Dorothy Lee Barnett eluded the FBI for two decades before her secret life in Queensland was sensationally exposed.
Dorothy Lee Barnett eluded the FBI for two decades before her secret life in Queensland was sensationally exposed.

The day I was arrested after 20 years on run

WHEN Lee Barnett took her 11-month-old daughter and fled America in 1994 after a bitter ­custody dispute, she could not have imagined the journey ahead.

She travelled to Malaysia, then South Africa, where she married and had son Reece, before the family settled in Queensland in 2007.

Known as Alex ­Geldenhuys, she raised her kids, worked, made friends and enjoyed life until her past finally caught up with her on the Sunshine Coast.

 

Mountain Creek, November 5, 2013

I was woken by the squawking of rainbow lorikeets. My eyes opened and at once I remembered the devastating news of the past week.

Slowly, I sat up and ­cursed my throbbing head, a pain brought on by very little sleep and the intense sadness of my ex-­husband's death.

I reached for the Panadol and knew I had to pull myself together.

[Our son] Reece was home from early morning swim training and getting ready for school [at Mountain Creek State High].

Now 17, he was finishing high school and in a few short months would be off to study engineering in Brisbane. How proud his father would have been!

Lee Barnett and children Samantha and Reece Geldenhuys.
Lee Barnett and children Samantha and Reece Geldenhuys.

Juan [Geldenhuys] had been diagnosed with terminal cancer the year before.

Although Juan and I were divorced, our friendship and our mutual love for the children kept us close until the day he died.

We hadn't attended his funeral a few days earlier, but instead had visited him in South Africa the previous December.

We decided to spend time with him while he was alive, knowing we couldn't afford two trips.

Samantha, my 20-year-old and the love of Juan's life, was Daddy's girl.

She wrote the eulogy. I still couldn't ­fathom how eight days had passed since I had to tell them that their father was dead.

All I could do to help them now was for them to both know that I was here, and to remind them how much their dad loved them.

Lee Barnett wants to return to Queensland after serving time in a US jail.
Lee Barnett wants to return to Queensland after serving time in a US jail.

I carried my morning cup of tea outside and stared at the pool, enjoying the spring sunshine. Reece clattered about in the kitchen fixing himself some breakfast before his morning exam.

I picked up the phone and called Sammy.

We had agreed she would fly down from James Cook University in Townsville in a week's time to surprise Reece for his high-school graduation.

We planned to celebrate their dad's life and have a little memorial, just the three of us.

We chatted about this and that, and then out of the blue, "Mum … "

"Yes, sweetie?"

"I know you'll think this is crazy, but don't bad things come in threes?"

I laughed.

"I'm serious. Right before Dad died, my car broke down. Do you think a third thing will happen?"

Dorothy Lee Barnett with daughter Samantha (born Savanna Lee Barnett) just before they fled USA in 1994.
Dorothy Lee Barnett with daughter Samantha (born Savanna Lee Barnett) just before they fled USA in 1994.

I reassured my beautiful daughter that everything would be fine and not to be so superstitious.

I finished the call with a smile and reminded myself how ­blessed I was to have the kids I did. Samantha was mature ­beyond her years - always the rock, never the complainer.

Sometimes I wished she would let her hair down a little more, but I was so grateful at how sensible, kind and loving she is.

And I was so proud of how well Reece had done, ­especially after his father moved back to Africa.

And he was growing into such a tall, handsome young man. I sang out good luck to him as he left for his exam.

My phone rang. It was my friend Keri [Gazzard]. We chatted for a bit but I was soon distracted by a strange noise and told her I'd call her back. I went into my office and saw several men in casual clothes pounding on the glass door.

Something was off. Then I saw guns holstered on their belts. I opened the sliding glass door.

"Can I help you, sir?"

"We have a warrant to search your house," one man spoke up. "Can we come in?"

I opened the door wider to let them in and even more people appeared. "Would you like to come in here or the front door?"

As soon as the words left my mouth, a man behind me shouted, "Clear! No guns!"

I turned and saw a couple more men who must have jumped the rear hedge.

"Guns? Why in God's name would I have guns? What's all this about?"

Suddenly I felt very alert. And then it occurred to me: This is it … they've finally found me. I cursed that it was so soon, too soon, after Juan's death. How hard would this be on the children?

As we entered into the larger of the two lounge rooms, the first man gently asked if we could sit. Numbly, I agreed. I turned to the men and asked, "Can I get ya'll a cup of ­coffee or tea?" Silently I cursed myself at my inability to lose the ya'll word.

I realised I was still in my lurid cartoon pyjamas, but that couldn't be helped for now. I started tidying up for the ­people who continued to flood into my home.

The kind-looking man pulled out some official documents and handed them to me. On the top page I saw ­"indictment", but at that stage the rest was a blur.

A tape ­recorder and other devices were also pulled from his bag, which resembled Mary Poppins's magic carpetbag in its prodigious holding capacity.

Dorothy Lee Barnett with Queensland friend Shelly Schofield.
Dorothy Lee Barnett with Queensland friend Shelly Schofield.

Only this bag was not filled with fun things, but things that would change our lives ­forever.

"What is your name?"

A simple enough question.

"Alexandria Maria Geldenhuys."

"What other names are you known by?"

"Alexandria Canton was my maiden name."

"And what other names?"

The man was an Australian Federal Police officer. He had kind eyes, a calming voice and braces. Braces. Who could be a bad-ass AFP agent with braces? I stifled a giggle and wondered why we were all so calm.

"OK, what do you want?"

"First things first. We need any other names you are known by."

I quickly scanned the room. "Are there any FBI officers with you?"

"Yes, there are two. And they're waiting outside."

I sighed. So it was true. After nearly 20 years - 7132 days, to be exact - they had finally caught up with me.

"Yes, I have another name. It's Dorothy Lee Barnett."

 

DIVING DEEP INTO THE MEMORY

 

While we waited for the FBI to appear I told the AFP officers that the passports and birth certificates were in the second drawer of my closet. After so many years it seemed easier now to cooperate than not to.

Pedr, who was the AFP lead investigator, let me call Keri, who I asked to come over. Pedr also allowed me to phone my co-worker at Oxford University Press, to ask her to cover for me.

Then Mike and Ed walked in. Mike was the FBI agent ­liaison to the US Embassy in Sydney. As I said hi and smiled at him, his stiffness slowly melted away.

Dorothy Lee Barnett reunited with daughter Samantha (born Savanna Lee Barnett) and son Reece after her release from a US jail in 2015.
Dorothy Lee Barnett reunited with daughter Samantha (born Savanna Lee Barnett) and son Reece after her release from a US jail in 2015.

The next agent was Ed, who I realised must be the bad cop - smiling at him did nothing. Ed had been sent from the US; he had a stern but sad face, which reminded me of the animated character Droopy dog.

Keri arrived, puzzled and concerned, then we all moved into the lounge room. I dived deep into my memory and started dragging up information that had been locked away for 20 years.

Reece came home from his exam, completely blindsided by what was going on. I asked Pedr if I could speak to my son in private and an AFP agent led us into one of the spare bedrooms.

I sat on the bed next to Reece and tried to ­explain what happened more than 20 years ago in a few short minutes. At first he looked at me in disbelief and then looked teary.

"What about Dee?" Dee was his special name for ­Samantha that he had used when he first started talking. And he was the only one to use it.

I told Reece that I would call Sammy just as soon as I was allowed to.

Once we returned to the living-room couch, I sat next to Reece, who put his arm around me, with Keri next to him, her arm around him. And the other ­officers, apart from those who were still tearing my house apart, stood around us.

Reece lifeguarding in Fort Walton Beach, Florida.
Reece lifeguarding in Fort Walton Beach, Florida.

Ed took out his tape recorder, recited the date, time and place and put it on the coffee table. The questions soon started flying. Whose social security number did I use when I applied for a passport? Whose car did I use for my fake driver's licence in Houston, Texas?

So many other ­questions followed and I tried to answer them all. It went on for what seemed like hours.

I told Ed that when I had left the US I moved to Malaysia, then to South Africa and met Juan, my husband, through a mutual friend.

Aside from arguing the facts with me on a number of points, Ed tried to tell me that I had never lived in Malaysia.

By that time, I'd had it. A Cheshire cat smile appeared on my face as I waved my index finger at this interrogator.

"Ed, Ed, Ed," I said witheringly, "you don't have your facts so correct, after all. When I escaped the US I moved to Malaysia, lived and worked there for seven months and then moved to South Africa."

Savanna leaving the Maroochydore Courthouse after her mum’s arrest. Pictures: Jack Tran
Savanna leaving the Maroochydore Courthouse after her mum’s arrest. Pictures: Jack Tran

Ed fumbled with his papers and, for the very first time, didn't contradict me. To this day I swear all the other ­officers smiled, including Mike. By this point a phone call to Samantha was long overdue.

Ed insisted that we use his phone, not mine. I asked to call Samantha's boyfriend, Brad, to make sure he was nearby because this was going to be a shock for her to hear. Ed agreed.

After a couple of rings Brad answered and I checked that Sammy was with him. I reminded him of the time he had said he had big shoulders and that Sammy now needed the biggest shoulders he could muster. "No worries," he replied. "I'm right here." I asked to speak to my daughter.

I had always wanted to choose when to have this ­conversation but it had been foisted on me. Honestly, it was perhaps the most difficult thing I have done in my life. As a mother I wanted - and still want - everything to be right for my kids. I want them to trust me and to know that I would never do anything to harm them.

Samantha is a perceptive and emotionally intelligent young woman. She knew at once that something was ­terribly wrong - possibly her mum had cancer, or maybe something had happened to Reece? I took a deep breath and began. "Sweetie, I'm at the house with your brother, some Australian Federal Police and two FBI agents who are here to arrest me."

I heard a deep sigh from the other end of the phone, then a shaky voice whispering, "Mum, are you OK?"

"Yes, sweetie," I responded. "Before your dad, I was ­married in the States where I became pregnant with you. When you were a baby I took you to protect you. Now I've been caught and they are going to take me to jail."

An emotional Harris Todd is interviewed on local TV regarding his desire to be reunited with his long lost daughter who was removed from the marital home by his then wife.
An emotional Harris Todd is interviewed on local TV regarding his desire to be reunited with his long lost daughter who was removed from the marital home by his then wife.

Throughout the years I had envisioned having this ­conversation with Samantha, but always under different circumstances. Even though I could hear fear and ­confusion in her voice, she was more concerned about what she could do to help. I asked her to fly down earlier than planned to take care of her brother and the house, and to bring her passport, and said that the FBI wanted to speak with her. She agreed to all of that and within a few minutes we told each other how much we loved one another and finished the call.

 

ANYWHERE BUT CHARLESTON

 

A moment later the same phone rang, still in the middle of the coffee table. It was Samantha calling back. Ed pushed the talk button and speakerphone.

"Mum … does that mean my daddy isn't my daddy?" she whispered. I looked at Reece, sitting stoic and sombre next to me. My heart was in pieces for my little girl.

"Sweetie," I said softly, "your daddy will always be your daddy."

"OK," she sobbed.

We talked a little more, me reassuring her that I would be fine and everything would work out, before hanging up, by which time the only person in the room with dry eyes was Ed.

Keri called her husband for the name of a lawyer and I was soon speaking with someone called Chelsea.

On ­hearing the words "kidnapping", "FBI" and "AFP", she ­acknowledged she was out of her depth but told me not to speak to the authorities. "Too late," I said.

"Well, not another word, do you understand? And ­nothing at the station to make it formal so it can be used against you. I'll be at the watchhouse first thing in the morning."

Oh. So I wasn't going to make it back home tonight.

Pedr said it was time to go.

I changed into regular clothes under the gaze of a female AFP officer, and said goodbye to my son at the front door, wrapping my arms around him tight and telling him I loved him. Reece was at the age where he hated any public displays of affection but he hugged me back and said he loved me too.

I hugged Keri goodbye, begging her to please take care of the children as I walked towards Pedr who was holding open the door to a black SUV. I remember thanking God there weren't any rubberneckers about and grateful too that there were no handcuffs or police cars.

On the drive to the watchhouse, I thought perhaps it was now my turn for a few questions.

"How long have you been looking for me?"

"The past eight years," Ed ­replied, "and someone else spent the previous 12 years looking for you."

We rode in silence for a minute or so, then I asked Ed where he was planning on taking me.

There was the first hint of a small smile on his face. "Back to Charleston [in South Carolina, US]."

Charleston! Why? I thought. It's a federal case, why Charleston? How would I get a fair trial there? I didn't 20 years ago and I sure as hell wouldn't now.

"I will go anywhere with you tomorrow, anywhere but Charleston," I said with my first real throb of fear for the entire day.

"We have dotted our i's and crossed our t's so we can take you back to Charleston."

I sat on this for a moment. "Then I'll fight extradition."

"You can't. You won't win."

"Just watch me try."

Edited extract from A Mother's Promise by Lee Barnett (Viking, $35), published Monday



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