Lewis Bennett — whose wife, Isabella Hellmann of suburban Delray Beach, disappeared at sea six month ago today — plans to change his not-guilty plea on federal charges that he transported as much as $100,000 in stolen coins, court documents show.
In a filing Wednesday, U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King said that he will hold a “change of plea” hearing Nov. 30 in Miami and that Bennett’s Dec. 11 trial in Key West is canceled.
King’s order did not say how Bennett would change his plea. His options would be guilty, no contest or guilty of a lesser charge. He faces up to 10 years in prison.
Marc Shiner, an attorney for Bennett on the criminal charges, said Wednesday through his West Palm Beach office that he had no comment. And U.S. Attorney’s spokeswoman Annette Lima said Wednesday from Miami that because Bennett could change his mind between now and Nov. 30, federal prosecutors did not want to comment.
Relatives of Hellmann have not responded to numerous requests for comment since she went missing.
Bennett separately has been trying in Palm Beach County Court to have Hellmann, the mother of their now nearly 19-month-old daughter, declared dead so he can settle her estate. But a judge has refused to rule until she knows more. One of Hellmann’s sisters tried in June to take control of the estate but later dropped her efforts.
Hellmann, a 41-year-old real estate broker, vanished off the Bahamas on May 15. Bennett, 40, has said the couple was on a delayed honeymoon sailing trip — they’d been married three months — when he awoke to find that his catamaran had struck something and was sinking, and that his wife was gone.
The Coast Guard called off its ocean search after four days.
A 134-page package of documents obtained in late August by The Palm Beach Post gave numerous details of the incident and the search that followed, such as the speed at which the boat sank and how the 5-foot-4, 110-pound Hellmann, might have fared after being thrown into the water.
Neither the FBI nor the Coast Guard has said whether it suspects foul play in Hellmann’s disappearance. Both agencies this week reiterated that their investigations remain active.
Bennett wrote to the Coast Guard within a day after it called off its search and requested, without success, a “letter of presumed death.” He later asked the local courts for the official declaration.
Mitchell Kitroser, who represented Hellmann’s sister in a failed attempt to wrest control of her assets from Bennett, said in September that, 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.
The Coast Guard helicopter that rescued Bennett had flown him to Marathon where, federal prosecutors charge, authorities found coins on him that were stolen while he worked in May 2016 as a mate aboard a yacht in St. Maarten in the Caribbean. Because of that, the federal charges were filed in Key West.
Soon after his rescue, 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. The girl is believed to still be in England.
Neither the FBI or the U.S. Attorney’s Office will say how Bennett returned to Florida and was arrested Aug. 28.
Bennett remained Wednesday in the Broward County Jail, following a convoluted journey steered by Hurricane Irma. He was moved from the Keys to Palm Beach County, along with more than 400 other inmates, in early September, as Irma bore down on Florida. He later was moved again to Broward.
Federal prosecutors had detailed in court papers that they have a large volume of evidence in the case, including interviews, photographs and items confiscated during a June 16search of the Bennett-Hellmann condominium in suburban Delray Beach. The evidence itself is not public.
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: Emelia 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: Isabella’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. The family later drops the effort.
Aug. 28: Bennett arrested in West Palm Beach on federal coin theft charges. He pleads not guilty.
Oct. 7: Bennett asks a Palm Beach County judge to declare Hellmann dead. She refuses at that hearing and at another one Nov. 3.
Sources: Palm Beach Post archives