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Thursday, January 30, 2014


Samantha Geldenhuys' mum was actually on the run after kidnapping her following a bitter custody bid.  Moving across the world from one country to another was the only childhood Samantha knew, so she thought nothing of it.

Her hard-working single mum told her it was because she loved to travel, but they eventually settled down in Australia when Sam was teenager.

Then, in November last year, her world came crashing down around her at the age of 20. Her mother was suddenly arrested by Aussie federal police and the American FBI.

Only then did she learn the real reason behind the constant uprooting. Her mother had been on the run from her ex-husband and the FBI for two decades after kidnapping her own daughter as a baby.

Now: Samantha as she is todayScreen1.jpg    Samanta now                                                                              Samanta and her mom

savanna_todd.jpgMissing: Poster showing how they thought Samantha may have looked

Sam’s whole life had been a lie. Her real name was not Samantha Geldenhuys – it was Savanna Todd. She was born in America and lived there until she was snatched by her mum at 11 months old.

Her mother, known to her all her life as Alexandra Geldenhuys, was really Dorothy Lee Barnett. Using a false passport, she fled America with Sam in 1994 after losing a bitter custody battle.

In an attempt to throw her ex-husband off her trail she left a map of South America but went to South Africa, where a year later she married a man called Juan Geldenhuys. They had a son, now 17.

Knowing she was the target of inter­national manhunt, Barnett kept on the move, living in Europe for a time and never allowing her new family to settle in one place for long.

Fearing the FBI were finally closing in, she moved on to New Zealand then settled in Australia seven years ago after a split with Mr Geldenhuys, who has recently died of bone cancer.

But last year, on the day of the Melbourne Cup races, her luck ran out. The authorities found her bolt hole on the Sunshine Coast of Queensland and Sam finally learned the truth.

It is believed that a friend of Mr Geldenhuys became suspicious after hearing Barnett call her daughter Savanna by mistake. The friend then searched the internet and found wanted pictures of Barnett. He contacted her ex-husband, a stockbroker called Benjamin Harris Todd III, who then called in the FBI.

Mum and dad: Parents before their split 

Barnett, 53, is now being held at Brisbane Women’s Correctional Centre and faces up to 20 years in an American prison if convicted of alleged US federal crimes.
Her ex-husband, meanwhile, had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars searching for his daughter and kept her bedroom in Charleston, South Carolina, continually updated in the hope that she would eventually come home to him.
You might imagine that 20 years of deceit would now have destroyed Barnett’s relationship with her daughter, but Sam has forgiven her mum and their bond is stronger than ever.
“A name does not change who you are,” said Sam, who is now at university in Queensland. “I’ve always had a mother. I’ve always been loved. I’ve always been protected. I don’t feel I have an identity crisis when I was told I was Savanna Todd or Savanna Barnett, or whatever alias.”
Samantha has stood by her mother from the very beginning. She attended her first court appearance holding up a sign saying “We love you Mom”. And yesterday, speaking on Australian TV show Today-Tonight, she insisted nothing had changed and her mum’s story needed to be told.
She said: “I backed my mum on the first day because I knew who she was and I knew what she did would be for a valid reason. But I was brought up not to judge until I see fit and I’ve read her side and I’ve read all the documents and I feel that she needs to be heard.”
Those documents tell a fascinating story. Mr Todd reported his baby girl missing in April 1994. Barnett had been granted two supervised weekend visits a month and on the day of the kidnap she told him she was taking Savanna to a birthday party. They never came back.
A warrant was issued for her arrest and over the following years police artists created images showing what Savanna would look as she grew older.
Mr Todd always refused to give up hope and spent nearly all his money on the search. He says that for 20 years he worked seven days a weeks at two jobs – stockbroker and international investigator.
Barnett had planned her escape for weeks with the help of a shadowy American group called Children of the Underground, which was formed to help mothers flee from abusive husbands.
However in the case of Mr Todd, no evidence of any abuse ever appears to have existed. As his search for his daughter continued he was accused of being gay, which he denied.
The relationship which ended in such a chaotic and bitter mess had a happier beginning.
Benjamin Todd first met air hostess Barnett in 1987 when she walked into his stockbroking office at Merrill Lynch to seek advice on investing her savings. The two began socialising, became a couple, and married four years later. However, court documents reveal that the marriage quickly turned sour.
Mr Todd claimed Barnett would go without sleep for seven or eight days at a time then beat her head against a wall for what seemed like hours. On other occasions he said she would lash out at him and once she began to beat him up as he drove a car.
They separated in February 1993 and Mr Todd moved out of the family home. Barnett claimed for desertion while he filed for divorce on the grounds of ­physical cruelty.
Mr Todd said he went into hiding to escape what he called her “endless tirades and threats”.
He said: “I was on the run from her, hiding out at friends’ houses. She’d drive around all night looking for me and sometimes she’d find me. She’d stand outside the house and scream that she was going to kill herself.”
Barnett was now pregnant and and as the baby’s birth approached, Mr Todd said he became increasingly alarmed about her ability to care for a child and once Savanna was born he sought to win legal custody.
During the court battle his psychiatrists said Barnett was manic-depressive while her team denied it and said she was of sound mind.
However detectives acting for Mr Todd provided evidence of Barnett’s drinking and affairs with other men – “six in the space of just a few weeks”. The court was told there was “enormous alcoholic consumption when she was supposed to be breastfeeding.”
But according to Barnett’s own legal team it was her behaviour in court that led to the judge’s final decision to award custody to Mr Todd.
Lawyer Mendell Rivers said: “She demonstrated a tragic lack of self-control and it made the judge believe the things said about her might be true.
“She was in fact an excellent mother and Savanna was strongly bonded to her. But she couldn’t handle the stress of a trial.”
Mr Todd offered joint custody on condition that Barnett agreed to undergo psychiatric treatment, But she refused and the judge awarded him sole custody.
Now, as Barnett faces extradition to America on abduction and passport charges, Savanna has still not been reunited with the father who fought for so long to find her. She has made contact by email and has asked him for assurances that he will stop pursuing her mother after learning of the bitterness between them.

“Savanna can be a remembrance of what happened 20 years ago... but Samantha is who I am and who I will be,” she said.

Lovely story!

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