- Eliot Kleinberg Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
On Tuesday night, a neighbor watched out the window of her condo west of the city as official-looking men wearing powder-blue latex gloves searched Lewis Bennett’s car and questioned him as he stood nearby.
Neighbors say they last saw Isabella Hellmann weeks before Bennett, her newlywed husband, says he left with her on a two-week romantic sailing jaunt through the Tropics — one that ended with Bennett being rescued at sea.
Bennett said his catamaran struck something while he slept and that he came topside to find the boat sinking and no trace of Hellmann — a 41-year-old real estate broker, his wife of three months and the mother of the couple’s 9-month-old daughter.
The Coast Guard and the FBI both have confirmed they are jointly conducting a “missing person investigation” into Hellmann’s disappearance.
The Palm Beach Post has been unable to reach Bennett, 40, a dual British-Australian citizen with few ties to Florida and an enigmatic past. Hellmann’s family spoke briefly at the start of a Coast Guard search that would cover four days and 6,600 miles, an area nearly three times the size of Palm Beach County. Since then, relatives have declined to speak with The Post.
What happened in those evening hours on the high seas, about 70 miles southeast of Key West, remains, in large part, a mystery. Some of it authorities know, but won’t yet reveal; some was met with, “We don’t know.”
On May 17, the night before the U.S. Coast Guard called off the search, neighbor David Mayer said last week he approached Bennett to express his concern and sympathy.
“He said, ‘Yeah. I’m going to be leaving for England. I’ve got to move on with my life,’ ” Mayer recalled. “I said, ‘What about the baby?’ He stopped and said, “Oh. I guess I’ve got to take her with me, too.’ ”
‘Ideal’ sailing craft
Efforts by The Post to learn where Bennett was born, when he was in England and Australia, and when he came to Florida, have been unsuccessful.
He shows up in corporate records as owning Next Generation Solar in the Australia state of Queensland. Records show a contractor’s license expired in May 2016. The phone number for the company did not work.
A firm with the same name, Next Generation Solar, registered in Florida in August 2015, listing a gated community in Boynton Beach as its corporate address. The address later was changed to another gated neighborhood in suburban Delray Beach. And in March 2016, it was registered with a mailing address at the condo on Oneida Drive in suburban Delray Beach that court records show the couple bought that January for $123,000.
Hellmann and Bennett and their daughter smile from Facebook pages that indicate the couple knew each other since at least 2014 and traveled together as far as Japan and England.
Another neighbor, Anne Fennimore, who lives upstairs, says Hellmann told her she met Bennett online and that Bennett and Hellmann have lived for about a year at a first-floor condo in the Pine Ridge at Delray Beach development, north of Lake Ida Road and just west of Florida’s Turnpike.
Hellmann, a Colombian national, had gone through a difficult local divorce and became a real-estate broker. Court records show she and Bennett married in the Atlanta area in February.
Mayer, who lives in a nearby building and who also is in the real estate business, told The Post that Hellmann told him she’d sunk all her savings into the condo.
“All of a sudden he (Bennett) was on the scene. And all of a sudden they spent $60,000 to $70,000 remodeling the apartment,” he said.
Fennimore, who lives upstairs, told The Post on Friday that the couple “spent a tremendous amount of money on the renovations. High-end everything.” She did say Bennett did much of the work himself.
Fennimore, an employee and a Ph.D. student at Florida Atlantic University’s college of medicine, said Bennett was vague about his work, saying he was a plumber. She said his parents, from England, stayed at the condo twice, around Christmas and also last summer. Hellmann, she said, “liked shopping. She dressed in a different outfit every time she came out (of the apartment).”
Mayer said Hellmann told him her husband was a captain for private yachts. Fennimore said she never heard either person mention a planned voyage, and she didn’t even know Bennett owned a boat.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority says the 1986 Fountaine Pajot Orana 44 lists Sydney as its home port. Antoine Lebreton, a French national, included in an online résumé that he’d gone to St. Maarten, on the Dutch side of the Caribbean island of St. Martin, from November to December of 2013 to help Bennett refit the vessel, then called the Asteria.
“He’s a very nice guy,” Lebreton said this month by cellphone. He said the two talked once or twice a year and he met Hellmann when Bennett came to St. Maarten to buy the boat.
“It’s very sad,” he said.
Government officials in St. Maarten said they do not keep a log of boat sales. But in the October 2016 edition of the magazine “All At Sea Caribbean,” an ad for The Yacht Shop, a retailer with locations in St. Maarten and Toronto, listed a testimonial from Bennett saying staff “provided me with all the information to make a confident and informed purchase — sight unseen.” A call to that store was not returned.
An email inquiry to the maker, France-based Fountaine Pajot, was not returned.But a 2012 brochure by Multihull Solutions, an Australia-based broker, says the boat “is ideal for high-performance ocean sailing.” Affiniti Yacht Brokerage, in Broward County, told The Post the catamaran probably would sell for $50,000 to $60,000.
The web page for a boating enthusiasts’ rally called the Pacific Puddle Jump says that in 2014, Bennett and the Asteria were scheduled to make an ambitious sail from St. Maarten to the Galapagos. Organizers say records don’t indicate if a person makes the sailing.
The next mention of the boat is on Mother’s Day 2017.
East from Havana
Bennett told the Coast Guard he pulled Surf into Summer out of Havana at 5:30 p.m. May 14. He said that at 8 p.m — around the time, almanacs say, that the sun began to set — he went below. At the time, he said, his wife was on deck and wore a life jacket.
At about 1 a.m., the Coast Guard says, Bennett used a satellite phone to call the International Response Coordination Center, a private company, which passed the SOS to the Coast Guard. Managers at the coordination center did not respond either to calls or to an email seeking details of Bennett’s SOS.
Bennett said that when he saw the catamaran was taking on water, he dropped the lifeboat into the water and got into it, fired his emergency position beacon — commonly called an EPIRB — and called for help. At about 4:30 a.m., the Coast Guard said, a chopper pinpointed Bennett about 1,000 yards from the now upside-down Surf into Summer. At that time, the boat was in an area about 4,000 feet deep in international waters about 30 miles west of Cay Sal, the westernmost island in the Bahamas.
A basket pulled Bennett from his raft in 2-to-4-foot seas and flew him to Marathon in the middle Keys, where he did not require medical treatment.
Coast Guard Miami spokesman Eric Woodall said Bennett told the agency the boat had been in the Bahamas and its ultimate destination was Boca Raton. Calls to the Cuban ministry that oversees the Port of Havana were not returned.
Woodall said responders inspected the boat “the best they could from the surface,” and never saw what it might have struck. He said the catamaran is steered by a tiller alongside a canvas seat, near the stern, close enough that a person in it could be flung overboard by the impact of a collision.
Woodall said it was too dangerous for anyone from the Coast Guard to go inside the boat and that divers banged on the hull but no one answered. He said the agency does not believe Hellmann’s body is inside.
He said the catamaran’s pontoons had neither visible holes nor obvious places where water could have filled them, but there were deep scrapes at the back ends of each. A Coast Guard photo shows the catamaran upside down with one pontoon below the surface and the other above the water line.
Woodall said it is Bennett’s responsibility to retrieve the boat. He said the agency marked it and sent out a “navigation hazard” advisory. But, Woodall said, the electronic beacon stopped working, so the Coast Guard can’t say with confidence where the boat is now.
On Wednesday, Bennett told WPTV NewsChannel 5, The Post’s news partners, that he planned to fly that day to Cuba, then obtain a boat to continue the search for his wife.
Changing the lock
Mayer and Fennimore say they last saw Hellmann around the last week in April. Fennimore said Hellmann was with her father and the couple’s baby daughter when she saw her. Mayer said that he and Hellmann “used to talk on a regular basis. The baby was adorable.”
On May 15, within hours of when Bennett would have been rescued, Fennimore said, she saw a car parked downstairs that she recognized as belonging to Hellmann’s sister. Two days later, she said, she saw five relatives go into the condo.
Fennimore said Bennett told her later that after the Coast Guard rescued him on the morning of May 15 and flew him to Florida, Hellmann’s family picked him up that afternoon and brought him to their home in Boca Raton. She said Bennett told her his first time back in his apartment was the evening of May 17. She said he told her Hellmann’s engagement ring and electronics and an expensive handbag were gone. She said she told him she’d seen the family in the apartment.
On Friday, May 19, she said, she noticed the key lock on Bennett’s front door had been replaced with an electronic keypad. She said Bennett also told her he planned to contact deputies to file a complaint. The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office confirms he filed a report that day but will not release it, citing an active investigation.
She said Bennett and the baby daughter were at the apartment from May 20 to May 23. She has not seen the baby since the 23rd and assumes Bennett took her back to the Hellmanns.
Also that weekend, Fennimore said, Bennett told her he wanted to search for his wife but had lost his passport when the vessel sank. He said he had obtained a temporary one but that it barred him from leaving the country right away.
Fennimore said Bennett has told her in the past he and Hellmann “always planned to go to Australia with the baby.” She said Hellmann had told her last summer Bennett had asked her but that she had no intention of leaving South Florida because her family is here.
Fennimore said she saw the “official-looking” men with the latex gloves and Bennett out by his car at about 8:30 p.m. Tuesday.
On Wednesday night Mayer said, he was walking his dog and saw Bennett “bringing stuff out. He had someone helping him. They were throwing stuff in the dumpster.”
Fennimore said that, also on Wednesday, she was working from home and saw Bennett going in and out of the apartment. On Thursday, she said, his car was gone. She said she has not seen it, or him, since.