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Feb 24 2009

Dart Award Winner

Children of the Underground

Why Would You Want to Take a Baby from Me

Part 9 of a Dart Award-winning account of the hidden network that shelters youngsters escaping from sexual or physical abuse at home — real or alleged — and a judicial system perceived as unwilling or unable to help them. Originally published in the Pittsburg Post-Gazette in December, 1997.

On April 23, 1994, Lee Barnett walked out of her home carrying her nearly one-year-old daughter Savanna, telling friends they were on their way to a birthday party.

But they really weren't.

Instead, Barnett disappeared with the hazel-eyed girl into the underground.

And Harris Todd, the child's father and custodial parent, was left behind to pick up the pieces.

Since then, he has spent nearly all his assets in an effort to recover Savanna. Leveraged to the hilt, he lives simply and works seven-day weeks at two jobs: as a stockbroker for Merrill Lynch and as a father engaged in a full-time search for his child.

There are hundreds of people like Todd, mostly fathers, who say they are victims of an underground network that willingly helps mothers and their children go into hiding - in violation of court orders.

Most of these fathers say they have been falsely accused of molesting their children. While the courts believe them, the underground's organizers don't; instead, they take the law into their own hands, leaving fathers cut off from their sons and daughters for years at a time, sometimes forever.

The most public of those underground leaders, Faye Yager, says she will only hide mothers who have extensive documentation of sexual abuse - medical reports, psychological evaluations, police statements.

But no such papers existed in Todd's case. Barnett never made any sexual abuse allegations during the long, nasty court battle for custody of Savanna. She called Harris Todd lots of names, but "child molester" wasn't one of them.

So why, then, did Yager, an Atlanta doctor's wife, help Todd's ex-wife and daughter disappear into the underground?

"Well, that's an exceptional case. I don't think that's typical of my cases," says Yager, frowning.

Could it be, perhaps, that she, or other underground leaders, just made a mistake with Todd?

Yager doesn't answer the question directly.

"Well, we offered him a chance to get his child back and he wouldn't agree to the conditions - which were just to leave this lady be and not try to take her child from her or put her in jail - and he wouldn't agree to that."'

To Yager's critics, Todd's predicament is Exhibit A of the underground's sloppy research and bias against men.

To fathers who are left behind, wondering how to begin to find their children, Todd's story may also be a cautionary tale. Enduring the glare

Benjamin Harris Todd III is, at 45, the very picture of Southern White Anglo-Saxon Protestant propriety: a graduate of Andover and Yale, Todd speaks softly, opens doors for women and can converse on everything from John Barth to Beethoven without missing a beat.

In other words, not the sort of man you would expect to see on "Sally Jesse Raphael."

Yet that's where he was on Jan. 26, 1996, listening to Yager tell the television audience that she helped his ex-wife disappear with their child, because, she said, he was a homosexual (an allegation he vehemently denied). Yager told him to "shut up" when he tried to protest, and then he heard her accuse him of paying detectives to hound his wife while she tried to breastfeed their newborn baby in her hospital room.

Why would he subject himself to such treatment?

He was looking for his child, he says today with a shrug.

"I did what I had to do. I just wish they hadn't made me sit so closely to Faye Yager when she said those things."

It has been a wild ride, this search for Savanna: private detectives, tabloid television shows and profiles in Gentlemen's Quarterly magazine, and two different ADVO card mailings - those little postcards of missing children that show up in 75 million mailboxes each week - each featuring a chubby-cheeked girl with a wide, toothless smile, looking into the camera with pure, undiluted joy.

Although he is by nature a private person, Todd has been doggedly seeking media coverage ever since Savanna vanished, for the same reason so many left-behind fathers do: "because they'll flash a picture of my child on the screen and millions of people will see it, and maybe, one of them will recognize her."

It is a game he has learned to play as best he can, and the rules are always the same.

"The television producer will call up and say, we really want you, be prepared to fly up to New York on such and such a date," Todd recalls.

"And then," he says,"she will call back the day before and say, sorry, something came up, we don't need you. And so, you think, that's it, but then one day you get a call - can you be here in two days. And then they cancel that.

"It's devastating." A bitter melodrama

In the gossipy, sophisticated town of Charleston, Harris Todd has a reputation - as a ladies' man, a great dancer, a gourmet cook.

He claims he is also "still friends with all my ex-girlfriends - except one."

The one who became his wife.

Barnett, a USAir flight attendant, walked into Todd's office at Merrill Lynch in 1987 to seek advice on investing her money.

After a time, they began to see each other socially. Like all his girlfriends, she was vivacious, well-traveled and worldly. Her photographs show a pretty woman with long, silky blond hair, blue eyes, freckles and a strong jaw.

Barnett was, Todd says, also "extremely volatile, prone to dramatic mood swings," so much so that Todd felt ambivalent about their future.

Finally, Barnett presented him with a marriage license and suggested they treat an upcoming Bahamas vacation as a honeymoon. At age 39, Todd assented.

Barnett, of course, is not around to tell her side.

But to hear Todd tell it, the marriage was a spur-of-the-moment decision, made in haste and regretted soon afterwards, when Barnett began to become violent toward him.

He would later testify in court about her behavior: how she wouldn't sleep for seven or eight days at a stretch; how she would beat her head against a wall for what seemed like hours. One night, he awoke to find her lying in a fetal position on the floor, staring at nothing, rocking back and forth.

Or while he was driving their car, she would turn to him during an argument and start pummeling the side of his head.

"I've never hit a woman in my life," Todd says. "And I can't explain why I let myself be hit."

In February 1993, after two years together, they separated and Todd moved out. She claimed desertion; Todd, in filing for divorce the following month, claimed physical cruelty.

By then, Barnett was pregnant with Savanna.

He went into hiding, to escape what he called her endless tirades and threats. Sometimes, he slept in his car.

"I was on the run from her, hiding out at friends' houses. She'd drive around all night, looking for me, and sometimes she'd find me. She'd stand outside the house and scream that she was going to kill herself."

Why?

"I don't know," he says.

As the baby's birth date approached, Todd became alarmed about Barnett's ability to care for the child. His entreaties that she seek medical care went unheeded.

"She has, what I was told, a treatable illness" - manic depression. "It could be controlled with drugs," Todd says. When she refused to get treatment, he began custody proceedings.

His case was heard before a judge who had a reputation for making custody decisions under the traditional "tender years doctrine," which presumes that a young child is better off with its mother.

It was a messy trial, full of recriminations and conflicting testimony. His psychiatrists said she was manic-depressive; hers said she was of sound mind. His detectives had gathered extensive evidence of her affairs and drinking with other men - "six in the space of just a few weeks. There was enormous alcoholic consumption when she was supposed to be breastfeeding."

And while the judge, Robert Mallard, normally might favor a mother's custody rights, he also "has a strong belief in marital fidelity. He does not like adulteresses," recalls Barnett's attorney, Mendell Rivers.

But what hurt Barnett most, Rivers says, was her demeanor in the courtroom.

"Lee demonstrated a tragic lack of self-control, and it made the judge believe the things said about her might be true."

Barnett was an excellent mother, Rivers insists, and Savanna was strongly bonded to her. But "she couldn't handle the stress of a trial."

So startling were Barnett's outbursts, Todd says, that the judge ordered that an armed bailiff be present, and the child's court-appointed advocate hired a lawyer to protect herself from Barnett's claims that she was biased.

Two days before the end of the trial, Todd's attorney approached Barnett's attorney with a proposal: joint custody if she would agreed to psychiatric treatment.

It was an action that Yager and other underground organizers later would seize upon as evidence of Todd's bad faith: if his wife was so crazy, why offer her joint custody?

Todd stresses that it was made under the condition that she seek treatment. Also, he had assumed from the beginning that he would never win sole custody under this judge, so his last-ditch proposal "was as good as we could expect."

But Barnett rejected the proposal. She said in court that Todd might be a homosexual and "evil."

A drawing hanging on a wall in Todd's house by an artist friend - of a bearded pianist surrounded by cherubs - had "Satanic" overtones, she told the court.

Finally, after a 12-day trial, it was time for Mallard's decision.

And in a complete departure from his "pro-mother" reputation, the judge ordered that Todd be given sole custody of Savanna. Barnett would be allowed two supervised weekend visits a month, he ruled.

Savanna lived in her father's home for two months, until she was 11 months old - "the most joyous time of my life," Todd says. Then, while on a weekend visit with Barnett, she disappeared.

Without a trace.

"Lee must have had a whole slew of fake documents, ready to go," Todd muses. "She settled into wherever she was going really quick."

That's often the case when families enter organized underground networks, say law enforcement officials. With a web of "safe houses" stretching across this country and overseas, this modern-day underground railroad has thwarted repeated attempts by the FBI and other authorities to shut it down since its emergence ten years ago.

Rivers, too, was dismayed when he learned of Barnett's departure.

"It was a definite power struggle between two extremely determined people. He was determined to make her realize that she wasn't going to have this child, and she was just as determined that he understand she would.

"And in the end, they both won, and they both lost, big time."

A map of South America was left in Barnett's home, almost deliberately placed, it seems, so he could find it - and since Barnett had once lived in Belize, it did not seem improbable that she had headed south of the border.

Todd won't go into details about the detectives' investigations, but does say that he has spent several hundred thousand dollars on the divorce and on the search for his ex-wife and child.

He learned what all left-behind parents discover: that the FBI's bureaucracy can be frustratingly slow.

The bureau's local agent, John Morton, worked hard to help him. Morton, who was not available for an interview, "even went on his own vacation time to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's headquarters in Virginia to meet everybody up there, and ask them about this case," Todd says.

But if Morton "came up with a lead, say, in Houston, he'd have to send that information to another agent in another region instead of pursuing it himself. And they'd get to it when they could, and honestly, they couldn't get to it as fast as I would have liked."

And every sighting since of every woman who resembles Lee Barnett has been of a woman alone - without a child.

"That's very scary," says Todd. A showdown with Faye

A little more than a year into his search, Todd found himself sitting at Faye Yager's kitchen table, an improbable meeting brokered by a writer for Gentleman's Quarterly Magazine who had discovered, on his own, that Yager might know where Todd's child was.

It was an outwardly cordial encounter, although Todd remembers feeling "as though I were standing in the lion's den. And I still feel that if I were a woman sitting there, telling her the same facts, she would have fallen all over the place to help me."

Yager offered to arrange the child's return if Todd would promise to allow Barnett full custody.

Todd wasn't entirely sure that she could negotiate anything.

"You don't negotiate with Lee Barnett. She wouldn't have believed anything. She would have thought it was some kind of a trick."

In fact, Todd was highly doubtful that Yager had anything to do with his wife's disappearance. He speculates she decided to take the heat for it "because, frankly, it gives her more exposure."

He declined her offer, and that was that - until one day in December of that year, when Todd found himself sitting at close quarters with Yager again.

This time, it was in front of millions of people.

There he was, looking somber in a brown Shetland sweater, in a little plywood studio in New York City, with Pete Connell and Farriel Britt, two other "left-behind fathers," staring at "all these people out in the audience, like fish in a bowl."

And a woman with large red glasses and a heavy, halting voice spoke into a microphone and asked him to explain how it felt to have his heart broken.

Todd told Sally Jesse Raphael that "losing a child is the most horrible thing that can happen to a human being." While pictures of Lee Barnett and Savanna flashed on the screen, Todd talked about his ex-wife's violent behavior; how she nearly killed their Great Dane puppy for not coming to her when she called; how one night, he awoke to find her straddling him, as if she were about to choke him.

Cut to a commercial break.

Another chair was brought out, and with it came Faye Yager, in a lipstick red suit with black trim, and almost immediately she began to tell the audience her own story.

It's a story she's told many times, and always to great effect - about discovering, 25 years ago, that her first husband, Roger Jones, had molested their 2-year-old daughter; how she hadn't been believed by the courts; how Jones' family got custody and he got to sexually abuse the child until she was in her teens; how, today, Jones is serving a 30-year jail sentence for molesting other children.

The audience broke into applause at that last piece of information. And then it was time to allow the fathers a chance to ask Yager about their children. It was not pretty. Yager and Pete Connell sparred over what she claimed was evidence he had abused his child.

Yager seemed to have the upper hand, until Todd finally turned and asked her, in a soft, plaintive voice, "why, WHY would you want to take a baby from ME? I have never been accused of anything (but) being a good father."

Yager's face began to twitch.

"You say (your ex-wife) is crazy," Yager said, her mascara-rimmed eyes going tiny in her paper-white face, like two burning holes of fire. "You say you woke up in the middle of the night and she's on top of you. You didn't tell her you were homosexual."

There was a collective gasp from the audience as Todd, stunned, began to protest.

"If I woke up in the morning and found out that I was married to a homosexual and intended to carry on my life I'd go a little crazy too," she continued over the audience's jeers.

Sally Jesse Raphael broke in sternly, warning Yager that Todd's sexual orientation was "immaterial" to the question of whether he was a good father.

"That's correct," said Yager, momentarily subdued. "Nobody's accused you of sexual abuse, or of not being a good father." But Todd had tied Barnett up in the courts, she went on, so he could take a baby from a breastfeeding mother. And when Yager offered to help Todd recover his child - as long as Barnett was allowed full custody with ample child support - he refused, she told the audience triumphantly.

"Instead of teddy bears and roses when the baby was born, (Lee Barnett) had five private eyes outside her hospital room watchin' her while she breastfed it!"

It was a long way from Yager's kitchen table. Todd's refuge

Todd's house is a one-story wood-shingled property on an island in the beautiful low country marshes that surround Charleston.

On good days, the wind freshens off the ocean, blowing the mosquitoes away; on bad days, like this one, it is stifling and sulfurous - a distinctive scent from the black, gooey "pluff mud" of the marshes.

No matter. To Todd, it is heaven on earth, the place where he hopes to live out his days. Using his skills as a carpenter and amateur architect, he has extensively remodeled it. The house is full of light and antiques and books, and when the baby was born, he built a screened-in porch so she could play safely there.

Yet, today, it feels very much like a bachelor's house - except for one room, down a hall behind a closed door.

It was Savanna's room, the nursery where she slept for the two months she lived with him.

"I have to keep the door closed," Todd says. "Or else I just can't bear it."

Inside, the walls are pale pink, and an antique crib stands in the corner that had belonged to his brother's children, with teethmarks still visible on it. Most of Savanna's clothes have been given away.

"She couldn't use them now. She's 4 1/2 , after all."

He walks out of the room, down the hall, and out the front door, as if he needed room to breathe.

"If I didn't have this place I don't know if I would be able to stand it," he says, looking out over his nine acres, peaceful in the humid October afternoon, except for the incessant whine of crickets.

Just the day before, Todd's family - his brother and sister and their sons and daughters and cousins - had come there for a birthday party. There were gangs of children, and laughter and games.

"And I just thought to myself, why on earth would you want to take a child away from this, away from cousins and aunts and uncles, a family, and a life where you knew where you came from and where you belonged?"

He wonders, then walks back into the empty house.

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Mackenzie Carpenter

  • Mackenzie Carpenter is a staff writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where she has worked since 1990. She has written numerous prize-winning series on such diverse issues as liver transplant allocation; child care in the United States; the education of gifted children; domestic violence, and divorce and custody issues. Her 1997 series, "Children of the Underground," dealt with mothers who hide their children in violation of custody orders. It won a number of national, state and local awards and was republished in international newspapers and magazines, including Corriere Della Serra and Elle. Ms. Carpenter began her career as an assistant to Washington D.C. political correspondents Martin Agronsky and Paul Duke, moving on to become a field producer for public television in Washington, D.C. and, later, as host and producer of a program on politics for the Pennsylvania Public Television Network. She also worked as a reporter for the Journal-Inquirer in Manchester, CT, and United Press International's state capitol bureau in Harrisburg. She was raised in Princeton, N.J. and Tokyo and received a bachelor's degree in English from Trinity College in Hartford, CT in 1976 and a master's degree in studies in law from Yale Law School in 1987.

Allen Detrich

  • Allen Detrich is a photographer at the Pittsburg Post-Gazette.

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