#StillMissing Isabella Hellmann. May 15, 2017. Near the Bahama
After 18 months of denying any responsibility for his wife’s disappearance at sea, Lewis Bennett pleaded guilty Monday to involuntary manslaughter.
Federal prosecutors originally charged him with second-degree murder and accused him of staging an unconvincing accident to cover up Isabella Hellmann’s death.
But in the plea agreement finalized Monday, Bennett portrayed his wife’s death as an accident that he did not witness – though he admitted it was foreseeable and caused by his negligence.
Federal prosecutors will recommend he serve eight years in federal prison for the Delray Beach woman’s death when he is sentenced Jan. 10. The defense has agreed not to seek less than seven years in prison. The final decision on punishment lies with U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno.
Bennett, 41, a mining engineer, will be deported after serving his punishment. He has dual citizenship from his native Britain and from Australia.
Hellmann disappeared in the early hours of May 15, 2017, from the couple’s 37-foot catamaran, Surf Into Summer, as the couple sailed near the Bahamas on their way to Florida. They were on a postponed honeymoon trip that included stops in the British and Spanish Virgin Islands, Saint Maarten, Puerto Rico and Cuba.
He swore he had nothing to do with wife’s death at sea. Now he’s expected to plead guilty to manslaughter.
Bennett told investigators at the time that the boat experienced difficulties while he was sleeping below deck and Hellmann was on watch. He said she was missing when he came above deck after a loud noise woke him up.
In court on Monday, he admitted he did not require his wife — a weak swimmer and inexperienced sailor — to wear a life vest or harnesses tethered to their catamaran, all of which were on the vessel.
Bennett, who is a strong swimmer and has extensive training and experience in sailing, also acknowledged he did almost nothing to try to find his wife.
“Mr. Bennett could not recall whether he called out her name. Although Mr. Bennett threw a horseshoe life ring overboard, he did not deploy flares to illuminate the area to look for his wife or to signal his position, nor did he turn the catamaran around to look for her,” according to the plea agreement Bennett signed. “Additionally, Mr. Bennett did not search for her with the catamaran or the dinghy that was attached.”
But he did spend maybe 45 minutes loading up a life raft with food, water, safety devices, a satellite phone – and about $40,000 worth of stolen silver and gold coins.
Several of the Delray Beach woman’s family members were in federal court in Miami on Monday to see Bennett admit guilt to a crime. Some of them cried and murmured when they saw him enter the courtroom.
Bennett, dressed in beige jail scrubs over a brown T-shirt, was shackled and handcuffed to a chain around his waist in court. He appeared to be avoiding making eye contact with his in-laws.
“Guilty, Your Honor,” Bennett said, speaking with an English accent, when the judge asked him how he wanted to plead to the reduced charge of involuntary manslaughter.
“Yes, I understand,” he said several times in response to the judge’s questions.
The couple, who had an infant daughter, had been married for only a few months but their relationship was troubled, according to court records.
Hellmann’s parents, her sisters, brothers-in-law and other relatives left the hearing without commenting to reporters.
Their attorney, Mitchell Kitroser, said the family is frustrated that Bennett has never fully explained precisely what happened to Hellmann, and that he may never have to do so.
But the attorney said prosecutors consulted with the family before the plea agreement was made and that they were willing to accept it. Bennett was originally charged with second-degree murder, which carries a maximum punishment of life in prison.
“As a plea agreement, it’s a compromise,” Kitroser said. “It’s not everything everyone wanted.”
The family is desperate to be more involved in the life of Emelia, Hellmann’s and Bennett’s 2-year-old daughter, he said.
Since Bennett brought the child to live with his parents in the south of England, shortly after her mother died, Hellmann’s family has only been able to “visit” with her during a few FaceTime video calls, the lawyer said.
“They want to hold her, love her,” Kitroser said.
It would be a true sign of remorse, the family believes, if Bennett would allow them to share the child with his parents.
In their statement, they implored Bennett and his family to let Emelia live with them in the U.S.
“If Emelia comes back to them [Hellmann’s family], they will share her with the Bennett family,” Kitroser said.
That includes her father, Bennett, he said. Hellmann’s family is still considering how to go forward with a civil action, in Palm Beach Circuit Court, to try to ensure Bennett does not inherit all of Hellmann’s assets. Kitroser did not rule out a future effort to try to terminate Bennett’s parental rights but said Hellmann’s family believes the little girl should know and love both sides of her family.
Prosecutors had argued in prior court filings that Bennett had a motive to kill his wife, a real estate broker who was born in Colombia but became a U.S. citizen after moving to the U.S.
“[Bennett] and Hellman were undergoing intense marital strife that was causing their marriage to deteriorate. That marital strife concerned disagreements about finances, arguments over a variety of topics, and the defendant’s treatment of Hellman,” prosecutors wrote in court records filed earlier this year.
“[His motive] was to remove the marital strife between them, enable him to inherit her estate, obtain complete control over the finances, and allow him to live his life as he pleased without any input from Hellman.”
On the day his wife disappeared, Bennett claimed he was awakened by a crashing noise but could not find his wife. After realizing the vessel was sinking, he said he gathered his belongings and abandoned ship.
He sent out an emergency alert about 30 miles from Cay Sal Bank in the Bahamas. He also made a phone call and reported that he was in distress on a life raft.
Hellmann’s body was never found and she is presumed dead. She was 41.
Federal investigators and Hellmann’s family did not believe Bennett’s version of events.
Prosecutors said they have evidence that the damage inflicted on the catamaran appeared to be intentional, not accidental.
They told the FBI that video and photographs of the capsized vessel appeared to show that a small portion of each hull was damaged in nearly the same location — and that the damage came from inside the catamaran. Two escape hatches were also open, which would cause water to enter the vessel, they said.
Bennett is already serving seven months in the Federal Detention Center in downtown Miami for transporting stolen goods – the silver and gold coins that disappeared from a vessel he worked on as a crew member in 2016 in St. Maarten and showed up again among the belongings that Bennett rescued from the catamaran.
www.sun-sentinel.com/local/palm-beach/fl-ne-lewis-bennett-manslaughter-plea-wife-boat-20181105-st... ... See MoreSee Less
7 days ago
He's a thief, pathological liar & murderer. He should have received life behind bars. Prayers for her family and her little girl 💗
#StillMissing Chip Campbell - since 3/5/16 - From Milton, FLThis is my brother, Chip. He has been missing since March 2016 under very suspicious circumstances. Please share his official Klaas Kids missing person's flyer. He is insulin dependent diabetic and recently diagnosed with diabetic seizures. Please share. ... See MoreSee Less
2 weeks ago
No updates, still missing ?
Last seen on video at circle k Milton, Fl March 8.
Thank you for sharing
Not as yet
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WEAR ABC 3 News, Pensacola WKRG FOX10 News NBC 15, WPMI - TV Mobile NewsRadio 92.3 Cat Country 98.7 NorthEscambia Walton County Sheriff, Michael A. Adkinson, Jr. Santa Rosa County Sheriff's Office FL Milton Post 1370 WCOA Talk 103.7 790AM CBS News ... See MoreSee Less
2 weeks ago
Retweeted #RockOneSock (@MissingKids):
Lachaela was last seen on May 18, 2018. She may still be in the local area of Fort Walton, #Florida. She may be in the need of medical attention.
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6 months ago