S.C. woman charged with daughter's 1994 kidnapping to plead guilty

Reuters News
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Posted: Feb 10, 2015 8:25 AM

By Harriet McLeod

CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) - A woman arrested in Australia in 2013 and accused of kidnapping her infant daughter from South Carolina two decades ago is expected to change her plea to guilty on Tuesday and face sentencing in a U.S. district court, court records show.

Dorothy Lee Barnett, 54, was indicted on charges of international parental kidnapping and falsifying passports, and extradited in September to Charleston, South Carolina.

Her attorney, Russell Mace, told Reuters that she will be sentenced Tuesday morning but did not elaborate.

Prosecutors have said Barnett vanished with her baby girl in 1994 during a court-ordered visit in South Carolina after her ex-husband, Benjamin Harris Todd, was granted legal custody of their child in a contentious divorce.

Barnett moved overseas, remarried and changed her name to Maria Geldenhuys, according to court records. She also renamed her daughter from Savanna to Samantha, prosecutors said.

The mother and daughter were found years later living in Queensland, Australia, after Barnett's second husband had died.

Barnett pleaded not guilty in September to the charges against her and has remained jailed since being returned to South Carolina last autumn.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Nathan Williams would not comment on the case ahead of Tuesday's court hearing. Barnett could face up to three years in prison on the kidnapping charge and 10 years each on two counts of passport falsification.

According to court records, Todd received custody of the couple's daughter after a Charleston family court judge noted Barnett's "psychological and emotional problems."

Using an alias, Barnett obtained a driver's license in Texas and then a U.S. passport, court documents showed. She then left the country and remarried in South Africa, later telling her daughter that the new husband was the child's father, they said.

U.S. investigators found the mother and daughter living in Australia in 2012. Barnett told investigators that she had traveled to Malaysia, South Africa, Botswana, New Zealand and Australia after leaving South Carolina.

She told her daughter she left because of a bad marriage, investigators said. Samantha Geldenhuys, now 21, has appeared in court in support of her mother.

Todd's attorney, J. Graham Sturgis, said both the father and daughter are victims in the case.

"(Todd) suffered the immeasurable loss of his child," Sturgis said, adding that she "can never realize the love from her father during childhood or the experiences and opportunities deprived her by her mother's selfishness."

(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Susan Heavey)