A little girl thought she knew who her mother was, but it turned out that she had no idea about her tumultuous past.
After losing a bitter custody battle, the mother fled the country, leading the FBI on a massive manhunt. What happened next caused the father to miss 20 years of his daughter’s life and the mother to lose her home, her family, and her friends…
Since childhood, there was always something special about Lee Barnett. In a story covered by 48 Hours, Barnett says that she and her brothers were raised by a free-spirited single mother named Dottie after their father died. They didn’t have much money, but they went on plenty of adventures.
They traveled between South Carolina, Florida, and the jungles of Belize. “They were really living an Indiana Jones lifestyle before there was an Indiana Jones,” Barnett’s oldest friend, Susan Poag, told 48 Hours correspondent Maureen Maher. “In Belize, they were in the jungle living with local families.”
Life Of Adventures
At one point, Barnett traveled to Africa with Poag. “I just knew that all of the traveling that we had done and that she had done with her family prepared her for really what was the ultimate adventure of her life.” The adventure began in Charleston, South Carolina, when Barnett, then a flight attendant, met Harris Todd, a stockbroker.
Barnett said that their love was more of a friendship than love at first sight. “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,” Barnett said. But it seemed that the couple wanted different things out of life.
While Barnett was outgoing, Todd kept to himself. Despite their different personalities, they eventually got married, although Todd made it clear he never wanted to have kids. Still, Barnett thought she could change his mind. “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 said.
But Barnett couldn’t have been more wrong. When she told her husband he was pregnant is when all the problems started between them. “He just 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,’” Barnett said.
But Todd claimed the problem wasn’t the pregnancy, it was Barnett’s uncontrollable temper. He said that during an argument, she flipped over the coffee table, and the following morning he left the home. “I just felt so abandoned. And I couldn’t figure out how somebody I’ve loved and known for so long could be this cruel,” Barnett told Maher.
Todd reportedly asked Barnett to get an abortion multiple times but she refused. He claims he left the home because he couldn’t take his wife’s temper anymore and that he feared for his safety. But Barnett’s mother had a solution and she suggested marriage counseling.
Her mother suggested a psychiatrist named Dr. Oliver Bjorksten, and the couple both agreed to go. While Barnett walked in hoping to save her marriage, she instead walked out with a diagnosis on the bipolar spectrum. The doctor said she had something called hyperthymic temperament – a condition characterized by blaming, dwelling, and temper outbursts.
He wanted to treat the condition with medication. Barnett admitted she was emotional at the time of the pregnancy and that she was alone and had a scare her baby might have Down syndrome. Still, the doctor prescribed her the drug Navane.
After taking three pills, a doctor friend of Barnett’s said it’s an antipsychotic drug and he advised her not to take it. Then, Barnett discovered that Todd and her own mother contacted the psychiatrist before she ever even heard his name. Barnett thought Todd never met the man before, but he had.
He Said, She Said
Todd said he was only trying to get help for his wife, but Barnett believed Todd was setting her up. She believed he was spinning an elaborate tale of an unstable wife with a violent temper, and convincing her own mother of it. Barnett believed he was doing it to “save face” after walking out on her.
Bitter Custody Battle
After a bitter custody battle, Barnett feared her newborn would be taken away from her. The decision was up to Judge Robert Mallard and it was clear he believed Todd. The judge also noted what he called Barnett’s “inability to control her impulses” in court. She admitted to Maher, “I think I got hyper. I think I got stressed. I think I got scared.”
Losing Custody Of Her Baby
Then, on February 18, 1994, Judge Mallard awarded full custody of 9-and-a-half-month-old Savanna to her father. Barnett said her only option was an appeal but the judge didn’t file the necessary paperwork within the 30-day window. By day 45, she was desperate. After obtaining fake documents, Barnett took Savanna and disappeared.
By the following afternoon, Barnett was 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,” Barnett said. Their next stop was to Houston, Texas, where she put on a black wig, walked into the DMV and got a Texas drivers license. Next were the passports, which 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. By the time she was supposed to be giving her child to Todd, she was in Paris, France. She felt free, although everything was falling apart back home and the FBI launched a massive manhunt.
All the while, Barnett wrote in a diary explaining all of her decisions for her daughter to one day read, and hopefully understand. Back at home, Todd felt like he was constantly grieving for someone who was dying. While he was grieving his daughter for five years after her disappearance, Harris Todd decided to take matters into his own hands, but he didn’t have a clue where Barnett and Savanna were.
After 13 years on the run traveling four continents, Barnett finally landed in the sunshine coast in Australia, which is where they stayed. She remarried, changed her daughter’s name to Samantha and the couple had a son, Reece. But 19 years after they boarded that first plane, Barnett had confided in the wrong friend, who spilled her name to authorities. All the FBI needed was a way to identify Barnett under her alias and now they had the missing piece to the puzzle.
It took two years to work a deal between the two countries and it came at a bad time since one week earlier her dad died from bone cancer. Samantha and Reece faced losing their mother to prison. As Lee sat on the couch next to two FBI agents, she told her children to trust her and they did. In fact, they never doubted her for a second and they told 48 Hours they had an incredible childhood with a stable mother, who did not have a mental illness.
Barnett explained everything to Samantha, who learned that her name used to be Savanna. She even gave her the diary she had been keeping. After her arrest, Barnett says the law was broken when a corrupt court system took her baby from her. After five months in jail, Barnett didn’t have the money or the firepower to fight the US government so she pled guilty to all three charges including kidnapping and was sentenced to 21 months in prison. She has since been released from jail and reunited with her family. She has no regrets in what she did.