On April 23, 1994, armed with false documents and carrying my 11-month old baby girl, Savanna, I fled the United States by plane, bound for a destination far away, a place of safety for me my child.
For over 18 months I had been falsely portrayed in Charleston, South Carolina as a violent, promiscuous woman with severe mental illnesses. These months of emotional torture occurred during a time that should have been the happiest of my life, my first pregnancy and the 11 months following the birth of my daughter Savanna.
The most heart breaking moment was in the Charleston Family Court room when Judge Bobby Mallard’s made his decision to take my beautiful healthy, thriving, nursing nine- and- a- half month old baby from me and award sole custody to my ex-husband, her father Benjamin Harris Todd III.
I had known and trusted Harris Todd for nearly 6 years. For the first four years he was my friend and he was my stockbroker. We married in December 1991. I became fairly isolated living on his nine-acre property once we were married. However, as much as I loved my friends, I loved Harris even more, I accepted his rules. To me the enigmatic Harris Todd was all I needed and all I wanted. We listened to music, drank Champagne, watched the sunset, and did it all over again. I was in love and very happy… until I became pregnant.
Ten months into the marriage I discovered I was pregnant, something I knew Harris would be most upset about. Harris demanded I get an abortion. (Harris denies the above, although he admitted in court to giving former girlfriend money to have an abortion). I flatly refused and Harris abandoned me two and a half months into the pregnancy.
Harris said he wanted a divorce and began a dialogue with a few psychiatric professionals to create an elaborate fiction of violence and mental illness, all unbeknownst to me. As part of that process he counter claimed for divorce on the grounds of abuse. He claimed he suffered so badly at my hands that he suffered from PTSD. His testimony was accepted in court as gospel, even though there was never any evidence to support abuse other than Harris’s own testimony.
During my pregnancy, my husband would whisper things to me on the phone, “you’re sick,” “you’re insane,” “nobody loves you,” “there is no baby,” and “you have no friends.” I would cry and cry and try to understand how someone I had loved so much could do this to me, how he could be so cruel. My heart was broken. The mental abuse was so difficult I had trouble gaining weight during my pregnancy, but I somehow made it through with the love and support of friends and kept my head above water. I gave birth to a beautiful 9lb 3oz baby girl.
I not only suffered emotionally and psychologically, I was financially devastated by the court costs for lawyers, psychiatrists, psychologists, and a court appointed Guardian ad Litem-a person who is supposed to represent the best interest of the child in a custody case. For 17 months I never ever had a chance to breathe or relax and enjoy my pregnancy, and, later, my infant daughter.
The town I loved and was born in was now treating me like a leper, someone whom they feared and couldn’t trust or believe. While I was being vilified in court and in my community, my husband was made out to be a Yale educated Southern Gentleman. (Harris went one year to Yale but claimed he received 3-1/2 years of credit because of his intellect). He claimed he dropped out because he was not challenged at Yale. He finished Night School at College of Charleston when he was 30 or 31 years old. Harris was born in Pennsylvania)
When Harris stated on the witness stand that he would watch my baby very closely, and at the first sign (as young as 2 or 3 years old) of the inherited mental illness, irritable hyperthymic temperament, which he and Psychiatrist Dr Bjorkesten claimed I had, he would take her to Dr. Oliver Bjorkesten and put Savanna on medication if prescribed. I knew then my baby was in serious and grave danger if she was left in his care. Harris claimed that Savanna was the fourth generation to have this imagined mental illness. He even wrote a poem about it, which he presented to his psychologist. Nothing frightened me more than not being able to protect my baby from suffering the same fate as I was experiencing …a person who is deemed to have a “mental condition” is not heard nor believed.
After a two- and- a -half week custody and divorce trial, Judge Bobby Mallard awarded custody of my nine -and- a- half month old nursing baby girl Savanna, to Harris Todd, starting immediately. She would be forced weaned. I was given unusually strict visitations: four nights each month.
I was planning an appeal for custody but Judge Bobby Mallard refused to issue a written order within the mandated 30 days. That effectively locked me out of the appellate court’s legal process, preventing me to appeal to a higher court.
On the first visitation allowing me to see Savanna I was supposed to be picking Savanna up alone, but instead at the last-minute I asked my neighbor to go with me. As we drove up to Harris’s mothers house we noticed the car driven by the ever-present Guardian ad Litem parked around the curb. Harris presented my baby with head and facial injuries when we arrived at the house. This had occurred in the presence of Harris and presumably the guardian. Neither sought medical treatment for her, but simply handed Savanna over to me, the person whom they had both vilified in the court 7 days previously, as a mentally ill person who refused to take lithium, a violent person and an unfit mother.
After approximately 45 days after the verbal, with no written order in sight I flew to Los Angels to obtain false birth certificates.
Sixty-five days after the verbal order by Judge Mallard and 35 days after the mandated time for issuing of the written order, with no advice as to when it would be provided, I took Savanna and fled.
My lawyer at that time was broken-hearted that the system had failed my baby and me, it was the straw that broke the camels back for him; he committed suicide a few months later.
I left my home, my country and all my belongings behind, but most importantly l left the people I loved with the knowledge that Savanna and I would never be able to see them again. We left alone, but we finally had each other and we were away from the hell, which plagued my baby and me from the minute I told my husband I was pregnant.
My choice was not one I made flippantly or out of malice. Nor was it the choice of a “mentally unstable” woman. It was out of my undying love for my innocent baby girl and my promise to protect her.
After 13 years and four countries, a second marriage to a South African by whom I had a son, [Reece], the final destination for Savanna (now Samantha), Reece, and I was the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia.
I never knew that for all those years after my flight to safety that the FBI and other international law enforcement agencies would search worldwide for Samantha and me. I knew Harris would never stop until he found me —solely to punish me, not to be reunited with his daughter— but I thought with the evidence I left behind the law enforcement agencies would realize what happened in that court room. Instead, led on by false information provided by Harris Todd and set in stone by Judge Mallard’s 38 page written court order, which was finally issued nearly two weeks after my departure, they searched the globe for us.
They expended enormous sums of money chasing what they thought was a legitimate fugitive from justice with a classification of being “armed and dangerous” and “mentally unstable proceed with caution” and who preys on older wealthy men. They never knew of the lies and deception practiced by my ex-husband on the legal system and, by extension, on the financial resources of the US tax system.
Sometime believed to be as early as the end of 2009, my children and I were betrayed by former family friends from Botswana (Stephen and Shelley Schofield), close friends whom I had helped settle in Australia. They found and contacted Harris directly, and finally in late 2011 Harris notified the FBI. On November 5, 2013, the lives of my 20-year-old daughter, my 17-year-old son and me were shattered. I was arrested at my home in Mountain Creek on the Sunshine Coast of Australia.
While being held in maximum-security prison in Brisbane Australia, my family and friends from all over the world gathered information attempting to hold off the extradition process to the US and also to expose a fundamental injustice committed 20 years ago in the family court of Charleston, South Carolina.
In September 2014, I was extradited to my point of origin in the US in the same mode of transport as I left, only this time on the plane I was a prisoner of the US, shackled and escorted by three US Marshals to face the consequences of my actions those 20 years ago.
I did not have access to the estimated $200,000 for trial, which was in addition to the tens of thousands I had to borrow and pay thus far; I entered into a plea bargain in federal court in Charleston, South Carolina. Mine was the maximum sentence under my sentence guidelines, 21 months. This meant I was given a further six months to be served in addition to the 15 months I had already been imprisoned. After an additional 3 plus months in federal prison system, I was set free into the arms of my friends I had left behind over 21 years ago. I am currently serving a probationary period of two years in Charleston, South Carolina.
My children, along with my family and numerous friends I’ve made on this incredible journey, have never left my side and vow to continue to fight for the injustice, which was done to me, and especially, to my daughter Samantha. To this day, I shudder to think what kind of person she would have become had she been needlessly medicated and isolated from her mother.
During my life and throughout the past 23 years including my time spent in prison I have tried to carry myself with dignity, and to be someone my children would be proud of. This is in stark contrast to the contents of the court judgment, the insidious television shows my ex-husband has been involved with and the media portrayal of me for the past 20 years.
Samantha and her brother Reece are two amazing young adults who persevered through their father’s death to cancer eight days before my arrest, the loss of both grandparents, loss of me during my 18 + month’s of incarceration and their loss of their home and financial security.
They have held their heads high even amid the bombardment of the media, my ex- husband Harris Todd and the law enforcement agencies false accusations against their mom being mentally ill, violent and a promiscuous man hunter.
I hope to stand as an example and testament to do the right thing for your child, I would not condone breaking the law, however given my situation I was given no choice. The only regret I have is that I had to, to protect my child. No one should have to make that choice.
“I believe in the supremacy of moral law, the law of truth and love.” Mahatma Gandhi.