- Eliot Kleinberg Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
A judge Thursday refused to declare Isabella Hellmann dead, saying she needs a declaration that authorities have completed their investigations into Hellman’s mysterious disappearance.
It’s been five months since the 41-year-old suburban Delray Beach real estate broker’s husband, Lewis Bennett, reported she’d vanished at sea. On Thursday, Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Kathleen J. Kroll said she wouldn’t approve a request from Bennett for a “presumptive death certificate.”
That’s because although the U.S. Coast Guard called off its ocean search in the Bahamas after four days, both it and the FBI say they continue to conduct missing-person investigations. Neither has said whether it suspects foul play in Hellmann’s disappearance.
Bennett’s attorney, Lee McElroy IV of Palm Beach Gardens, had submitted the thick Coast Guard package of documents related specifically to the now-ended active search — documents The Palm Beach Post obtained this summer. Kroll noted she herself had seen news reports of the two as-yet incomplete investigations and so the package wasn’t enough.
“ ‘Not searching’ is not ‘no longer having an investigation of her death,’ ” Kroll told McElroy.
“That’s what I’m after, is closure,” Kroll said.
Kroll set a new hearing for the afternoon of Nov. 3.
The judge also would not close out Bennett’s probate filing. McElroy had argued Hellmann’s modest estate didn’t require a full proceeding.
In the early hours of May 15, Bennett has said, he and Hellmann were in the Bahamas, on a delayed honeymoon sailing trip, when he awoke to find that his catamaran had struck something in the Atlantic near Cay Sol and was sinking, and that his wife was gone.
Bennett wrote to the Coast Guard within a day after it called off its search and requested, without success, a “letter of presumed death” for his wife of three months and the mother of their now nearly 15-month-old daughter. He later asked the local courts for Thursday’s official declaration.
Not mentioned at Thursday’s hearing: Bennett, 40, wasn’t there because remains in the Broward County Jail, under a U.S. Marshals Service hold on a federal indictment charging that he transported as much as $100,000 in stolen coins.
Federal prosecutors say that, after the Coast Guard rescued Bennett and flew him to Marathon in the Keys, authorities found coins on him that were stolen while he worked in May 2016 as a mate aboard a yacht.
This summer, Bennett, a dual citizen of England and Australia, said in a social-media posting that he took the couple’s daughter to his native England, where his parents live. Neither the FBI nor the U.S. Attorney’s Office will say how Bennett returned to Florida and was arrested in West Palm Beach on Aug. 28.
Bennett has pleaded not guilty. His trial is set for Dec. 11 in Key West. Federal prosecutors have detailed in court papers that they have a large volume of evidence in the case, including interviews, photographs, and items confiscated during a June 16 search of the Bennett-Hellmann condominium in suburban Delray Beach. The actual evidence is not public.
Court documents for Thursday’s hearing in Palm Beach Gardens show few assets for Hellmann: the condominium, which she shared with Bennett, valued in county property records at $125,000; a 2006 Mercedes-Benz car valued in court papers at $1,000; bank accounts valued at about $5,000 and about $725, respectively; unidentified contents of a safe deposit box; and various personal items.
McElroy said in court papers that the total assets don’t meet the $75,000 threshold for a full probate process. He had wanted Kroll to issue a “summary administration,” which closes the case. But that is on hold until the death status is resolved.
“This is really quick. Normally, it’s after a year or two. What’s the rush?” Kroll asked McElroy.
He answered that all of Hellmann’s assets were either in her name or in that of a corporation that she and Bennett had created, and that the assets, especially the condo, are sitting stagnant until Hellmann is declared dead and the estate is settled.
He also said parents of the two Tequesta teens lost off Jupiter Inlet in July 2015 were able to obtain death declarations promptly.
None of Hellmann’s relatives were at the hearing. In June, his sister asked a judge to take control of the estate from Bennett. The sister later withdrew the effort. Her attorney has not returned recent calls for comment, and the family has not responded to The Post’s attempts to contact them since Hellmann disappeared.