Twenty-year search for missing daughter

PETER MITCHELL
Last updated 17:09 25/11/2013
Savannah Harris Todd
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
FOUND: Savanna Harris Todd was discovered at age 20 living in Australia.
Dorothy Lee Barnett
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
MOTHER: An age-progressed photo of Dorothy Lee Barnett.
Savannah Harris Todd
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
TAKEN: Savanna Harris Todd was taken when she was 10 months old.

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When his 10-month-old baby daughter vanished in 1994, Benjamin Harris Todd III was devastated, but never gave up hope of finding her.

As the years went painfully by, he updated her bedroom in his South Carolina home.

The cot was replaced with a bigger bed for a child.

The baby toys were updated with toys for an older child.

He wanted to make sure when Savanna did come back to him, her room was ready.

"For years, he would change her room to be more age appropriate so when he found her, it would be waiting for her," Mr Todd's longtime lawyer, Graham Sturgis, told AAP on Sunday.

"That rips your heart out."

Mr Todd's agonising, almost 20-year global search ended on November 4 when a tip led US and Australian authorities to Savanna and her mother, Dorothy Lee Barnett, on Queensland's Sunshine Coast.

Mr Todd, a stockbroker, and Ms Barnett, a flight attendant, wed in 1991, but the marriage crumbled, with Ms Barnett filing for divorce before Savanna was born in May 1993.

A bitter divorce and custody court battle followed.

Mr Sturgis said Ms Bennett, who had been diagnosed with "a variant of bipolar disorder", increasingly became agitated during the two-week hearing and a court deputy stood directly behind her seat.

"She was having a hard time remaining in her seat," Mr Sturgis said.

The judge awarded Mr Todd full custody of Savanna and Ms Barnett was allowed to visit her daughter every second weekend, but after her first visit she refused to return her daughter.

Contempt-of-court proceedings took place, but Ms Barnett was not stripped of visitation rights and just weeks later, in April 1994, Ms Barnett and Savanna disappeared during a supervised visit.

Mr Sturgis recalls accompanying Mr Todd to Ms Barnett's home in an attempt to find his daughter.

"The scariest part was going in the house because I didn't know what we would find," Mr Sturgis said.

"Did Lee do something to herself and the child?

"Had they left?"

The house was a mess inside, food was left on the counter and a map of Central America - a favourite destination of Ms Barnett's - was found.

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Mr Todd did all he could do to find his daughter.

He was highly visible in the US media, going on popular television talk shows, including Montel Williams and Sally Jessy Raphael, and agreeing to tell his story in newspapers and magazines in the hopes of finding a clue to Savanna's whereabouts.

Photos of Savanna and her mother, digitally aged as the years progressed to show what they would look like, were circulated on law enforcement and missing persons websites for two decades.

Mr Todd also launched a civil court case in South Carolina against his ex-wife.

The judge was so taken with the suffering the father had endured he awarded Todd $US50 million in damages.

The money was not the goal.

What Todd and Sturgis wanted was to subpoena and take depositions from people they believed knew where Savanna was, or had helped Barnett flee.

Sturgis described the $US50 million as "totally uncollectable" and the "bits and pieces" of information they collected during the court proceedings "all pointed in different directions".

Barnett is accused of fleeing with Savanna to Europe, eventually marrying a man in South Africa, then moving to New Zealand, before settling in Australia in 2007.

Barnett, 53, is in custody in Queensland and has been indicted in the US on parental kidnapping and making a false statement on passport application charges.

The US plans to extradite her and if convicted, she faces more than 20 years' jail.

Savanna, now 20 and attending James Cook University, is standing by her mother.

Sturgis would not say if Todd was in Australia or planned on flying there to meet his daughter, but he said Todd's focus was on Savanna, not what his ex-wife had done.

"He is a good, intelligent caring person," Sturgis said.

"If there's any way for Savanna to build a relationship with a father she has never known, he's there to do it.

"He won't push. He'll wait for her to come to him."

- AAP

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