Coin thief pleads guilty to manslaughter in disappearance of wife at sea

Lewis Bennett, right, was charged Tuesday with killing his wife, Isabella Hellmann (shown here with their son) and intentionally trying to sink the vessel to cover his tracks.
Lewis Bennett, right, was charged Tuesday with killing his wife, Isabella Hellmann (shown here with their son) and intentionally trying to sink the vessel to cover his tracks. Facebook

The boat Surf Into Summer left Cuba for Florida with Delray Beach resident Lewis Bennett, his wife of three months, Isabella Hellman, and stolen coins. By the next dawn, Hellman was missing.

Nobody ever found Hellman, but the Coast Guard did find the stolen coins.

Now, in his second federal court guilty plea of 2018, Bennett admits legal responsibility for all of the above from May 2017.

On Monday, Bennett, 41, pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in the death of Hellman, a Cuban-born U.S. citizen. He will be sentenced on Jan. 10 to a term of eight years or less.

“Lewis Bennett will now be held accountable for his wife’s death while on the high seas,” Tom Jones, acting Special Agent in Charge, FBI Miami, said in a statement.

The original charge facing the United Kingdom-Australia dual citizen was second-degree murder on the high seas.

In court documents, investigators pointed to a predictable motive: the money and property Hellman brought to the three-month marriage that would revert to Bennett, backed by Bennett filing for a presumptive death certificate just four months after her disappearance. In Florida, there’s a presumption of death after five years.

But Bennett is the only survivor of whatever happened on May 14, 2017, west of Cay Sal Bank, Bahamas. Even the involuntary manslaughter charge comes as much from his statements to investigators as evidence found, although Bennett’s admission of facts states prosecutors have expert testimony stating he deliberately sank the boat.

Lewis Bennett
Lewis Bennett Broward Sheriff’s Office

Bennett’s admission in court documents ends with something of an explanation of the involuntary manslaughter charge: He caused her death because he didn’t act as someone with his sailing experience should have acted.

“Ms. Hellman’s death occurred as a result of (1) Mr. Bennett’s knowledge of circumstances that existed that could have reasonably enabled him to foresee the threat to life to which his acts or failures to act might subject another, namely Ms. Hellman; and (2) his gross negligence, amounting to wanton and reckless disregard for human life, in acting or failing to act as a result of that.”

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Bennett has already served the seven-month sentence he received in February after stealing $38,480 in gold and silver coins while working as a crewman on a boat near St. Maarten in 2016. His boating experience — he was certified as a Coastal Skipper by the Royal Yachting Association in the UK — drew investigator suspicions once Bennett began telling his tale after his rescue by the Coast Guard.

As his admission of facts states, Bennett was a “proficient swimmer” while his wife “was a weak swimmer” and “lacked sailing instruction.”

Yet, despite the catamaran’s life preservers or harnesses, “Neither Mr. Bennett nor his wife used the available safety equipment, nor did Mr. Bennett, who was captain of the vessel, require his wife to wear a life vest or harness despite knowing that she was a weak swimmer and inexperienced sailor, nor did he require her to do so when she was at the helm of the catamaran.”

Bennett’s admission says on May 14, 2017, he and Hellman, while on the last leg of a two-week sail around the Caribbean, had dinner around 8 p.m. Despite Hellman’s inexperience and sailing in perilous open ocean waters, Bennett asked her to take the watch while he slept for the next two or three hours.

He said a loud noise woke him up in the first hours of May 15. Hellman wasn’t topside.

Bennett didn’t put out flares to help him look for Hellman or signal his position. He didn’t turn the boat around to look for her. He didn’t use any devices at hand to signal or call for help.

What he did do: threw a suitcase, two duffel bags, a backpack, water, flairs, buoys, food and the coins into a life raft. Bennett figured he abandoned ship 45 minutes after being awakened.

Then, he called for help and reported his wife as missing.

The Coast Guard found him around 4:30 a.m. and searched for her for another three days.