- Eliot Kleinberg Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Lewis Bennett, who reported his wife missing on the high seas in May, has been arrested in West Palm Beach on federal charges that he stole as much as $100,000 in coins while a first mate on a ship in the Caribbean, according to the FBI and a federal complaint made public Monday.
Bennett and newlywed wife Isabella Hellmann, with whom he shared an infant daughter and a condo west of Delray Beach, had told authorities the couple was on a belated honeymoon sail through the Caribbean when he was awakened in the early hours of May 15 to find that the catamaran had struck something 30 miles west of Cay Sal in the Bahamas.
Bennett said he went topside to find Hellmann gone and his catamaran taking on water. He was rescued, but a four-day search to find Hellmann, 41, was officially called off May 18.
Within a day, according to Palm Beach County court documents, Bennett asked the Coast Guard for a “letter of presumed death,” court documents show.
The federal complaint filed Friday, and unsealed Monday, makes no reference to foul play.
The Coast Guard and the FBI confirmed May 26, eight days after the search was called off, that each agency 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.
According to the federal complaint, the owner of the ship Kitty R, based in the Caribbean nation of St. Maarten, said that in September 2015, he had bought 617 collectible coins for the equivalent of about $41,000 in U.S. dollars.
The man reported that Bennett had been a crew member on the Kitty R in May 2016 when gold and silver coins stored inside plastic tubes were stolen by someone who had broken open the floor beneath a pallet of food. The owner said he did not file a claim because the items were not listed among covered items on his insurance policy.
On May 8, 2016, the complaint says, Bennett filed a police report in St. Maarten about the missing coins, saying they were stolen sometime either on May 5 or early May 6 of that year, when Bennett and the owner were not aboard.
Travel records show Bennett flew from Fort Lauderdale to St. Maarten around March 18 of this year and returned April 8. He and Hellmann then flew to St. Maarten on April 19 for their delayed honeymoon sailing.
When Bennett called the Coast Guard for help early on May 15, the Coast Guard sent a helicopter from Marathon. When the Coast Guard retrieved his life raft, the complaint says, authorities noticed he’d loaded a suitcase and two backpacks on the raft but had taken only one backpack with him when he was pulled off the raft by the Coast Guard swimmer, who “noticed that his backpack was unusually heavy.”
The Coast Guard later recovered the life raft and took it to Key West on May 19. Found aboard: a suitcase; a backpack; unexpended parachute flares; buoys; 14 gallons of water; a second ePIRB homing device, and nine plastic tubes which were found to contain some 225 of the stolen coins. That cache alone was worth about $4,200, the complaint said.
On May 23, law-enforcement officials returned the coins to Bennett at his suburban Delray Beach condo before realizing they might have been stolen. When they went to the condo May 23, the coins were still in their evidence bags and Bennett agreed to turn them over.
After the coins’ owner confirmed the ones Bennett had were his, that disclosure prompted the high-profile, eight-hour June 16 raid of the Bennett-Hellmann condo in Pine Ridge of Delray, the complaint said. Inside, investigators found 162 more coins hidden in boat shoes; those were worth about $26,100.
The FBI said Bennett is set to appear in federal court in Key West on Tuesday.
Lawyers for both Hellmann’s family and Bennett could not be reached for comment late Monday.
Bennett had said in a June Facebook posting he had gone to England with the couple’s infant child. He later closed his account after people posted comments accusing him of complicity in his wife’s disappearance.
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.