says he bought Volkswagens because they were cheap and easy to repair.

He's since moved on to more complex vehicles. Under a gray cover sits a fully restored Chevy muscle car he and his cousins helped him rebuild the engine and upgrade the interior.

"They're fun to come out and just sit in sometimes," he said.

There are a couple more clunkers waiting for Harris' attention, but his current project is an old Airstream he's gutted. The interior was too dark, he says, so he pulled everything out of it and is replacing it with the things he likes. The tinkering and building makes for a good distraction between the tips and leads. 

 

A Helpful Tip

Halfway around the world, Dorothy was changing her name again. This time, it was because she was getting married again. She married Juan Geldenhuys in the Republic of South Africa in February 1995. At the same time, she applied for an amended passport to change her last name and place of residence. She was now living in South Africa.

Nearly 10 years later, she applied for a new passport – in Australia.

In 2008, Dorothy – now Alexandra Geldenhuys – gained citizenship in New Zealand. Less than a year earlier, she and Juan had moved to the Sunshine Coast of Australia and purchased a home. In 2009, she bought his share of the house and they couple split.

She had set up a quiet little life for herself and Savanna and a 17-year-old son. But the past has a way of catching up to people and Alexandra was no exception. It all started in 2011 on an outing with friends when Alexandra called her daughter Savanna. Savanna was known as Samantha to everyone on the Sunshine Coast.

In a moment that might otherwise go unnoticed or laughed off, a friend of her second ex-husband's thought it peculiar and looked into it, unlocking a secret Alexandra had kept protected for 20 years. The same friend also heard Alexandra speak of escaping an abusive relationship in the U.S.

From there, the Internet took over and photos of Savanna and Dorothy filled the friend's browser. That led to a call to Harris and then a call to the FBI.

But it would take another two years before Alexandra would be arrested and the story would come out of Savanna's Lowcountry beginnings.

"The fact that the wheel turned so slowly was stunning to me. There was some worry that if it became common knowledge that someone who knew where she was would grab the children and skip again," he said.

Meanwhile in August of 2013, Alexandra took a job with Oxford University Press and opened her home repeatedly to students taking courses abroad. About three months later, FBI agents and federal Australian officials would be knocking on their front door.

That was when Savanna learned she had been living a life that had been invented for her. "What if one day you woke up and it was all made up? This happened to me," she told an Australian television show.

Samantha had grown into a young woman studying nursing, something Harris finds interesting – Samantha's grandmother was a nurse and her grandfather was an internist. For Harris, it seems as though no amount of time or distance could quiet the Todd family's call to help people.

In an affidavit Alexandra filed with the Australian court, she said she would not leave Australia if she was granted bond. It was denied, however.

But Savanna vowed to stand by her mother. Alexandra remains in jail while her Queensland family mounts a defense to keep her out of the U.S. court system.

The news that Samantha was alive and well halfway across the country was a relief, Harris said. He would have only changed one thing about the news.

"My biggest regret is that I didn't get it a day or two earlier so I could tell my mother," he said. "She died the next day."

 

To The Future

Much of this tale has lived and yellowed in the past and the future remains uncertain for the three key players on the world's stage. As has been the case for the last 20 years, it's been a game of waiting.

Alexandra waits for her day in court and to see if she will finally return to the U.S., even if it means facing her ex-husband at the courts. Samantha waits for some sort of resolution. She's said that her mother has been forbidden from returning to Queensland as a result of the charges. And she's waiting on the day she meets Harris again.

And the waiting game continues for Harris. He's made one trip to Australia but came home after realizing the international systems at work moved at a pace much slower than he'd ever imagined. He'd arrived in Australia two days before Alexandra's arrest.

"It became less and less likely that I would see her anytime soon, so I came back to the U.S.," Harris said.

The last 20 years taught Harris a good deal about waiting. The secret is patience, he says, even after all these years of knowing nothing, it's in his best interests to be patient and let the story and the relationships unfold.

"I'm patient because I have to be patient because I have no control over it. There's no alternative. It doesn't mean that I don't get agitated, that I don't get upset, that I don't wake up in the middle of the night worrying about various things," he said.

He's also battling the court of public opinion as reports depict him as a man with vast wealth and nearly unlimited power. Harris says that's just not true.

"I've been told I was described as an aristocrat, a fabulously wealthy politician who owns vast acreage everywhere," he said. "That's just absurd."

While those descriptions may fill the streets in Australia, Harris says it's not something that's going to bother him. He's closer to seeing his daughter than he has been in decades, but there are still many more hurdles to clear. Those are what matter, not the words of people who don't know him, he says.

Until then, Harris is happy to be a proud father.

"She is pursuing her education, looking for a nursing degree. She made very good grades in the midst of all the turmoil," he said. "She told me about it."

Yes, father and daughter are finally starting to talk again over email. It started over hand-delivered communication, but grew into an email exchange, something Harris thinks is a positive sign. There were also signs from the FBI and the consulate's office that Samantha was willing to meet with Harris.

He says he started signing the emails "Love, Your Father," but that trailed off because he felt like he didn't have the right to call himself Samantha's father.

"I don't stop saying ‘love.' I just say ‘Harris' at the end and that will be fine. I don't need to be called father or dad or anything," Harris said.

He also sees the best parts of himself in her.

"I see the resemblance. I'm very pleased that she took the best aspect of what I have to offer and be a pretty girl. Her eyes and mine are exactly the same color," he said.

Harris said friends have told him Samantha's mannerisms also mimic his.

It's those things that make him think the unspoken bond between father and daughter still exist even though it was severed 20 years ago. When she was a baby, Harris said he could feel her presence no matter where she was. After a few years, that faded but he hopes it will slowly rekindle itself.

Perhaps it will come when Samantha meets Harris. It's something he's thought about a lot in the last couple years.

"The expectation that there is some Hallmark ending to this, that we are rushing towards each other in a field of flowers – that's for movies and TV. It's just a matter of sitting down," he said.

Harris is confident that a casual meeting where they can talk face to face will answer a lot of the unknowns for Samantha and Harris.

"Initially, I had anticipated maybe visiting her at school and sitting across the table and having coffee, maybe sitting outside at the campus somewhere," he said.

Harris says he's willing to work to earn his daughter's love again, but he has no expectations that his feelings will be reciprocated.

"If I earn it, fine; if I don't, if it can only go one way – from me to her – then it doesn't have to come back."

Only time will tell. And if there's one thing Harris knows well, it's time.

 

This is a text-only version of Harris Todd's story. To see more video, slide shows, and a fully interactive version of the story, click here.

Interview and Story by Dean Stephens. Videography by Dave MacQueen. Content Design by Sam Tyson. 


  • Dean Stephens

    Email: dstephens@abcnews4.com Reporter Profile




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