While the fate of Isabella Hellmann, missing for nearly seven months, remains a mystery, the suburban Delray Beach woman’s husband now faces up to 10 years in prison on a stolen coin charge.
In federal court Thursday morning, Lewis Bennett pleaded guilty to knowingly transporting as much as $100,000 in stolen coins while working in 2016 as a mate aboard a yacht in the Caribbean.
U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King set Bennett’s sentencing for Feb. 12 in Key West. Prosecutors said they will recommend a reduced sentence but did not specify a length. Bennett also faces a fine of up to $250,000 and three years of probation. And the dual citizen of Australia and England faces deportation, the judge said.
“I thought he was a really good friend. I’m doubly angry with him,” the yacht’s owner, who did not want to be named, said Thursday afternoon from the Mediterranean. He said he did not want to comment further except that he was glad he’d be getting back at least some of his coins.
Bennett, 40,, who’d given up his beard and was clean-shaven in court Thursday, stood before the judge in brown-and-tan federal jail gear, cuffed and chained at the waist and ankle. With a clear voice, he answered King’s required procedural questions, which took up nearly all of the half-hour hearing.
His wife, who vanished off the Bahamas on May 15, was mentioned only once, and not even by name.
It was when prosecutor Emily Rose spelled out the indictment and mentioned Bennett’s claim that on May 15, as he and the 41-year-old real estate broker sailed on a delayed honeymoon trip — they’d been married three months — he awoke to find his catamaran had struck something and was sinking, and his wife was gone.
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 have said their investigations remain active but will not otherwise comment.
Neither prosecutors nor West Palm Beach defense lawyer Paul Walsh had any comment after Thursday’s hearing.
On Thursday, as a U.S. Marshal led Bennett away following his plea, he walked past his wife’s family, sitting in a back row, but said nothing and did not look at them. The relatives did not comment afterward to reporters. They have not responded to numerous requests for comment by The Palm Beach Post since their sister vanished. It was the first time the family had attended any of Bennett’s court proceedings.
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. Edward Downey, one of Bennett’s lawyers in the current probate case, said this week he had nothing to do with the criminal case and had no comment.
Soon after his rescue, Bennett 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.
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 the yacht Kitty R in St. Maarten in the Caribbean. Because of that, the federal charges were filed in Key West.
Bennett has been 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 16 search of the Bennett-Hellmann condominium in suburban Delray Beach. The evidence itself has not been made public. Federal authorities said this week that, if the case never went to trial, the materials likely never will, unless Bennett gives permission.
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.
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.
July 2016: Daughter is born.
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. Bennett contacts the Coast Guard around 1 a.m. May 15 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.”
June 14: Isabella’s sister files in Palm Beach County Circuit Court in Palm Beach Gardens to take over Isabella’s finances. The family later drops the effort.
June 16: Investigators spend eight hours searching the couple’s condo and leave with several boxes.
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.
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.
Nov. 30: Bennett pleads guilty in Miami federal court. Sentencing set for Feb. 12 in Key West.
Sources: Palm Beach Post archives