- Eliot Kleinberg Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Photos, some taken underwater, provide an eerie look at Lewis Bennett’s overturned catamaran in the Caribbean. In one, a plastic coat hangar inside the cabin can be seen through a window. Another shows one of the vessel’s two hulls with a sizable hole in it.
Lewis Bennett says his Surf Into Summer struck something at about 1 a.m. west of the Bahamas and about 90 miles southeast of Key West. He says he came up from below and saw only twinkling stars. His newlywed wife, suburban Delray Beach real estate broker Isabella Hellmann, was gone and the vessel was taking on water.
From that moment until he made his first distress call — Coast Guard timelines say 1:07 a.m. — he searched the dark seas for his wife, wrestled with the sail and engines, determined the boat was taking on water too quickly, and dragged out and inflated his life raft. He even cut the “painter line” to the catamaran because all of it, save a corner of one hull, had gone below the water line.
Bennett also had on that raft a suitcase, two backpacks, flares, buoys, 14 gallons of water, a second electronic locator beacon — and nine plastic tubes investigators say contained thousands in stolen coins.
Timelines, details and images are contained in 134 pages of U.S. Coast Guard documents obtained Thursday by the Palm Beach Post via a Freedom of Information Act inquiry filed in May. They complement a complaint filed this past week charging Bennett with transporting as much as $100,000 in coins. Bennett this week is under arrest and found himself Tuesday morning in a Key West courtroom.
He’s scheduled to be back this afternoon, where federal prosecutors are expected to ask that he be held without bond. They are expected to argue that the dual British-Australian national — with no known means of support and no official address, except a condo west of Delray Beach that FBI investigators scoured for eight hours on July 16 — might be a flight risk.
No agency has formally accused Bennett of foul play in his wife’s disappearance. But both the Coast Guard and the FBI continue to conduct a “missing-person investigation.” Neither will comment on it.
It is known that Bennett wrote to the Coast Guard within a day of it calling off its four-day search, asking if it had the authority to issue a “presumption of death” notice for Hellmann.
Bennett and his wife of then just three months were on a belated honeymoon sail through the Caribbean in mid-May. Bennett called the U.S. Coast Guard to say he was awakened in the early hours of May 15 to find that the catamaran had struck something 30 miles west of Cay Sal.
The 134 pages obtained Thursday mostly contain ledgers and timelines, but they also include photos — including that one of the hole in a pontoon.
The hole might not be a gash at all, but rather an opening where a “dagger board” broke off, said Tom Danti, dean of the Chapman School of Seamanship in Stuart.
A “dagger board” is an adjustable fin that can be pushed below the water to help stabilize a vessel.
“The hole in that photograph seems to be very clean. There’s no rough edges. It’s got a perfect shape to it and seems to be in the same area that one would expect to find the vessel’s dagger board,” Danti said.
Bennett had said in his initial call that he did not know if Hellmann had been thrown from the boat when it struck the object or had otherwise gone overboard while he slept. He also would tell authorities later that day that the catamaran’s “mast was loose and not tight (and) there is a possibility that she may have fall (fallen) in the water due to accident with the mast hitting her.”
The timeline says the first Coast Guard aircraft arrived at 3:30 a.m. Bennett later was lifted from his liferaft into a helicopter.
A notation from about 5 a.m. says the catamaran is missing its propeller and its skeg — an extension of the hull that helps stabilize the vessel and protects the rudder and propeller — and that “a large chunk of the starboard hull (is) missing from an apparent collision with an object.”
Another made at about 11:20 a.m. said Bennett already had been picked up in Marathon by relatives of his wife and was on his way back to their Boca Raton home.
Most of the rest of the timelines describe the four-day search of an area nearly the size of Connecticut.
At about 5:30 p.m. May 17, the second day of the search, the Coast Guard reported it had lost the boat’s position. Hours later, the agency reported it had found the boat and had tied a locator buoy to it.
The documents obtained Thursday don’t say, but the Coast Guard told the Post later the week of the search it had lost track of the boat for good. The family has said it was told the vessel sank in more than 4,000 feet of water, likely never to be retrieved.
A report made the morning May 17, when Hellmann had been missing for two full days, said the air and water were at 77 degrees. the wind was at 15 knots — about 17 mph — and the “heat loss coefficient” was “turbulent.”
It said Hellmann, at 5 foot 4 inches and 110 pounds, and dressed in light clothing, could have remained able to help herself for about 13 hours and that after 120 hours — five days — hypothermia would have been life threatening.
No reports have said whether Hellmann wore a life jacket.
Bennett said in a June Facebook posting he had gone to his native England with the couple’s 13-month-old daughter, Emilia. So many people posted comments accusing him, without evidence, of complicity in his wife’s disappearance that he took down the post and eventually closed his account.
Federal authorities have refused so far to say how Bennett came to be back in Florida and in custody.
A police report has said one of Hellman’s sisters screamed accusations at Bennett during a May 28 confrontation at the Boca Raton home of Hellmann’s relatives. Neighbors and relatives have said the couple argued often because Bennett wanted to move with his wife and child to Australia.
According to the federal complaint unsealed Monday, Bennett had been a crew member on the Kitty R in May 2016 when gold and silver coins stored inside plastic tubes were stolen. Many of the coins later were found with Bennett when he was rescued.
The owner of the Gibraltar-based Kitty R, from Bennett is alleged to have stolen the coins, told The Palm Beach Post on Thursday via cellphone from an island near Spain that he did not want to comment.
By Florida law, if Bennett is convicted on the felony count, he would be disqualified as the conservator, or controller, of his wife’s estate, said Mitchell Kitroser, who represented Hellmann’s sister in a failed attempt to wrest control of her assets from Bennett.
It’s most likely custody of Emilia would stay with Bennett’s parents in England, who are believed to have her now, Kitroser said.
The attorney also said the family “may make other decisions along the way” about any other legal actions against Bennett, “but we’re very early on in the criminal case, and Mr. Bennett, just like any other defendant, is presumed innocent.”