Sometimes there really is no justice.
There wasn’t for Isabella Hellmann — mother, Delray Beach real estate broker, Colombian-born U.S. citizen — in this week’s sentencing of her husband, a convicted thief.
Eight years in prison is all Lewis Bennett will serve for causing his wife’s death, a result of a plea deal to a lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter in this high-profile case of a disappearance at sea.
This outcome isn’t the right message to send to spouses and partners in troubled relationships. This wasn’t a good day for the struggle to end domestic violence, one of the most under-reported crimes in Florida.
But it was the maximum U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno could deliver on the lesser charge, pleaded down from the second-degree murder charge Bennett was facing in Hellmann’s May 15, 2017, vanishing on the Florida Straits.
Isabella Hellmann was the mother of Emelia, their baby daughter, but the couple had been married for only three months when he took her on a “honeymoon” sailing trip around the Bahamas and Caribbean islands, including Cuba and Puerto Rico.
Bennett’s story is that he was sleeping below deck at night when he heard a thump. When he went outside, he said, his wife was gone. In his plea deal, however, he admitted he did almost nothing to look for her.
He, an avid swimmer and experienced sailor, didn’t set out in the dinghy attached to the 37-foot catamaran to find her, didn’t even call out her name. He didn’t deploy flares to light the area. He didn’t turn the catamaran around to look for her.
She, a weak swimmer, had been left “on watch” at night because the boat was experiencing difficulties, according to Bennett.
He didn’t do any of this, but Bennett did load himself a life raft with food, water, a satellite phone and safety devices — plus some $40,000 in silver and gold coins he had stolen from a yacht in St. Maarten where he had been a first mate the previous year.
FBI investigators believe that after Bennett killed his wife, he scuttled the catamaran to stage an accident, then called the U.S. Coast Guard saying his boat had hit something and was sinking.
Prosecutor Kurt Lunkenheimer described Bennett, who has British and Australian citizenship, as “selfish and focused on himself” throughout this whole ordeal. And he was in a rush to move on. Only days after the disappearance, he was asking the Coast Guard for “a letter of presumed death.”
Hellmann’s family also believe he killed her.
“We do not want you to sentence Lewis Bennett as agreed to,” her parents and three sisters wrote in a letter to Judge Moreno. “We want a plea and a sentence that is consistent with what he has done, what he has taken, and what all the rest of us have lost.”
But the judge’s hands were tied by sentencing guidelines. Prosecutors settled because the evidence for a murder conviction was only circumstantial, even if two friends and colleagues described the marriage as “strained” and said Hellmann often complained of Bennett’s “controlling ways.”
Controlling is one of the behaviors that can lead to domestic violence, but Hellmann loved and trusted her husband, whom she had met online, friends say.
A trial may have ended with Bennett walking away with the time already served after his arrest and the seven-month sentence for the coin theft, another slap on the wrist. But I agree with Hellmann’s family reasoning that, although at first they agreed with a plea deal process, it might have been worth the risk of a trial for Isabella Hellmann to get a real shot at justice.
Is eight years in prison justice for causing the death of a wife?
Not when in most of this country, if you commit a crime and a person dies during the act, even of natural causes like a heart attack, you are charged with murder. Bennett deserved to at least face the prospect of a life behind bars.
The loss of Hellmann’s family is immense as little Emelia, now 2½, is growing up with Bennett’s parents in faraway Great Britain. Bennett took her there 13 days after his wife vanished. They are only allowed to see her via video calls.
“Before she was taken from us, she was the light of our lives,” Hellmann’s family told the judge in their letter, shared by their attorney with the Palm Beach Post.
This family’s tragedy isn’t likely to be assuaged by time.
When Emelia grows up, no matter how much her father wants to shield her, she’ll learn the truth.
Her father got away with her mother’s murder at sea in the perilous dark waters of the Caribbean.
Domestic violence leaves a long and lasting trail of victims.