DAY IT ALL CHANGED
UNDER NEW IDENTITIES, THIS MOTHER AND HER BABY ESCAPED AMERICA AND LIVED LIFE ON THE RUN FOR NEARLY 20 YEARS UNTIL THEY WERE DISCOVERED HERE ON THE SUNSHINE COAST
This mother would rather go to jail than live a day where she couldn’t protect her child. And that she did.
Lee Barnett’s name became known widely throughout the Sunshine Coast community in 2013 when the seemingly normal suburban mum was arrested by the FBI and extradited to the United States.
She had spent 19 years on the run from American authorities after kidnapping her daughter Samantha (born as Savannah) from what she describes as a “life sentence”.
“My husband at the time claimed that I had a mental illness called ‘hyperthymic temperament’, which still doesn’t exist. It’s a temperament but it’s not a disorder and I don’t have it anyway,” Lee said.
“He said it was a genetic disorder and my daughter would also have it. He said he would be watching her very, very closely.
“He would take her to the same psychiatrist that I thought I was going to for marriage counselling and he would have her medicated from as early as two or three years old.
“I knew how hard it was fighting for myself at 33 years old, so how could a baby?”
During her time on the run, Lee said she
became villified back in the US, where her ex-husband Harris Todd, Samantha’s father, took to TV shows and other media outlets telling his side of the story, labelling Lee as “mentally unwell” and “unfit to mother”.
Soon she lost all allegiance from the country she once called home.
Meanwhile, Lee was searching for refuge, travelling a long road from the US to France, Germany, Malaysia, South Africa and New Zealand before finally settling on the Sunshine Coast, all the while unable to speak a word of her story in fear of getting caught.
But now, all of that has changed as Lee, who has since served jail time in America on charges of parental kidnapping and providing fake passport details, has written a book explaining why she did what she did, why she doesn’t regret it and why the support system for victims of domestic abuse needs to change.
Lee said it had all started when she became pregnant with Samantha. At the time, she was married to Harris and was living in South Carolina.
“Throughout my whole pregnancy, the abuse that I went through, being told I was sick, him telling me I was insane and that nobody loved me ... I was trying to carry a pregnancy, worrying about the baby whilst trying to keep my sanity,” Lee said.
“I was put on drugs that could make me miscarry. Thank God I only took three out of 60.”
Lee said she had been taken to sessions that she thought were for marriage counselling but were actually for a psychiatric diagnosis for her husband to later use in court.
She was prescribed harsh drugs and said that when she refused to take them, Harris labelled her as “dangerous”, although she provided referrals from two other psychiatrists stating there was nothing wrong with her.
“I regret breaking the law. That should have never happened. But if there was more work to help people who are getting abused and to have somebody listen and believe in you, no one would have to do what I had to do,” Lee said.
“For him to say he was going to do the exact same thing to her (Samantha), there was no way to explain how scary that was.”
Eventually, Lee lost full custody of her daughter and despite the harrowing road that was awaiting her, she said that moment was still the worst of her life – much worse than being sentenced to prison almost 20 years later.
“Those 18 months (when she was fighting for custody) when I couldn’t protect my baby, it was horrible and nothing compares to that,” Lee said.
“When you don’t have any control over your own life and what’s happening to your child, it’s a horrifying thing.”
Lee said that during those many years on the run, she never really felt settled, but her home here on the Sunshine Coast was the closest thing she ever found to a sanctuary.
Samantha had no idea of her mother’s or even her own past until the day of Lee’s arrest in 2013. She had only known her life with the father who raised her, Juan Geldenhuys (Lee’s second husband), and her younger half-brother Reece.
Both children have maintained a strong relationship with their mother after Juan died from cancer.
Today, Samantha remains living in Australia and recently got engaged to her long-term partner, while Reece studies at Auburn University in Alabama.
Lee’s book A Mother’s Promise tells her side of a story that still divides many opinions throughout the world.
NO LONGER ON THE RUN: Lee Barnett tells her side of events that led her to flee America and eventually find refuge in Queensland.