Getting seven months in federal prison for stealing $38,480 in gold and silver coins turned out to be the better part of Lewis Bennett’s day.
After he was sentenced in the coin theft on Tuesday, the Delray Beach resident was taken into custody on a charge of second degree murder on the high seas, a charge arising from his wife Isabella Hellman’s disappearance at sea last May — one that has the potential for a much longer sentence.
Key factors in the criminal complaint: Bennett, 40, initially told investigators he didn’t do anything to find his missing wife. Then he filed for a presumptive death certificate in Palm Beach County court on Sept. 20. In Florida, a missing adult can be presumed dead after five years.
“Since Hellman had been missing approximately [four] months, and a husband would normally want his wife to be found alive, this request is extremely early,” FBI Special Agent James Kelley wrote an affidavit filed in Miami federal court. The affidavit points to financial greed as the likely motive: Kelley noted that declaring Hellman dead would shift all her property and cash to Bennett under Florida family law.
Hellman disappeared off the 40-foot catamaran named Surf Into Summer on May 15, 2017, near Cay Sal Bank, Bahamas. The couple had been married only three months and had been sailing on a delayed honeymoon to St. Maarten, Puerto Rico and Cuba. They were en route back to Florida where Hellman owned a home. Bennett holds dual citizenship in Australia and the United Kingdom. Hellman, born in Cuba, was a U.S. citizen.
There’s no indication in the complaint if Hellman knew the cargo on Surf Into Summer included Bennett’s haul from a coin theft 10 days earlier. Bennett’s statement of facts in the coin theft case admits that while working as a crewman on the Kitty R off St. Maarten, he stole plastic tubes holding the gold and silver coins.
In a talk with cops after Hellman’s disappearance, Bennett said they’d bounced around the Caribbean before leaving Varadero, Cuba, for Florida on May 14. Before going to bed around 8 p.m., he said he set the auto pilot and told Hellman to stand watch.
Later, he said, when “a crash underneath” woke him up, his wife wasn’t on the boat. He did notice Surf Into Summer was starting to take on water.
Bennett admitted he not only didn’t try to find the leak or do anything about it, but “when asked what efforts he undertook to locate Hellman, Bennett indicated that he did not do anything,” the complaint says. No lighting flares to help a possible search of the area. No yelling for his wife while in the life raft.
In later statements, he said he yelled for her and thew a flotation device and a spot-marking buoy in the water.
“In fact, Bennett, stated that once on board the life raft, he cut the line that tethered the life raft to the vessel,” the complaint says. “Bennett explained that he did this because he was afraid of being pulled under water if the vessel were to sink.”
After Bennett was rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard, they found in the life raft a suitcase, one backpack, unused parachute flares, buoys, 14 gallons of water, a tea set, Cuban trinkets, a jar of peanut butter and nine plastic tubes, wrapped with clear tape and filled with coins.
The FBI said Bennett falsely claimed Hellman disappeared after the supposed accident. Her body has never been found despite an intensive search.
The Coast Guard felt someone with Bennett’s sailing training and talent should have been able to save the boat despite the damage to the hulls, which the Coast Guard noted appeared to come from inside the boat and in nearly the same place on each hull. Both hulls’ escape hatches were open, which the manufacturer said they shouldn’t be when the boat’s in the water — unless someone’s escaping.
“The opening of both escape hatches is unexplainable as an accident and defies prudent seamanship,” the FBI quoted a Coast Guard expert as saying. “It appears the vessel was intentionally scuttled.”
Also, the complaint says, Bennett didn’t activate his satellite phone or register his personal locator beacon until they were in Cuba. They had already gone from St. Maarten to Puerto Rico to Cuba without the beacon being registered.
“Based on my speaking with others familiar with transnational sailing, the voyage from St. Maarten would warrant having an activated satellite phone and registered [beacon] on board the vessel as life-saving devices,” Kelley wrote.
“Based on knowledge learned during the course of this investigation, the fact that Bennett waited until the final leg of his voyage to activate those devices is indicative of the fact that he wanted to ensure his own rescue and survival after murdering his wife and intentionally scuttling his catamaran.”
This report was supplemented with information from the Associated Press.