A 41 year-old British sailor, Lewis Bennett has been charged with murdering his wife in the Caribbean on their honeymoon and staging a yacht accident to cover it up.
Ten months ago he had reported his wife Isabella Hellmann, 41, missing from their crashed catamaran off the coast off Cuba. When US Coast Guard rescuers responded, they found Bennett alone in his life raft in May 2017 after the supposed accident, and he claimed his wife had vanished overboard while alone at the helm.
On May 14, which was Mother’s Day in the US, the British-Australian dual citizen and his wife were on the final leg of a belated honeymoon cruise through the northern Caribbean on his 37 ft catamaran, Surf Into Summer. Then on May 15, he made an SOS call to say his wife was missing and his 37-ft catamaran was taking on water.
When the US Coastguard arrived, Bennett told them he had gone to bed in his cabin at 8 p.m. on May 14, exhausted after five days on the water as they sailed from Cuba home to Florida. He said that his wife had been given the helm and left alone in charge of the vessel. He described how he had been woken at around 1 a.m. by the loud thud of the boat hitting an object, and, that when he went on deck, his wife had disappeared.
Bennett, a businessman and mining engineer, fired his emergency positioning beacon and sent out a distress call after he realised the catamaran was taking on water. Two hours later, he was rescued by a US Coastguard helicopter about 30 miles west of the Bahamas but he was without his wife. He was found floating in a life raft 1,000 yards from his half-submerged boat, which he had abandoned after first gathering his possessions. Bennett said his wife had been wearing a life Jacket but after an exhaustive four-day air and sea search for her they never found a trace. The Colombian-born estate agent who Bennett married three months earlier was 5ft 4in and weighed 7st 12lb, and dressed only in light clothing, she would probably only have survived in the water for a few hours if she had been conscious.
Just one day after the Coastguard called off its search for her, Bennett, who is in charge of his wife’s finances, asked the service for a “letter of presumed death” — a document that would speed up the process of sorting out her financial affairs. But Florida law says nobody can be declared legally dead until he or she has been missing for at least five years.
Detectives said they found a stash of silver coins in the raft Bennett was found floating in after his wife’s disappearance. They also uncovered a haul of gold coins in the couple’s home in Delray Beach, Florida.
Bennett said he believed the catamaran had hit something. But investigators say they have found evidence that Bennett had scuttled the catamaran. On Tuesday, Bennett, of Poole, Dorset in England was charged with second-degree murder in a Miami court in Florida, where he was also sentenced to seven months in prison for smuggling $100,000 in gold coins into the US. He will now face trial for his wife’s murder.
In a court document, FBI Special Agent James Kelley said the bureau believes Bennett “knowingly and unlawfully killed” Isabella Hellmann, the mother of his child. According to the FBI, Bennett told investigators he had gone below deck on their boat near the Bahamas and left Hellman above to keep watch. The FBI says he falsely claimed she disappeared after the supposed accident.
Bennett’s wife’s family have also accused him of killing his wife. They said after the accident, he reacted in an unemotional way to his wife’s disappearance. Members of Ms Hellmann’s family have revealed they became dubious about Mr Bennett’s account because of the unemotional way he reacted to the tragedy.
One of his sisters-in-law, Dayana Rodriguez, recalled: “He was calm, he wasn’t crying or anything. When I saw him, I ran to him and I hugged him and I said: ‘Where is Isabella?’ And he said: ‘I don’t know.’ ”
She was dumbfounded by the way her brother-in-law, an experienced seaman, had reacted to his wife’s disappearance. When she asked him why he didn’t stop the boat and drop anchor, he told her “he needed to keep the boat on track”, she said.
She said: “I asked him: ‘Do you think she’s alive? Do you think she’s dead?’ And he said: ‘I think she’s asleep.’ That was his answer.”
After the disappearance, Bennett took their daughter 15-month-old Emelia to his parents in Hampshire and wouldn’t let his wife’s family have access to her. His wife’s sister said her mother had “passed out on the floor” when Mr Bennett had rejected their pleas to keep baby Emelia in Florida, telling them: “I’m leaving and you’re not going to see the baby again.”
Bennett, in turn, has accused his wife’s family of stealing from his home and even called the police on them. He said that while he was looking for his missing wife in hospitals, her family went to his home and took some of his wife’s belongings, including computers, an engagement ring, clothes and handbags.
Isabella’s disappearance remains officially under investigation while her husband has been arrested and charged with second degree murder on suspicion of killing her.