The strange case of Natalia Grace Barnett, a Ukrainian "orphan," captured headlines worldwide.
Her adoptive parents claimed the girl — a little person — was an adult masquerading as a child.
A new docuseries has investigated the bizarre claims and counterclaims of the people involved.
It was perhaps one of the strangest stories ever in the headlines.
Natalia Grace Barnett, a little person with a rare bone-growth disorder, was adopted from Ukraine by a family who thought she was 6 years old. Her adoptive parents later claimed that she was a "sociopathic" adult pretending to be a child.
Michael and Kristine Barnett of Indianapolis said Natalia wanted to harm them and their biological children. Meanwhile, authorities charged the parents with neglecting their disabled daughter.
The convoluted tale is chronicled in the new docuseries "The Curious Case of Natalia Grace" on Investigation Discovery. The filmmakers tried to find out the truth behind the affair. Michael Barnett defended himself during extended interviews. Kristine Barnett and Natalia chose not to give their sides of the story.
Michael Barnett said the family had no reason to suspect that Natalia was an adult
Speaking in the series, Michael Barnett, who is now divorced from Kristine, said the family was "living with a con artist and a psychopath."
The Barnetts adopted Natalia in 2010 from an adoption agency in Florida. Barnett said in the film that they were given a day to decide whether to do so.
"They said, 'She has dwarfism. You have 24 hours to sign; otherwise, she is going straight to foster,'" he said.
"We adopted Natalia because we wanted to help somebody who was in danger of never being loved," Barnett said, adding that her Ukrainian birth certificate said she was born on September 4, 2003.
He said they had no reason to believe she wasn't a 6-year-old orphan. She had spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia. The rare kind of dwarfism can cause skeletal abnormalities and issues with vision and hearing. Natalia was barely 3 feet tall.
In the film, Barnett said that Kristine gave Natalia a bath a day after the adoption. He said that his ex-wife was shocked to discover that their "brand-new" little girl had pubic hair.
Soon afterward, he said, Kristine confronted Natalia because she'd found some blood-stained underwear in her bedroom. Speaking in a home video shown in the series, Natalia replied, "I have a period, and I've been hiding it."
Barnett said Natalia displayed disturbing behaviors, such as urinating and defecating in the car and smearing the windows with feces. In public, he said, she'd "throw herself" out of the passenger door for attention.
"The idea was to look like a poor, helpless little girl," he said.
He said in the documentary that she started hoarding knives and once told him, "I'm going to kill you in your sleep." Another time, the father said, she appeared at the foot of their bed with a knife in her hand.
The Barnetts became convinced that Natalia's Ukrainian birth certificate had been forged
Barnett also accused Natalia of trying to poison Kristine by pouring cleaning supplies into her coffee, shoving her against an electric fence, and threatening to stab her older brothers.
"She was doing everything possible to cause hurt or harm or mental distress to the family," Barnett said.
Interviewed in the series, Natalia's eldest brother, Jacob Barnett, said he "didn't feel safe around Natalia." He added: "I was just scared."
Natalia spent time in the state mental hospital where, Michael Barnett said, a therapist diagnosed her as a "sociopath." A number of hospital staffers who spoke in the docuseries on condition of anonymity said she was released after making "inappropriate" sexual remarks to male patients. By then, the Barnetts were convinced that their daughter was an adult. They said her Ukrainian birth certificate had been forged.
The same year, the parents successfully petitioned a court to change Natalia's birth records, citing that she hadn't grown in their care. It determined that she was born on September 4, 1989 — some 14 years earlier than she claimed. The court order said she was a 23-year-old adult.
The Barnetts found an apartment for Natalia and paid the rent. Neighbors who lived in the housing complex told the filmmakers that Natalia would introduce herself as a "little person" in her early 20s. They befriended her, they said. But, they added, they lost trust. Natalia's closest neighbors, Sue McCallan and Toby and Melanie Miles, said she'd appear unannounced in their homes. They said they were also unnerved by how she seemed to behave "sexually" around people, including kids.
Toby Miles said that he became increasingly frightened of Natalia because she told him "that she had tried to kill her mom." A recording of a 911 call that she made at the time was played in the documentary.
"I'm stalking one of my neighbors," Natalia told the operator, adding: "I don't want to harm them."
The Barnetts, who were soon to engage in a bitter divorce, moved to Canada when Natalia's lease was up.
Police accused the Barnetts of abandoning their dependent Natalia and forcing her to fend for herself
They moved her into an apartment in a rundown part of Lafayette, Indiana. Speaking in the documentary, Natalia's neighbor Kyra Weaver said Natalia struggled to climb the steps to her apartment and couldn't reach the kitchen counter or a washing machine.
"I felt like she had been thrown to the wolves," Weaver said.
Other neighbors said Natalia could barely cook for herself and had a limited diet of takeout pizza and instant noodles. She relied on food stamps, according to a neighbor.
Authorities became involved once Natalia's electricity and phone line were cut off after her bills weren't paid. She moved in with the family of a neighbor, Cynthia Mans, and was helped by a social worker who liaised with the police. Detectives questioned the Barnetts, accusing them of leaving Natalia to fend for herself for more than three years.
In 2019, the Barnetts, who gave opposing accounts of what happened, faced a string of charges related to neglect. Prosecutors dropped the original charges of neglect of a child because of the court-ordered change to Natalia's age in 2012 and the statute of limitations. Instead, Michael Barnett was tried for neglect of a dependent. The authorities said that even if Natalia had been an adult at the time she was abandoned, she was dependent on her parents because of her dwarfism.
Natalia appeared on Dr. Phil and maintained that she was 6 when she was adopted
A judge did not allow the issue of Natalia's age to be raised in front of the jury. Michael Barnett was found not guilty of all charges in fall 2022. Kristine Barnett's trial was scheduled for February this year, but the case was dismissed. Still, Michael Barnett excoriated his ex-wife in the documentary, saying, "Kristine is a walking epitome of evil."
As for Natalia, she maintained that she was 6 when she was adopted. She appeared on the "Dr. Phil" show in November 2019.
"They say that you scammed them, that you lied about your age and came over here and terrorized them," the host, Phil McGraw, told Natalia about the Barnetts.
She insisted that she was born in 2003, not 1989.
"You say you are 16," McGraw said during the interview. He then asked, "Are you a 30-year-old scam artist?"
"No," Natalia replied.
Natalia's claims have never been proved. Now, at least in the eyes of the law, she's a 33-year-old woman. Whatever the case, speaking in the documentary, Michael Barnett said he had compassion for Natalia, even though she testified against him in court. He said that they exchanged a discreet "wave" after the jury gave its verdict.
"I looked her directly in the eyes," Barnett said in the series, adding: "I mouthed to her, 'This is hard. I'm sorry.'"
"The Curious Case of Natalia Grace" will premiere across three consecutive nights on ID beginning Monday, airing nightly at 9 p.m. ET.
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