They’re likely the biggest hurdles, although not historically insurmountable ones, for prosecutors alleging Lewis Bennett murdered his wife at sea.
There’s no body.
And, by the way, no witness.
Last week, the FBI and federal prosecutors charged Bennett, a 41-year-old dual England-Australia national, with second-degree murder. They allege that, on May 15, he killed 41-year-old suburban Delray Beach real estate broker Isabella Hellmann, his bride of three months and the mother of their child, in international waters south of Key West, then deliberately sank his catamaran and staged it as an accident.
In federal court in Miami on Monday morning, Bennett — again shackled at the wrists and ankles and wearing a tan prison jumpsuit, said he is broke and no one wants to take his case.
“I’ve not been successful,” Bennett told U.S. District Court Judge Chris McAliley. “I’ll require the services of a public defender, if possible.”
McAliley granted Bennett’s request and assigned federal public defender Lauren Krasnoff. A detention hearing was set for Friday. Bennett will be arraigned March 7.
Asked if he was employed, Bennett said he has a “solar-power business” but doesn’t “receive an income. I haven’t for the last six months.” He also said he owns no property. He said the extent of his money is “approximately $2,000 in an Australian bank account.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Kurt Lunkenheimer noted that when Bennett was arrested, police found $20,000 in a backpack in a car belonging to Hellmann. But the judge said because federal officials have custody of that cash and wouldn’t release it to Bennett, it wouldn’t affect her decision.
A U.S. magistrate last week had set no bond for Bennett, citing the seriousness of the charges and the risk that the dual England-Australian national will flee the United States.
Two notorious Palm Beach County cases, one federal and one local, did end in convictions without bodies: a horrific double murder in Singer Island a decade ago and the 1955 assassination of an eminent judge and his wife in what’s been called Palm Beach County’s “crime of the century.”
Nationally, as far back as the 1850s, a court returned a murder conviction despite the lack of a corpse in the case of a Harvard Medical School professor convicted of burning victims in his basement incinerator. In that case, however, small body parts were found.
Former Chicago-area policeman Drew Petersen never was convicted of the murder of his fourth wife, Stacey, who has not been found, although he was convicted in the death of his third wife. And the FBI’s public-affairs department has devoted a podcast to a similar Georgia conviction.
“It’s a difficult row to hoe, but it’s not impossible,” said Bob Dekle, who was a public defender for the Lake City area for two years, then that area’s state attorney for 30 years, and then a University of Florida Law School processor for a decade before retiring.
“Rule number one: There are two kinds of evidence, direct and circumstantial,” Dekle said. “Rule number two is all evidence is circumstantial.”
He said he “lost more eyewitness cases in homicides than circumstantial ones.”
Dekle also said federal prosecutors could have far more evidence than was revealed in the seven-page complaint.
“It’s a circumstantial evidence case built on inferences,” Dekle said. But, he added, “It would help if they had one whopping good evidence of motive.”
Prosecutors potentially have at least two.
First, Bennett appeared to be in a hurry to have Hellmann declared dead so he could settle her estate, of which nothing was in his name and everything in hers. He asked the Coast Guard within days of the agency’s calling off its search to ask if it had the authority to issue a “letter of presumed death.” He later filed a probate case in Palm Beach County court, where Circuit Judge Kathleen Kroll has refused to rule, and even has asked Bennett’s lawyers why he was in a hurry.
Secondly, Hellmann’s family has said she confided to them that Bennett wanted to move with her and the baby back to Australia.
David Bludworth, who was Palm Beach County state attorney from 1971 to 1993, recalled working as a special prosecutor in Key West on a case where a man chartered a boat and then killed the father-and-son crew. In that case, Bludworth said, “he told the Coast Guard when they pulled up, ‘You’d better be careful. I killed two people.’ ”
But, Bludworth said, even with a confession, “you’ve got to prove it.’” He said in that case the person pleaded insanity. But Bludworth still got his conviction.
Bennett’s defense would have things going for it. The federal complaint never says how he killed his wife, and in fact, doesn’t specifically mention the killing at all. It does lay out a case that he conducted an intricate cover-up of something. But, a defense attorney might argue, not necessarily a murder.
“I can absolutely see the other side saying, ‘Well, that would mean if someone had the capability to get rid of a body, they could never be charged,’ ” Andrew Metcalf, a Vero Beach criminal defense lawyer and president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said Monday. “But they’d better have overwhelming circumstantial proof if they don’t have a body. ‘Corpus delicti,’ having the body of the crime, is one of the first things a defense lawyer is going to absolutely hyper-focus on as a defense.”
The 1955 Chillingworth murders are believed to have been the first in Florida ever to draw a conviction without a body.
Joseph Peel, a municipal judge, allegedly was using his position to protect numbers operators and moonshiners in which he had a financial interest, even signing search warrants and immediately calling his cronies to warn police were on their way.
Prosecutors claimed Palm Beach Circuit Judge Curtis Eugene Chillingworth was about to disbar Peel for botching a divorce, which would have pulled him off the bench and ended his clandestine rackets. So, they said, he hired petty criminals Floyd “Lucky” Holzapfel and George “Bobby” Lincoln to knock off the judge. Chillingworth and his wife Marjorie were seized from their oceanfront weekend cottage in Manalapan, taken by boat out to sea, bound and tossed overboard. Their bodies were never found.
Five years later, acting on a tip, state agents secretly taped Holzapfel, in an hours-long, liquor-fueled binge at a Melbourne motel, spilling his guts about the hit. Then, Bobby Lincoln, offered a deal by prosecutors, became the chief state’s witness. Despite being a career moonshiner, not to mention a black man in what still was Jim Crow Florida, his testimony — and that of a cornered Holzapfel — led to convictions for all three.
And in 2005, a jury convicted Michael Koblan in the deaths of Christopher Benedetto, 42, and Benedetto’s wife, 45-year-old Janette Piro. She and Koblan’s wife were sisters.
Prosecutors said Koblan borrowed $100,000 from Benedetto, who’d retired to Singer Island after he’d received a million-dollar settlement in a 1995 accident while he was a construction worker in New York.
The government claimed that in 1998, Koblan got a credit card in a fake name — Mike Kerry — and clandestinely flew to West Palm Beach, where he went fishing with Benedetto, killed him, and dumped him in the Atlantic Ocean. They said he then returned to the home and strangled Piro, and crammed her body into a bait freezer.
Defense lawyers argued there wasn’t a single piece of physical evidence. But prosecutors cited the testimony of a neighbor who heard somebody and Benedetto leave, then saw Koblan return alone in Benedetto’s prized fishing boat, which he never loaned to anyone. The testimony of a friend of Koblan’s who said Koblan told him on a Saturday night that he planned to travel to Florida to look for a missing family member, when Koblan supposedly hadn’t heard of the disappearances until Sunday. And a combative and contradiction-filled videotaped deposition by Koblan.
And the prosecutors had Jeanette.
“We were not so sure at first because there was one body that was not found,” juror Sandra Shaw said at the time. “But there was another body.”
Koblan was convicted in 2004. Two years later, he died of congestive heart failure in prison at 57.
Reported by Eliot Kleinberg in West Palm Beach and Matt Porter in Miami.