For three days in May, the U.S. Coast Guard conducted a massive air and sea search for Isabella Hellmann, a 41-year-old Delray Beach woman who went missing from her 37-foot catamaran in the Florida Straits in the early morning hours of May 15.
Her husband, Lewis Bennett, 40, who was rescued about four hours after he called the Coast Guard reporting that he abandoned his sinking vessel and could not find his wife, was arrested by federal agents Monday in relation to about $100,000 in gold and silver coins stolen from a sailing vessel a year earlier on the Caribbean island of St. Maarten.
Hellmann’s body was never found. The FBI, which investigated the case along with agents from Coast Guard Investigative Services, would not comment when asked if Bennett, who holds dual United Kingdom and Australian citizenship, is being investigated in relation to his wife’s disappearance. Instead, the agency released the following statement:
“Lewis Bennett, 40, from Poole, United Kingdom, was arrested by the FBI today without incident in West Palm Beach, Florida. He is in federal custody and is facing federal charges.”
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According to court records, Bennett and Hellmann left Havana, Cuba, in their sailboat Surf into Summer on May 14 heading for Florida. Before midnight, Bennett told investigators he went downstairs to the cabin to get some sleep while his wife sailed the vessel. Around 1 a.m., he said he awoke to a loud “thud.” He rushed up to the deck to discover Hellmann was not at the helm and was nowhere to be found. Meanwhile, the Surf into Summer was quickly taking on water, Bennett told investigators.
Bennett grabbed some personal items that included two backpacks and a suitcase, deployed a life raft and abandoned ship. He radioed the Coast Guard for help and stated his wife was missing. Around 4 a.m. a Coast Guard helicopter noticed him about 30 miles west of Cay Sal Bank, Bahamas. The chopper’s crew dropped a rescue swimmer, who swam to Bennett’s raft.
Bennett went with the rescue swimmer into the water, choosing to take one backpack, which the swimmer described to investigators as “unusually heavy.” The helicopter flew Bennett to Florida Keys Marathon International Airport in the Middle Keys.
A year earlier, Bennett was a crew member aboard the Kitty R sailboat in St. Maarten. On May 5, 2016, the vessel’s owner reported to St. Maarten police the theft of several tubes containing silver and gold coins that were located on board. He told police the coins had an estimated value of around $100,000. He did not file an insurance claim because the coins were not “on the list of covered items in his policy,” according to court records.
Bennett left St. Maarten, flying to Miami International Airport on May 10, 2016.
After his rescue in May, the Coast Guard took Bennett’s life raft to Key West to inventory the items inside. There was one backpack, a suit case, unexpanded parachute flares, 14 gallons of water, an electronic emergency locating device and nine plastic tubes wrapped with clear tape containing in total 158 “Year of the Horse” British silver coins and 77 Canadian Maple Leaf silver coins. Coast Guard investigators said the coins had a value of around $4,200.
But at the time, Bennett was not under investigation and was allowed to return to his Delray Beach home with the backpack. The Coast Guard even returned the rest of the coins to his house on May 23, before realizing — later that same day — “they may have been stolen in 2016,” according to the FBI’s arrest affidavit.
Agents went back to Bennett’s house and he voluntarily turned over the coins, which were “still sealed in evidence bags.”
During a June 10 search warrant of Bennett’s house, agents found another 162 gold coins estimated to be worth about $26,100, according to the arrest report.