'Last place I expected to be': Woman whose mother abducted her as baby testifies at sentencing

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CORRECTS YEAR TO 2015 - Attorney Russell Mace speaks with reporters outside the federal courthouse in Charleston, S.C., on Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2015, after his client, Dorothy Lee Barnett, pleaded guilty to parental kidnapping and two counts of falsifying passport applications and was sentenced to 21 months in prison. Prosecutors say she took her infant daughter overseas from South Carolina in 1994 and eluded authorities until she was arrested in Australia in 2013. (AP Photo/Bruce Smith)


In this undated image released by the Cannon Detention Center in (S.C) via the Post & Courier, Dorothy Lee Barnett poses for a mug shot. Barnett accused of kidnapping her infant daughter from South Carolina and fleeing overseas more than 20 years ago is appearing in federal court to enter a plea and be sentenced Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2015. Barnett, formerly of the Isle of Palms, is charged with parental kidnapping and falsifying U.S. passport applications. (AP Photo/Cannon Detention Center in (S.C) via the Post & Courier)


CHARLESTON, South Carolina — A woman whose mother abducted her as an infant and took her overseas more than 20 years ago stood in a courtroom Tuesday, fighting back tears, and told a judge she has had a good life even though she didn't know her birth father growing up.

"I was raised very fortunately. I was loved beyond belief," Samantha Geldenhuys, 21, told U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel after her mother, Dorothy Lee Barnett, pleaded guilty to parental kidnapping and two counts of falsifying passport applications.

The judge sentenced the 54-year-old Barnett — who lived in Isle of Palms when she took her daughter — to 21 months in prison followed by two years' supervised parole. She is expected to be released in a few months because she gets credit for time served since her arrest in November 2013.

That's after she was tracked down in Australia, where she had been living under another name since 2007. It was the first time her daughter learned about her past.

"It was a shock to me, and this is the last place I expected to be standing," Geldenhuys said. "It could have been great to grow up here."

She said she recently spent time with her birth father, Benjamin Harris Todd III. He had legal custody after her parents divorced.

"That was an experience I cannot describe in words," she said.

According to court records, Todd and Barnett went through an acrimonious divorce in February 1994. The family court found that "the mother steadfastly rejected that the father had a role of value to the child and that she and the child would be better off if he were not in the picture at all," records said.

Prosecutors said that a few months later, Barnett left for a birthday party during a visit with her daughter, then called Savanna Catherine Todd and nearly a year old, and didn't return. Barnett was eventually located in Australia and fought extradition but was returned to the U.S. om September.

Barnett told authorities that she fled to Malaysia and then South Africa, where she met and married Juan Geldenhuys, who is now dead. She said the family later lived in Botswana, New Zealand, and Australia, moving for her husband's employment.

She told authorities that over 20 years, the only person she had contact with in the United States was her brother, who has since died.

Before sentencing, Barnett told the court that she had separated from Todd while pregnant with her daughter. She thanked God for all the friends who have been taking care of her daughter and her son since her arrest.

"Ms. Barnett, there are no winners in this situation," the judge told her.

Geldenhuys didn't comment as she was hurried from the courthouse into a car.

Benjamin Todd didn't appear at the hearing. The attorney who represented him in his divorce, Graham Sturgis, spoke to the judge on his behalf.

He read a note Todd wrote after his daughter disappeared, imagining himself looking down the driveway: "Someday my daughter will be looking there for me."

Sturgis said his client "feels that justice has been served and is focusing on getting to know his daughter."

Barnett's attorney, Russell Mace III, said he didn't know whether Geldenhuys would remain in the United States or return to Australia.

He also said Barnett's sentence was an expected one. He said that Barnett could be free "in 11 or 12 weeks and perhaps sooner."

The charges of falsifying passport applications each carried a maximum sentence of 10 years; parental kidnapping, a maximum of three.

But in federal court, judges get a range of sentences based on a report that considers matters such as the nature of the crime and previous convictions. Barnett had none. The report suggested 15 to 21 months.

The judge said he sentenced Barnett to the maximum in the range because "this was a calculated, methodical crime carried out in a deliberate way."

Gergel said: "I don't believe Ms. Barnett is going to commit any other crime. But it is important that others be deterred from taking the law into their own hands."

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