Isle of Palms girl missing since 1994 found in Australia; mother charged

Savanna Geldenhuys, left, leaves the Maroochydore Courthouse yesterday after her mother's bail hearing was adjourned. (Source: Jack Tran / The Australian)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCIV) -- A girl missing since 1994 has been found and an indictment has been unsealed against the girl's mother.

According to the U.S. Attorney's Office, 53-year-old Dorothy Lee Barnett, of Queensland, Australia, has been charged with one count of international parental kidnapping and two statements of false statement in a passport application.

Barnett used to live on Isle of Palms.

Attorneys say Barnett is charged with keeping her infant child,{} Savanna Catherine Todd, outside of the United States in an effort to keep her ex-husband from having any access.

According to the indictment, Todd was removed from the country when she was 10 months old. She was kept outside of the country until May 2009, the attorney's office continued.{}

U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles said Todd, now an adult, was found safe and living an otherwise normal and healthy life.

According to The Australian newspaper, the girl's father figured out where his daughter and his estranged wife were living after an Australian friend contacted him in 2011.

The couple divorced in February 1994, almost a year after Savanna Todd was born. The girl's father was granted custody.

Barnett was arrested in Australia on Nov. 4. At a bond hearing on Nov. 12, Barnett was denied bond and is expected to be extradited to the U.S. So far, no court date has been set, officials said.

According to court records obtained by The Australian, Savanna was not returned by her mother after a supervised visit in April 1994. During an investigation, officials learned that Barnett earlier in the month had a license issued in the name of Alexandria Canton, which was then used to get a passport.

Court records show Canton had planned to fly to Frankfurt, Germany on April 23, 1994.

Officials say Canton then married Juan Geldenhuys in the Republic of South Africa in February 1995 and applied for an amended passport to change her last name to Geldenhuys and claimed to live in South Africa.

In 2004, she applied for a new passport.

"The applicant has lived in Australia for some time. She owns the home in which she resides, and, in addition to her daughter Savanna, who is studying nursing in Townsville, she is the mother of a 17-year-old boy. No criminal history is alleged. She poses no threat to the community. Measures can be put in place that will satisfactorily address the question of flight," court records obtained by The Australian read.

According to Canton's affidavit, she gained New Zealand citizenship in 2008 and arrived in Australia late in 2007. She and her husband purchased a home on the Sunshine Coast, but she bought his share four years ago when they divorced.

She told the court he recently died of bone cancer.

Since moving out of the U.S., Savanna's name was changed to Samantha, and she has another child, a 17-year-old boy. In August of this year, Canton took a job at Oxford University Press and has played host to several foreign exchange students.

"If I were granted bail, I undertake to not attend upon any point of international departure from Australia," she said in the affidavit.

According to the newspaper, Todd was in the courtroom with her mother, mouthing "I love you" as Barnett was carted off to a holding cell.

The adult child was contacted by Australian and U.S. authorities regarding the case near the time of Barnett's arrest.

"The commitment demonstrated by the FBI agents in this case in locating Barnett and the missing child after so many years was tireless and is an inspiration," Nettles said.

Barnett, if convicted, faces three years in prison on the kidnapping charge and 10 years in prison on the false statement charges.