On Monday, a British journalist knocked on the door of a home in Hythe, a coastal Hampshire town about 85 miles southwest of London.
“We have been told not to say anything,” the resident told the reporter, sent by The Palm Beach Post. “He lives here some of the time, because we are his parents, but not all the time.”
“He” is Lewis Bennett, whereabouts unknown. The 40-year-old man has a mysterious back story, no permanent home or confirmed means of income, and a little girl who turns 1 this month and whose mother vanished at sea.
His story — and that of 41-year-old suburban Delray Beach real estate broker Isabella Hellmann — takes place in an array of locales that would fill the board game Risk, with push pins in no fewer than nine countries and possessions spanning three continents.
Bennett has insisted that as he and Hellmann, his wife of three months, sailed for home at the end of a weeks-long Caribbean honeymoon, he was jolted awake early on May 15 by his 37-foot catamaran smacking into something about 90 miles southeast of Key West. He says he came up from below and saw only twinkling stars. His wife was gone.
The Coast Guard spent four days scouring an area nearly the size of Connecticut, but on May 18, it called off the search. Either the next day, or perhaps even before that — Coast Guard correspondence isn’t clear — Bennett wrote to ask for a document the Coast Guard isn’t in the business of issuing: a “presumption of death.”
Isabella Hellmann’s vanishing, which has been reported across the globe, is notable also because virtually everyone involved won’t talk about it.
— The Coast Guard and the FBI will say only that they are conducting a “missing persons investigation.” They never have said they suspect foul play. Both have said they will provide any documents only after they are done. Neighbors did say they saw men in latex gloves in the parking lot of the couple’s condo, going over Bennett’s car and questioning him as he stood nearby. And last month, several FBI investigators spent a day inside the condo, leaving with several boxes, as part of a court-ordered search related to Hellmann’s disappearance.
— The Post’s efforts to reach out to the family have failed, even as relatives created Facebook pages titled “Find Isabella” and “Bring Emelia Back.” Emelia is the couple’s daughter, whom the family has said it despairs of ever seeing again. One of Hellman’s sisters angrily accused Bennett of foul play during a May 28 confrontation at the Boca Raton home of Hellmann’s relatives, but family members have offered no evidence to back the claim.
— The Post has made numerous unsuccessful efforts to reach Bennett through phone, email, social media and his Boca Raton lawyer, and even via Monday’s in-person visit by Southampton-based Solent News and Photo Agency. The Post directed the agency to the home after Palm Beach County court documents gave the address in England where Bennett was served with court papers.
In that brief interview on Monday, Bennett’s father, who did not give his name, said Lewis has had bad experiences with the media.
“The trouble with that is that when he has done it before, it does not end up the way he tells it,” the man said. “They change it around.”
Several questions remain about what happened May 15. Among them:
Where is Bennett? His lawyer won’t comment. Hellmann’s family has said she and Bennett quarreled over Bennett’s desire to move his family to Australia. Bennett posted on his Facebook page in late June that he’d gone to England with his daughter, but there’s no way to confirm he or Emelia is there.
What actually happened? The Coast Guard has not said if Bennett reported hearing his wife go overboard or heard her scream or splash. The agency hasn’t said if he reported seeing the object the catamaran reportedly struck but has said it never found anything. It’s possible the yacht ran onto the Cay Sal Bank, about 30 miles to the east, then drifted back west to where the Coast Guard found both it and Bennett.
Where is the catamaran now? The Coast Guard confirmed it lost track of it and the family has said it was told the vessel sank. A catamaran is far less likely to sink than a boat, since it essentially is a cabin between two giant “hulls,” or pontoons, and the Coast Guard says it found no obvious holes in either one. Bennett initially reported he came up to the deck to find the boat was taking on water. That means it still was right side up and would have turned upside down some time after Bennett retrieved his lifeboat, satellite phone and “EPIRB” tracking device and abandoned ship, and before the Coast Guard located and rescued him some three hours after his initial call.
Where does Bennett spend most of his time? Bennett is a dual citizen of England and Australia, and the Post has been unable to determine when he moved from England to Australia, except that he registered his solar panel firm in Queensland, Australia, in 2011. Cameron Stewart, Washington correspondent for the national newspaper The Australian, who’s been reporting the story in cooperation with The Palm Beach Post, had said government sources told him Bennett left Australia in February 2016, writing in his departure form that he planned to visit his native England and to stay there no more than 12 months. Instead, he appears to have been in the Caribbean and Florida.
Hellmann’s friend Sara Cortes said Bennett rarely came to Florida. She said Bennett would fly Hellmann to meet him and his catamaran at various ports, including Tahiti and Singapore. Cortes also said the couple visited Bennett’s parents in England. Bennett registered solar panel corporations in Australia and in Delray Beach. But Cortes has said Bennett told her he was a plumber and Isabella told her Bennett had come into some family money and had poured most of it into the catamaran and that he made a living transporting people. The Australian Maritime Registry says Bennett submitted that Surf into Summer was built in 1986, and a yacht broker has told The Post a catamaran that old would be worth about $60,000. But the company that builds the yacht says on its webpage that the model was first built in 2008. Online ads show that model built in 2008 selling for between $275,000 and $400,000.
Staff writer Mike Stucka contributed to this story.
ISABELLA VANISHES: A TIMELINE
November 1975: Luz Stella Isabella Rodriguez is born in Colombia. She is believed to have moved to Florida some time in the 1990s.
April 1977: Lewis Bennett is born in Dorset area of southwest England. He attends public schools and at some point moves to Australia.
February 2002: Isabella marries William Hellmann. The two begin divorce proceedings in August 2012 in Palm Beach County Circuit Court in Delray Beach. Divorce is final in August 2014.
May 2011: Lewis Bennett registers Next Generation Solar in Australia.
November 2013: In St. Maarten, in the Caribbean, Bennett buys catamaran described as a 37-foot Fountaine Pajot Orana 44. He registers it in Australia.
2015: Isabella Hellmann and Lewis Bennett meet online.
August 2015: Bennett registers Next Generation Solar in Florida.
July 2016: Amelia is born.
January 2017: The couple buys a condo at the Pine Ridge at Delray Beach development for $123,000.
February: The couple marry in Atlanta.
April 30: Isabella flies to St. Maarten to meet Bennett and his catamaran, the Surf into Summer, which had been there since April 8. The couple sail that day. Facebook postings show her May 1 in Puerto Rico and May 2 in the British Virgin Islands. Those are her last public postings.
May 14: The couple reportedly leaves Varadero, a resort town about 75 miles east of Havana, at 5:30 p.m.
May 15: Bennett contacts the Coast Guard around 1 a.m. to say the boat has struck something and is sinking and Hellmann is missing. Hours later, he is rescued and flown to the Florida Keys.
May 18: Coast Guard officially calls off search.
May 19: Coast Guard responds to Bennett request for a “letter of presumed death,” saying it doesn’t have authority.
May 23: At condo, officials, possibly FBI investigators, search Bennett’s car, and interview him. Sometime before June 1, FBI evidence tape seals the door.
May 26: Coast Guard and FBI confirm to Palm Beach Post that they are conducting a “missing persons investigation.”
May 27: Bennett claims he just returned from searching hospitals in Cuba for Isabella.
May 28: In confrontation to which police are called, Hellmann’s sister screams accusations at Bennett, who had come to pick up Emelia at the family’s Boca Raton home.
May 30: Dailymail.com posts interview with Bennett at his suburban Delray Beach condominium in which he professes his innocence.
June 14: Isabelle’s sister, Adriana Difeo of Jupiter, files in Palm Beach County Circuit Court in Palm Beach Gardens to take over Isabella’s finances.
June 16: Investigators spend eight hours searching the couple’s condo and leave with several boxes.
June 21: Court papers are formally served on Bennett’s family home in Southampton, England.
June 28: Bennett says in a Facebook posting he has gone to England with Amelia. After receiving both supportive and critical comments, he takes down the post. He later closes his Facebook page altogether.
July 10: Bennett’s Boca Raton lawyer formally files to challenge sister’s conservatorship effort.
BY THE MAP:
United States: Couple owned a condo in suburban Delray Beach
Colombia: Isabella Hellmann’s birthplace
England/Australia: Bennett was born in England and is a dual citizen.
St. Martin/St. Maarten: Bennett bought his catamaran on the Caribbean island and spent time on both the French- and Dutch-controlled sides.
Puerto Rico, British Virgin Islands, Cuba: Stops on the couple’s honeymoon cruise.
SOURCES: Palm Beach Post archives, staff research