Fugitive kidnap mum’s plea: ‘I’m not a threat’
A MUM-on-the-run who eluded the FBI for two decades before her secret life in Queensland was sensationally exposed, is fighting to return "home'' after serving time in the US.
Former Sunshine Coast resident Alexandra Geldenhuys, well-known in education, swim club and lifesaving circles, was swooped on and arrested by Australian and US Federal Police in 2013.
It followed a tip-off from one of her friends and ended a 20-year mystery and global hunt that revealed she was actually Dorothy Lee Barnett, from Charleston in South Carolina.
Ms Barnett, known as Lee, said she wanted to return to the Sunshine Coast, even just for a visit. She said she considered it her home and was prepared to give up her US citizenship to live in Queensland again with her daughter, Samantha.
"I want to be able to be there for Samantha and her wonderful husband-to-be and catch up with all my friends," she said.
"I'm not a threat to anybody. Hopefully, the Australian Government will see that and when I submit my next visa application it will be looked at favourably,'' she said.
Ms Barnett had illegally exited the US in 1994 with her 11-month-old daughter Savanna, after losing custody to ex-husband Harris Todd.
In a daring vanishing act befitting a Hollywood thriller, Ms Barnett changed her appearance, saved $8000 cash and used faked birth certificates and a driver's licence to obtain passports under fresh identities. Reborn as Alexandra Maria Canton, she took Savanna, renamed Samantha, during a visitation weekend and disappeared. She travelled to Germany, France, Malaysia, South Africa, Botswana and New Zealand, before settling on the Sunshine Coast in 2007.
While in South Africa, she married engineering geologist Juan Geldenhuys and they had a son, Reece. Mr Geldenhuys raised Samantha as his own. He and Ms Barnett separated but remained friends.
He died of cancer a week before her arrest.
Ms Barnett was extradited to the US and pleaded guilty to parental kidnapping and making false statements in a passport application.
She was sentenced to 21 months in jail and two years probation. The offence could have carried a sentence of 23 years. She was released after serving 18½ months.
Ms Barnett, now 58 and living in South Carolina, has successfully completed her probation period and wants to return to Australia.
She recently was denied a Temporary Activity visa which allows visits of up to 12 months to see immediate family members or attend special events, but intends to re-apply.
Ms Barnett desperately wants to return to Queensland to see her daughter, now 25, reunite with close friends and travel to Victoria to accept an invitation from the Australian Paralegal Foundation to speak at a national summit for children's safety and wellbeing.
Since being released from prison in 2015, Ms Barnett has been focused on helping domestic violence and child abuse charities in the US. She is also writing a memoir.
She has stayed in close contact with her children, who both wrote letters in support of her bid to return to Australia, and regularly catches up with son Reece, 23, a finance student at Auburn University in Alabama.
Her visa application was rejected by a delegate for Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, who said: "Ms Barnett has not satisfied me that he (sic) passes the character test''.
The department deemed she posed an unacceptable risk to the Australian community. This contradicts the view of US District Court Judge Richard Gergel, who presided over her trial in 2015.
He said she had no prior or subsequent criminal history and was unlikely to commit any further crimes.
Judge Gergel said that while Ms Barnett's actions had been very serious, she had been "a productive citizen, fine mother … and this appears to be an unusual episode closely linked to the Family Court proceeding''.
Samantha still lives on the Sunshine Coast and says she wants her mum back. Ms Geldenhuys, a nurse, said she felt the Federal Government was trying to make an example of her mother, but could not be more wrong about her.
"What risk would she pose? She's not going to abduct someone else's baby. It's ridiculous,'' she said.
Ms Geldenhuys said that while it had come as a huge shock to discover the truth about her biological father, she understood what had made her mother so secretive about the past.
She said she and her brother had enjoyed a wonderful upbringing and could not have had any more love.
Their life on the Sunshine Coast had been "pretty normal'' with close involvement with school, swimming club, the beach and surf lifesaving.
"It would mean the world to have her back here, even if just for visits,'' Ms Geldenhuys said. "I want her here for all the everyday mother-daughter things that others might take for granted. Then there's the milestones like when I have kids. She could be there for their birth.''
Ms Geldenhuys said she also wouldn't have to get married in another country.
She has moved her August wedding to Fiji so her mother can attend.
"Mum is a wonderful person. She would do anything for anyone,'' Ms Geldenhuys said. "Her only fault is she is probably a bit too giving … she always puts others before herself. I'm very grateful to her for the sacrifices she made for us.''
Ms Geldenhuys met her biological father but had nothing further to do with him.
She said the man she considered her father, Juan Geldenhuys, was "the best dad I could have asked for''.
During her seven years on the Sunshine Coast, Ms Barnett worked as an education sales consultant for leading publishers Pearson and Oxford University Press. Her territory included schools along the coast and north as far as Rockhampton in Central Queensland.
Life at Mountain Creek, near Mooloolaba, revolved around work and school and kids' sport activities, as well as beach walks, time-keeping at the swim club and going fishing in her "tinnie''.
The family also hosted international exchange students.
Ms Barnett said she had known her former husband would keep looking for her and her daughter. However, she was surprised when she ended up on an FBI Most Wanted list.
"I thought surely they would be busy with other people, like terrorists, and not bothered with me. They must have spent millions.
"I went from being a hardworking mum living pretty much a typical Sunshine Coast life with my kids to being in maximum security everywhere I went. It was a huge shock.''
MOTHER OF ALL DISAPPEARING ACTS
1991: Dorothy Lee Barnett weds stockbroker Benjamin Harris Todd III, in South Carolina, US
1992 : Barnett falls pregnant and tensions emerge in the marriage. She claims he asked her to get an abortion, a claim he denies. Todd walks out when she is 10 weeks' pregnant
1 993: Their daughter Savanna Lee is born. An ugly divorce turns into an uglier custody battle
1994 (Feb): Todd awarded custody of
9½-month-old Savanna after painting Barnett as violent and mentally unstable
1994 (April): With $8000 cash, and using fake birth certificates and passports under new identities, Barnett waits for a scheduled visitation to flee the US
1994-2006: Barnett and Savanna, now called Samantha, travel from Germany to France, Malaysia, South Africa, Botswana and New Zealand. In South Africa, marries Juan Geldenhuys and has a son, Reece
2007: Family settles on Sunshine Coast. Barnett and Geldenhuys separate.
2010-11: After an international hunt, friend informs Barnett's ex-husband of her location
2013: Barnett, now known as Alex Geldenhuys, is arrested and charged with parental kidnapping
2014: FBI agents escort Barnett to US. She is sentenced to 21 months' jail.
2017: Parole ends. Helps domestic violence and child abuse charities.
2018: Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton rejects visa application to visit daughter and friends
2019: Barnett, now 58, prepares another visa application