A man claimed his wife had been lost at sea, but now he is accused of killing her
By MEAGAN FLYNN | The Washington Post | Published: February 21, 2018
An investigation into hundreds of missing gold and silver coins ends where the investigation into Lewis Bennett's missing wife begins.
On May 15, 2017, Bennett sent a distress call from Bahamian waters, near Cay Sal Island, and told the U.S. Coast Guard there had been a terrible accident.
He had been sleeping below deck of his 40-foot catamaran, leaving his wife at the helm, when he heard a crash, Bennett would soon tell federal authorities. He rushed to the surface to find that his wife, Isabella Hellmann, was nowhere in sight, and he soon realized that the boat was taking on water. Unable to save the boat or his wife, he gathered his belongings and abandoned ship in a life raft, believing Hellmann was lost at sea, he said.
It was supposed to be a honeymoon trip for the newlyweds.
"It is now my responsibility to ensure her legacy is never forgotten," Bennett reportedly wrote in a since-deleted Facebook post last summer, according to the Palm Beach Post. "Contrary to statements given in the press and social media, Isabella and I loved each other very much, she was the soulmate I had always searched for, she made my life complete."
Now, however, Bennett is accused of killing her, of concocting a fake boating accident to make it all appear to be a tragic accident.
Second-degree murder charges were unveiled Tuesday in a southern Florida federal court, the same day Bennett was sentenced to seven months in prison for stealing those collectible coins - coins that the Coast Guard first discovered on his life raft following the rescue. It was perhaps the first sign to authorities that there was more to Bennett's story.
Soon after authorities suspected him of stealing the coins from his former employer, they suspected him in his wife's disappearance. They did not identify the employer. The Coast Guard had spent four days searching for Hellmann's body but to no avail.
On the fifth day, Bennett asked a judge if she could be declared dead so that he could have ownership of her condo, a request that would be denied multiple times, according to the Sun-Sentinel.
By then, investigators grew more suspicious of Bennett after he gave inconsistent statements, the Sun-Sentinel reported. In the days after the rescue, he told investigators that he didn't try searching for Hellmann, that he didn't think to light up the sky with flares he had on board, that he did not yell for Hellmann as he escaped the sinking ship in his life raft. Then he told other agencies that he did call out for her, and that he even threw her a life preserver in case she might still be alive.
According to federal prosecutors, a naval architecture expert who examined the evidence found that the damage to the catamaran was caused from within - not by some unknown object in the water. The damage, the expert wrote, appeared intentional. The expert found that two escape hatches were left open, allowing the cabin to flood.
"The opening of both escape hatches is unexplainable as an accident and defies prudent seamanship," the expert wrote in a report.
Furthermore, a closer look at the equipment Bennett had on board would reveal that he didn't activate his lifesaving devices - a satellite phone and Personal Locator Beacon - until the last leg of what had been a much longer trip, according to prosecutors. The newlyweds had started their trip at the small island of St. Maarten, east of the British Virgin Islands, then sailed to Puerto Rico and up to Cuba. Only then, prosecutors say, did Bennett activate the locator devices. It was roughly 30 miles from where the boat capsized.
"Bennett allegedly waited to activate those devices until the final leg of his voyage," federal prosecutors wrote in a news release, "to ensure his own rescue and survival after murdering his wife and intentionally scuttling his catamaran."
Authorities have still not found Hellmann's body.
Month by month, family and friends commemorated the anniversary of Hellmann's disappearance on a Facebook page they had created, "Find Isabella." It's decorated with photos of Hellmann as well as her baby daughter, Emelia, who was missing for weeks until Bennett revealed that he had taken her to England. Family and friends repeatedly pleaded for anyone with information, however small to come forward.
At the one-month anniversary, a friend said in a video posted to the site: "We miss Isabella. We want Isabella back. It's not possible for someone just to disappear like this."
Four months later, another post said: "It's been four months and we still do not have any information."
The last post, written a week ago, said: "Today we mark 9 months of not knowing where you are or what happened to you. It's been a painful and horrible situation, that changed our lives. We miss you and Emelia more and more each day, and we only hope to see you guys again."