Produced by Liza Finley and Ryan Smith
[This story previously aired on July 16, 2016. It was updated on Dec. 8, 2018 ]
“I feel the FBI and every other law enforcement agency underestimated me,” Dorothy Lee Barnett tells correspondent Maureen Maher.
In 1994, Barnett was in the midst of a bitter divorce with then-husband Harris Todd. One day she and the couple’s 11-month-old daughter, Savanna, vanished. The disappearance launched an international search for Barnett and Savanna that didn’t end until she was arrested in Queensland, Australia, in 2013.
The case, which “48 Hours” has been covering since 1999, raises significant questions about parental child abduction, the issues that emerge in a bitter divorce, and what penalties should be leveled on a parent who flees with a child after losing a custody case.
When Barnett fled her home in Charleston, S.C., she headed to Europe, where she spent time in Germany, France, then Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa, Botswana and Australia. Barnett became Alex Geldenhuys. Unbeknownst to Savanna, she became Samantha Geldenhuys.
While they were on the run, Barnett also kept a secret diary for her daughter, planning one day to tell her the whole story of her life. That changed in 2011, when the FBI got a tip that Barnett was living in Queensland, Australia. And then there was a knock on Barnett’s door in 2013.
Barnett and Savanna open up about their extraordinary life before Barnett’s arrest and how their lives have unfolded since.
“A few months before my mom gave birth to me, she started writing a diary. … And — it starts off on the first page saying, ‘To my dear Savanna. Someday I’ll give this journal to you so that you can hopefully understand your mother.’
“My name is Samantha Geldenhuys. I was born Savanna. But I didn’t know that. Savanna Lee Barnett.
“I grew up on the Sunshine Coast … in Australia. …it is the most magnificent place.
“I knew my mom as Alex my entire life… But in reality she wasn’t Alex at all.
“She was Lee … Lee Barnett.
“She’s written, ‘I’ve always loved the name Savanna, It reminds me of great beauty… it also reminds me of my home and someday it will hopefully be yours too. The endless reeds, the shrimp, the blue herons…'”
That pretty picture is how Lee Barnett remembered Charleston, South Carolina, in the secret diary she kept for her daughter during their years on the run.
It was a very different Charleston than what she returned home to — where Barnett was charged with kidnapping her daughter after losing a bitter custody battle.
For 20 years, Barnett had been hunted by the FBI, vilified in the press — called angry and violent – and labeled mentally ill. Now, she tells her side of the story to “48 Hours.” It is a very different story than you’ve heard before.
“I need to tell the truth about what’s happened … something needs to be changed,” Barnett told “48 Hours.”
From the start, there was always something different about Barnett — the little barefoot girl with the blue, blue eyes and big smile, said her oldest friend, Susan Poag.
“When I first met Lee … when she was five and I was seven … she had a big black snake around her neck,” Poag recalled. “And so I took one look at her and I said, ‘Oh, that looks like an interesting family. I want to be friends with her.'”
Barnett and her two brothers were raised by a free-spirited single mother named Dottie after their father died. They didn’t have much money — Dottie lived on her husband’s social security, but they had plenty of adventures.
“We had to learn … how to do things with no money and no resources … and get by and do things on the fly,” said her brother, Cliff Barnett.
They were a kind of Swiss Family Robinson, travelling between South Carolina, Florida, and the jungles of Belize.
“They were really living an Indiana Jones lifestyle, before there was an Indiana Jones,” Poag said. “In Belize they were in the jungle, living with local families.”
Barnett inherited her mother’s love of adventure. At one point, she travelled deep into Africa with Poag.
“I just knew that all of the travelling that we had done and that she had done with her family prepared her for really what was the ultimate adventure of her life.
That adventure began in Charleston when Lee, by then a flight attendant, met Harris Todd, a stockbroker with a love of poetry. To many, he was the picture of a perfect southern gentleman.
Asked if it was love at first site, Barnett told “48 Hours’ correspondent Maureen Maher, “Oh, not at all. …it wasn’t love at first sight, it was friendship.”
All that changed five years later.
“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,” said Barnett.
But Barnett’s dear friend, Patty Roth, did not think it was a good match.
“They wanted very different things out of life,” Roth said. “She was very outgoing, and he … kind of kept her to himself.”
To Barnett, that was part of the attraction, part of the challenge.
“I thought I was a person that was going to help him have a more normal, fun-loving life, ’cause he was so serious,” she explained.
“When Lee … decided to get married … I did not agree with that choice,” Roth said. “Lee wanted children. …Harris was very clear– to everyone that he never wanted children.”
“Why would you marry a man who didn’t wanna have kids?” Maher asked.
“I don’t know. I just thought that I was gonna do something and he would change. And we’d have this wonderful family … and I just had this crazy dream that I’d make everything right,” she replied.
Barnett could not have been more wrong.
“When she told him that she was pregnant is when all the problems started between the two of them,” said Roth.
“He kept saying over and over throughout my whole pregnancy, ‘There is no baby.’ Even when I was eight months pregnant. ‘There is no baby. There is no baby,'” said Barnett.
A BITTER END
Before Lee Barnett fled the country, she made a tape and sent it to friends and enemies alike. In it, she condemned her husband, Harris Todd, for casting her as the villain in a sinister drama that she claimed he fabricated out of vengeance — a characterization she stands by to this day.
“He wanted to hurt me so badly he didn’t care who he took down, and that includes a little baby,” said Barnett.
She said it all began seven months into the marriage.
“I said to him, I said, ‘I have a feeling I might be pregnant.’ And he said, ‘it’s OK. Just have an abortion,'” Barnett told Maher. “I was heartbroken. …But I still thought, ‘Ah, he’ll come right.’ …Anyway, two days later, I found out I was pregnant. He was very cold and indifferent. And he remained that way.”
Todd claimed the problem wasn’t the pregnancy; it was Barnett’s uncontrollable temper.
One argument two-and-a-half months later got so heated, she flipped over the coffee table. Barnett woke up the next morning and Todd was gone.
“I just felt so abandoned. And I couldn’t figure out how somebody I’d loved and known for so long could be this cruel,” Barnett told Maher.
Harris Todd, who consistently has said he never asked Lee Barnett to get an abortion, said he left because he couldn’t take her anger anymore and that he even feared for his safety. He repeatedly asked Barnett to move out of his house, but she refused.
“I thought if I left his house, I would never, ever come back,” she said.
“She … really wanted the marriage to work,” Roth said. “She did everything within her power to get Harris to come back.”
That included going to marriage counseling. Barnett’s mother suggested a psychiatrist named Dr. Oliver Bjorksten. Lee said, to her surprise, her husband agreed to go.
“I made the appointment for both of us,” said Barnett.
Barnett said what happened in those appointments would change her life. She walked in hoping to save her marriage. Instead, she walked out with a diagnosis on the bipolar spectrum.
Dr. Bjorksten said Lee had something called hyperthymic temperament – a condition characterized by dwelling, blaming, and temper outbursts. It was a condition he wanted to treat with medication.
“Did you ever have any history of mental illness?” Maher asked Barnett.
“I’ve never had any mental illness,” she replied.
Barnett admitted she was emotional, telling Maher “I cried quite a lot.” She was alone, having a difficult pregnancy, and had a scare that her baby might have Down syndrome.
“I said, ‘I think I’ve got a good reason to be upset,'” she said she told Dr. Bjorksen. “And he said … ‘I’ll give you something to make you feel better.'”
The doctor prescribed Navane. Barnett talked to a doctor friend who said it’s an antipsychotic drug and advised her not to take it.
“By that time, I’d already taken three pills,” she said.
Then Barnett discovered something else — something that terrified her. Harris Todd and her own mother had contacted Dr. Bjorksten before she had ever even heard his name.
“So you’re saying that Harris went to Bjorksten first?” Maher asked.
“Yeah,” Barnett replied.
“Telling Bjorksten what he said was going on,” Maher continued.
“Yeah,” said Barnett.
“And you were under the impression when you went that Harris had never met him before?”
“Never met him,” Barnett said. “We both walked in and they both introduced themselves and said, ‘It’s nice to meet you.'”
Harris Todd has said he was only trying to get help for his wife, but Lee Barnett believes Todd was setting her up, spinning an elaborate tale of an unstable wife with a violent temper … even convincing her mother of it.
“For what purpose?” Maher asked.
“To save his face, for walking out on his pregnant wife,” Barnett replied.
The physical violence is one thing. The mental instability is another,” Todd told “48 Hours” in 1999.
Harris Todd denied our recent requests for an interview, but back then, he told “48 Hours” Barnett was a ticking time bomb.
“You never know whether you’re gonna come through the door and have a flower pot launched,” he said.
A danger not only to him, but to herself.
“Came down the hallway and there she is … sitting there banging her head against the wall,” Todd said in ’99.
“Did you bash your head against the wall one night to the point that the lights were flickering on and off?” Maher asked Barnett.
“I’ve never, ever bashed my head against the wall,” she replied.
“Harris said he was so afraid of you that he feared for his life,” Maher noted. “Did you threaten him?”
“Never once,” said Barnett.
“I slapped him once.”
“Never,” she replied.
Barnett admitted she did get angry — angry enough to throw planters off the porch and push over that coffee table. But, she said, Todd was the threatening one, making menacing phone calls throughout the entire pregnancy.
“He would say to me all the time, ‘You’re sick, you’re insane,'” Barnett said. “And he’d say… ‘Look in the mirror. See your face. It’s contorted. You’re insane. You’re insane.'”
Roth said she was listening in when Barnett got one of those calls.
“And he just kept saying, ‘You’re sick. You’re crazy’ … Over and over again,” she said.
“…he totally changed. And his Southern charm turned into just sheer … hatred towards Lee,” Roth continued.
When she was seven months pregnant, Barnett filed for divorce. Todd countersued, claiming that Lee was so abusive he was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.
“I’ve never seen her violent. She’s not a moody person,” said Susan Poag.
“We never had an argument and we were together constantly,” said Roth.
Roth was by her side when Barnett gave birth to Savanna.
“Savanna was born a beautiful, baby girl. Just healthy as can be,” said Roth.
“Lee was thrilled beyond words,” said Poag.
“She was amazing,” Barnett said of her daughter.
But that happiness wouldn’t last long.
When Savanna was 2-and-a-half months old, her parents divorce would take another turn. Todd sued for custody. Now the bitter battle would get even uglier, with plenty of mudslinging from both sides.
Barnett said Harris wanted to take her baby to punish her; Harris said he loved Savanna with all his heart. He said she was promiscuous; she said he was gay. He said she stalked him; she said he lied. The list went on and on, butin the end it came down to one not-so-simple question: was it in Savanna’s best interest to be with her mother or her father? Dr. Oliver Bjorksten was called as a witness for Harris Todd.
“How damaging was his testimony to your case?” Maher asked.
“Damagings probably not the right word. He was life destroying,” said Barnett.
Dr. Bjorksten, who also declined to be interviewed, testified that the condition he diagnosed Barnett with “is associated with violence”… that he had seen people with Lee’s “degree of dwelling” do “things which are quite serious.”
“I absolutely never saw any signs of mental illness,” said Roth.
Barnett’s friends took the stand, painting a very different picture.
“I saw distress from the — having somebody try and fight you and take your baby away,” said Roth.
“And so how hard is it to prove that you are not crazy?” Maher asked Barnett.
“It’s impossible,” she replied. “The more you claim you’re not mentally ill, the crazier you sound. …Because people look at you as a mentally ill person then.”
And Barnett said there was plenty of evidence that she was not crazy. Two respected psychiatrists testified that there was nothing wrong with her and she certainly did not need antipsychotic drugs.
But then another expert was brought in as a so-called “tie breaker” to see if Barnett really did have hyperthymic temperament. After evaluating Lee, he said she did have the condition.
The expert said Todd was the more “predictable” parent, and recommended that he should have custody. The child advocate for Savanna also agreed.
Still, Barnett and her friends were hopeful.
“We thought, ‘There is no way that a judge is gonna look at this and take this loving, healthy, happy, vibrant baby away from her mother,” said Roth.
Now the decision was up to Judge Robert Mallard, and it was clear who he believed. He cited Todd as willing to share custody when Barnett was not. He said that while Barnett was a flight attendant, Todd was a successful stock broker, so he believed Todd would be better able to provide a stable environment. The judge also noted what he called Barnett’s “inability to control her impulses” in court.
“I think I got hyper. I think I got stressed. I think I got scared. I was very scared, because I knew something was really, really going wrong,” said Barnett.
Lee Barnett said what was most damaging and untrue was the judge’s finding that she had been violent toward Todd and his conclusion that her condition might lead to “homicide or suicide.”
“And it left me so scared and so cold, because when you label somebody as that, that means I’m such a danger to my child,” she said.
On Feb.18, 1994, Judge Mallard awarded full custody of 9-and-a-half-month-old Savanna to her father, Harris Todd.
Lee Barnett’s friends were still reeling from the judge’s decision.
“The decision, in my view, was totally injust [sic],” said friend Gordon King.
“It was beyond my comprehension to know that they were going to remove the child from her,” he continued.
“It was hard to believe that it could even happen,” said Susan Poag.
Harris Todd came to get Savanna the very same day he was awarded custody.
“When they came and took her is when I lost it. And I just went to the bathroom and … sat in the bathtub and cried,” Barnett recalled.
Barnett said what worried her most was something Todd had said in court. And that he would take his daughter to a psychiatrist as young as 3 years old if he saw any signs of her mother’s illness.
“It sounds like what you’re saying, Lee, is … you were afraid Harris Todd was going to do to this baby girl what he had done to you,” Maher commented.
“Yeah …” she replied. “I knew as a grown woman … if I couldn’t prove that I wasn’t mentally ill … how could a 2 or 3-year-old?”
Barnett said her only option was an appeal. But the judge didn’t file the necessary paperwork in the usual 30 days. By day 45, she was desperate.
“At this point, had you lost all faith in the judicial system, court system, in the family court system?” Maher asked.
“All faith. All faith. I knew nobody was there to help me,” Barnett said. “I started to make my plan to leave.”
Barnett saw a “60 Minutes” piece on a street in L.A. where you can easily get fake documents and off she went.
“And the guy goes, ‘What do you want?’ And I said, ‘I need two birth certificates. Here are two names.’ And he said, ‘Be back here at 1:00 tomorrow.'”
By the next afternoon, Lee Barnett had been reborn as Alexandria Maria Canton and Savanna was now her son, Nick.
“She had no hair yet so I thought, hmmm, I chose a boy,” said Barnett.
Their next stop was Houston, Texas. She put on a black wig, walked into the DMV and got a Texas drivers license. After that, the passports were easy.
“…something … was just … propelling me forward … knowing that I had to get her safe and I had to keep her safe,” said Barnett.
Video diary: I can’t tell you how painful this is … Savanna and I belong together… and nobody besides God has the right to destroy that.
Sixty-four days after losing custody, and during one of her regularly scheduled visitations, Barnett said she took her last $10,000 and the baby. The two then got into a rental car in Charleston with her oldest brother. At a gas station she cut her hair, dyed it brown and drove to the Atlanta airport. Then, she disappeared.
“What time on Sunday were you supposed to return Savanna?” Maher asked.
“It was 6:00 at night,” said Barnett.
“And where were you at 6:00 that night?”
“I would probably be in France by then — in Paris.”
“And did that make you nervous, or did you get a little smile?” Maher asked.
“Oh, I don’t think I ever smiled. I never wanted to take it for granted. Every second I had of freedom was never taken for granted,” said Barnett.
“But did you feel free? You were on the run. Were you free?”
“I was free from them. She was free from them.”
Soon after, Barnett’s younger brother got a call from Harris Todd.
“He goes, ‘Where’s your sister?’ I said, ‘I have no idea,'” Cliff Barnett said. “And he goes … ‘Your sister is not a fit mother. She can’t take care of a child by herself. …She doesn’t have the sense for it.’ And I finally … just eventually said, ‘Well, apparently, she has the sense to disappear from you.'”
The FBI launched a massive manhunt.
“I believe Lee Barnett could possibly harm her child,” said Agent Chris Quick.
Initially, Agent Quick thought they’d find her in some motel within a week.
“Most fugitives mess up, make mistakes because they can’t leave the life that they came from,” he explained. “This didn’t occur in this case. …she totally cut all ties from everyone.”
“I had no idea where she went, who she was with, what she was doing,” said King.
Lee Barnett and Savanna ceased to exist. From then on, it was Alex and the baby she renamed Samantha.
“How do you leave your family, your friends, your country, never pick up the phone, never be in touch — just walk away from it?” Maker asked Barnett.
“It broke my heart. It killed me,” she replied.
“We thought about her all the time – she was never, never far from our thoughts,” said King.
“We always tried to keep pictures of Savanna around my house,” said Roth.
“In my mind I knew she was fine. We’re talking about somebody that can … survive and adapt,” said Cliff Barnett.
Alex’s first stop was Malaysia. She wrote to Sam in her diary that the hardest part was the loneliness.
“I wrote: ‘I hope one day that I might … meet a man that loves you like I love you.’ And that’s all I ever ask,” said Barnett.
Seven months later, she did. South Africa was her next stop on the run and it was there she met an engineering geologist named Juan Geldenhuys. She told him everything and they married a few months later.
“I got married to him because he was madly in love with my daughter,” she said.
Soon Samantha had a baby brother, named Reece. And the family moved to Botswana.
“We had giraffes walkin’ outside our house and on the streets and buffalo and all that sort of stuff around the river. It was just really– it was fun all the time,” said Reece.
While Alex Geldenhuys was growing her family in Africa, back in Charleston, Harris Todd was grieving the daughter taken from him by Lee Barnett.
“It was done to hurt me not to save Savanna. It was done to hurt me,” Todd told “48 Hours.”
Todd said he had wanted a family. He wanted his daughter.
“I just can’t believe it. How could something like this happen? How could it possibly happen? How could she be here … and then be gone?” he said in 1999.
KIDNAPPER OR DEVOTED MOTHER?
Five years after Lee Barnett vanished with his daughter, Harris Todd decided to take matters into his own hands.
“Nothing else has worked. I’m gonna go look for her myself,” he said.
“48 Hours” followed him to Costa Rica.
“I don’t have any specific knowledge of her whereabouts. But there’s a high probability that she could be here,” he said. “I’ve been to the stores … Blondes really stand out in Costa Rica. …I’ve been to the farmer’s market.”
“I’m going to go up and look at the school. I think it’s worthwhile to go up there and have a look. …if I have to spend the rest of my life doing this, so be it,” he continued.
Todd also went on national TV shows, determined to keep his daughter in the news, as well as her mother, who according to him, was very ill and very violent.
Harris and his lawyer, Graham Sturgis, also went after Barnett’s family and friends, filing suit against those Todd believed helped her, including her mother, brother Cliff and Susan Poag.
“He accused me of conspiracy to kidnap Samantha. …Of course, none of was ever proven,” Poag said. “But … it was financially devastating for me.”
But she says the worst part was the private investigators who tracked her every move.
“They threatened me by saying that they were gonna destroy my life … my family,” Poag said. “They were gonna take me down.”
All the while, Barnett and her daughter stayed under the radar, traveling from Germany to France; Malaysia; South Africa; Botswana, and New Zealand.
After 13 years on the run and four continents, Barnett finally landed along the shores of Australia’s Sunshine Coast — a safe harbor about as far away from Charleston as she could get.
“The Sunshine Coast is known for its beaches,” Samantha Geldenhuys told Maher. “It’s a very wonderful and family-like environment to grow up in.”
But Samantha’s own family was having a tough time. The man she adored and believed was her father had fallen in love with another woman, ending her parents’ marriage.
“How’d it impact your mother?” Maher asked Samantha.
“She stayed strong and she stayed resilient. And she was a great single mother,” she replied. “The doors were always open. Everyone was always welcome.”
But the door to her mother’s past remained closed.
“When she talked about America, she loved it. But at the end of the day you could see in her eye — and if you know and you love someone well enough you can see when they are hurting. And it’s not — it’s not for me to sit there and go, ‘well, get sadder and tell me more and — and tell me why, and I deserve to know,’ ’cause I didn’t, you know. I trusted that when she wanted to tell me, she’d let me know,” Samantha explained.
That day finally came 19 years after they boarded that plane into the unknown.
“I was on the telephone at 7:30 in the morning and there was a big pounding on my door,” Barnett said. “I was still in my pajamas and I open the door and this man was standing there with guns … and he said, ‘I’m here with a warrant for your arrest.'”
Alex Geldenhuys had finally made a mistake; she confided in the wrong friend. That friend contacted Harris Todd with the one missing piece of the puzzle: her name.
“All we really needed was a way to identify Miss Barnett under her alias. And once we had that information, it was very easy for us to then find the paper trail,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Nathan Williams explained.
But it took two years to work a deal between the two countries — a deal that eventually led federal agents to a little house in Mooloolaba.
“One of the agents said to me, ‘you must be relieved,’ but I wasn’t relieved. I knew that my life would change, my children’s lives would change,” said Barnett.
It couldn’t have been a worse time. Just one week earlier, their father, Juan Geldenhuys, had died from bone cancer.
“I’m very lucky to be able to say the last thing I said was, ‘I love you.’ ‘Cause people don’t get that,” said Samantha.
Now, she and Reece faced losing their mother to prison.
“My mum was sitting on the couch with … two FBI agents next to her. …I said, ‘Mum, what’s goin’ on?’ And she took me to another room. And just told me everything that happened, told me I gotta trust her. And of course, I did,” said Reece.
Next, Barnett called Samantha, who was away at university studying to be a nurse.
“I said, ‘Sammy. You know how we’ve never had communication with the family and friends in the U.S.?’ She said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘Well, I was married before … And I’m going to jail now … ’cause I’ve e been accused of kidnapping you and I said I had to keep you safe,'” she explained.
“I had to call her back and say, ‘Wait does that mean that dad wasn’t my dad?’ And then she started crying and I started crying,” said Samantha.
Alex Geldenhuys aka Lee Barnett was taken to a jail in Brisbane. The next day, FBI agents sat Samantha down and began to tell her the story of the beginning of her life.
“And that’s when … I learned when I was born, I learned Savanna. I didn’t know anything before that,” she told Maher.
She learned about Harris Todd and her mother’s bitter back story.
“Every characteristic they said that my mother had was wrong and incorrect. Every single thing,” Samantha told Maher. “Like, she — she had bipolar. I mean, that was the most incredibly confronting thing. And I felt very rude because I just laughed in their faces.”
“That was the first time you ever heard that accusation?” Maher asked.
“Yeah. I just — I had to laugh. And I said, ‘Whoa, you’re wrong,'” Samantha replied.
Perhaps most disturbing, agents told Samantha they had feared her mother would hurt her.
“Did your mother ever hurt you? Did she ever hit you?” Maher asked.
“No. No,” Samantha replied with a laugh.
“Was she abusive to you?”
“No,” said Samantha.
A friend in Mooloolaba, Bruce Michell, was equally perplexed by the version of his friend he read about in the court order.
“And I thought, ‘Wow, this is not — this is not the person we knew,” he said.
Michell and Samantha set out to read every document — every transcript relating to the case.
“It’s like a novel that is so sickening that you can’t put down,” said Samantha.
“It’s been a terrible, terrible injustice and somebody should go to jail,” said Michell. And, he says, it shouldn’t be Lee Barnett.
The time had come for Lee Barnett to tell her daughter about the diary she’d kept hidden all these years. Samantha opened the book of secrets and began to read:
“I’m having difficulty writing because I’m very scared… I can only wait, though, and pray it’s not our time to be found.”
With each page came a new understanding of her mother:
“If you think about every single little thing that she has gone through, I’ve lived this wonderful life,” Samantha said. “She did everything she could and more to just keep me safe.”
Now, it was Samantha’s turn to protect her mother.
“She is the most important thing and she was and she has been and she still is,” she said.
Samantha and Bruce Michell collected affidavits from supporters across four continents.
“Everybody’s heart went out to her and everybody was behind her 100 percent. There was not a doubt at all anywhere,” said friend Keri Gazzard.
For 10 months, “Alex” and her supporters desperately fought extradition, but in the fall of 2014, she was forced to leave her Australian paradise behind and return to the place where it all began: Charleston, S.C. This time, charged with international parental kidnapping and two counts of passport fraud — crimes that could put her behind bars for 23 years.
Lee Barnett was denied bail while awaiting trial.
“It’s not complicated,” Prosecutor Nathan Williams said. “You can’t take the law into your own hands and — and flee the country with a child because you don’t like the result from a divorce hearing.”
Barnett acknowledged she broke the law by getting those fake passports, but said she’s not guilty of kidnapping.
“You do not think that you broke the law by taking her out of the country and going on the run?” Maher asked.
“No, the law was broken when a corrupt court system took that baby from me and took her mother away from her,” Barnett replied.
“In your mind you did not kidnap her,” Maher commented.
“She’s my daughter,” said Barnett.
“But you did not have the legal right to take her out of the country,” Maher pointed out.
“Legal right be damned,” said Barnett.
But after five months in jail, Lee Barnett realized she didn’t have the money or the fire power to fight the U.S. government. She pleaded guilty to all three charges, including kidnapping.
Barnett was sentenced to 21 months in prison with credit for time served.
For the man who had searched for her, it was a disappointing sentence.
“What about Harris’ side, the father’s side,” Agent Chris Quick said. “She took the law in her own hands and denied the father of 20 years of ever seeing his daughter.”
“Have you ever, for one moment, thought, ‘Maybe I should have let her know Harris Todd?” Maher asked Barnett.
“No,” she replied.
“No remorse about cheating him out of 20 years with his daughter?”
“None,” she said.
Barnett said time has proven she was not who he said she was.
“There’s nothing wrong with me. I’ve never done anything violent. I’ve raised two amazingly healthy, intelligent children who are happy,” she said. “So who’s telling the truth? And who’s lying?”
Samantha had some questions of her own. She wrote an eight-page letter to Harris Todd.
“Just telling him that … I can have the most amazing relationship with him as long as I am 100 percent sure there’s no revenge, there’s no spite, no nothing,” she explained.
Samantha said all she wanted was the truth: why he said her mom was violent, mentally ill.
“There was no response to that,” she told Maher.
Instead, Todd wrote he was pleased to hear she had done well on her exams.
“Has there ever been any response?” Maher asked. Samantha shook her head no in response.
A year would pass. Samantha was finally ready to meet Todd — a meeting he had imagined when “48 Hours” spoke to him in 1999.
“I would tell who I am and hug her,” he said at the time.
It didn’t quite turn out like that. They met at Todd’s home.
“He held … out his hand to shake my hand. And I thought, ‘Well, I’m not quite comfortable with that. I’d rather give a hug,'” she said. “It was just a surreal experience.”
Samantha said Todd took her on a two-and-a-half hour tour of his house, showing off his prized possessions. Barnett’s friend, retired Judge Myron Johnson, accompanied her.
“I really was very shocked that the conversation was not about he and Samantha and the years they have missed … how they could go from here,” said Judge Johnson.
“I think we were both a little awkward,” said Samantha.
They have not seen each other since, but Samantha said she remains open to a relationship as long as he understands one thing.
“There is no way I’m letting go of my mom,” she explained. “I have been very lenient with him with all the stuff that he has said and I want to know if he will be the same with me when this comes out.”
In May2015, Lee Barnett was released from jail on two years probation and back into the lives of family and friends she had left all those years ago.
“It’s an amazing experience to have your best friend disappear for 20 years and come back,” said Susan Poag.
“She is just overwhelmed with friendship,” said Gordon King.
“All of our childhood memories are … coming back,” Cliff Barnett said. “She’s not … gonna go anywhere as far as I’m concerned.”
At this point, Lee Barnett was not allowed to leave the country. So, with the help of “48 Hours,” her kids came to her. Reece’s visit was a total surprise.
“The first time I got to hug her after she got out of prison, she never let go of me,” he said. “She cried.”
Samantha hadn’t seen her mother in nine months.
“My mother and I have this incredible thing to know that we love each other. And a continent … or an ocean isn’t gonna separate us,” she said.
Over two decades ago, Lee Barnett married Harris Todd hoping to have a happy life together. Instead, it became a marriage measured in loss. A father lost 20 years with his daughter. A mother lost her home, her friends, and her family. It’s a story of hurt, anger and despair. But also, a story of love:
Dear Savanna, I just want to let you know how loved you are. You and I will be fine … More then fine really we’ll be great. By the way, I just want to let you know how special you are to me…. please always know that having you is the most important thing in my entire life. You will always be my little girl. We made it. Love, Mommy.
Samantha now works as a nurse. She plans to get married this summer.
Reese will graduate from Auburn University in Alabama in May.
Lee has written a memoir which will be published in Australia this spring.