Within a day after the Coast Guard called off the search for Isabella Hellmann, her newlywed husband asked the agency for a “letter of presumed death,” court documents show.
Lewis Bennett has said he was awakened early on May 15 after his catamaran struck something west of Cay Sal in the Bahamas. He said he came topside to find the vessel was taking on water and Hellmann, his wife of three months, was gone. He was rescued, but a four-day search to find Hellmann, 41, was officially called off May 18.
The next day, the agency wrote Bennett, acknowledging his request. The letter but did not say the day he submitted it.
The Coast Guard letter is contained in documents related to the Palm Beach County court action Hellmann’s sister filed in June to take over the missing woman’s finances.
This week, a lawyer for Bennett filed a motion to dismiss the attempt by Hellmann’s sister, Adriana Difeo of Jupiter.
The sister “has no standing” to become conservator for Hellmann, Boca Raton attorney Robert Feldman wrote in a motion filed Monday. In fact, Feldman wrote, since Hellmann filed no will, the only person with that standing is Hellmann’s husband and the father of their child: Bennett.
“Given the circumstances surrounding Isabella Hellmann still being deemed missing, although not pleasant, she should be presumed deceased,” Feldman wrote. “In due time, proper proceedings to determine same as well as probate proceedings will be filed.”
By Florida law, a person can’t be declared legally dead until he or she has been missing for at least five years.
Feldman was out of town Friday and could not be reached.
“The husband does have priority,” Mitchell Kitroser, a North Palm Beach attorney representing Difeo, told The Palm Beach Post on Friday. “Given the nature of the case, it’s interesting that he would have left the jurisdiction and now is coming back to contest his sister-in-law’s application.”
Kitroser declined to elaborate. He also declined to comment on Bennett’s correspondence with the Coast Guard.
Bennett said in a June Facebook posting he has gone to England with the couple’s infant child.
The sister’s petition said it wants to protect the suburban Delray Beach condominium, which it valued at $117,000, and which was jointly owned by Hellmann and a corporation created by Hellman and Bennett. It also seeks to protect undetermined financial accounts and possibly a car, and to pay Hellmann’s debts.
The Coast Guard and the FBI confirmed May 26, eight days after the search was called off, that each was conducting a “missing person investigation.” Neither agency has said whether Bennett is a target of the investigation or even if either suspects foul play. But on June 16, several FBI investigators spent hours searching the couple’s residence, leaving with numerous boxes. At the time, an FBI spokesman would say only that the agency “initiated a court-authorized search” as “part of the investigation into the disappearance of Isabella Hellmann.” Neither the FBI nor the Coast Guard has commented since.
In the Coast Guard’s May 19 letter to Bennett, a commander said the agency wasn’t authorized to issue such a “presumed death” document but did provide a two-paragraph summary of the search, noting it spent “a combined 137.77 hours spanning 4,980 square nautical miles with four types of aircrafts and three CG cutters.”
The letter said Bennett can get any additional records by filing a Freedom of Information Act request.
The Palm Beach Post also asked the Coast Guard within days of the disappearance for documents related to the search, but the agency has required the newspaper also request them through FOIA, which often can take months. The Post is appealing the delay.
The Coast Guard on Friday was asked what day it received Bennett’s letter but said it likely could answer that question only via a FOIA request.
Despite asking for a declaration of presumption of death sometime on or before May 19, Bennett later told a DailyMail.com reporter at his condominium, for a May 30 story, that he had made a trip to Cuba a few days earlier, returning May 28, and “met the authorities there and checked every hospital, but there is no sign of her.”
All efforts by The Post to reach Bennett have been unsuccessful.
On June 28, Bennett published on his Facebook page his first posting since early April, saying, “I have now returned to the UK with my daughter to seek the comfort of my friends and family.” It sparked a long line of comments of support from friends and relatives, but also questions from people about his role in his wife’s disappearance. He took it down July 4 and later shut down his Facebook page altogether.
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. The Hellmann family also has not responded to numerous inquiries from The Post.