Eliot Kleinberg @eliotkpbp
Nov 3, 2018 at 5:07 PM
Nov 5, 2018 at 5:54 PM
Lewis Bennett admitted his responsibility in death of his wife, Isabella Hellmann. He could go to prison for eight years.
MIAMI — The family of Isabella Hellmann heard Lewis Bennett say on Monday what they’d been both hoping for, and dreading, for nearly a year and a half: He killed her. Or, at least, his negligence led to her death.In a deal that first surfaced last week, federal prosecutors agreed to reduce their charge from second-degree murder to involuntary manslaughter in the death of Hellmann, his wife. And Bennett agreed to plead guilty. The lanky Brit, now 41, stood Monday with his hands cuffed in front of him in federal court in Miami and heard U.S. District Judge Federico A. Moreno, reading from the charges, ask if he “did unlawfully kill” Hellmann, a suburban Delray Beach real-estate broker, “without malice in the commission of a lawful act, without due caution and circumspection, which might produce death, that is, gross negligence amounting to wanton and reckless disregard for human life.”He replied, “Yes your honor.”Family members sitting in a front row — some listening to a Spanish-English interpreter — watched intently.At the hearing, which lasted about 30 minutes, Moreno set sentencing for Jan 10.
Bennett, who had been set for trial in December on the murder charge and could have gone to prison for life, now faces up to eight years on the lesser conviction. That’s what prosecutors asked for Monday. Defense lawyers will ask for at least seven years.
Also, the dual citizen of the United Kingdom and Australia then would be deported “and could never again come back to the United States,” Moreno said.
INTERACTIVE MAP: The Isabella Hellmann story
The relatives left without commenting. Mitchell Kitroser, a North Palm Beach attorney who has represented Hellmann’s family in the past, said the family was frustrated that the plea means Bennett will never say in detail what happened, but that they were consulted on the deal.
Kitroser read a family statement saying, “Although they already knew, they now have confirmation their beloved daughter and sister, Isabella, is never coming back.”But, he said, “Mr. Bennett can allow Emelia to come home. He can share her with Isabella’s family. We ask that he do this. It’s the decent thing to do. It’s the remorseful thing to do. And it’s the only good thing that can come from such a terrible tragedy.”
Emelia is the couple’s young daughter, whom Bennett took to England soon after the disappearance and who has been with Bennett’s parents.
Kitroser said the family is deciding whether to pursue legal action to control Hellmann’s estate or try to take away Bennett’s parental rights. He said Bennett’s parents have cooperated and the Hellmann family would be willing to go to England to see the child.
“Lewis Bennett will now be held accountable for his wife’s death while on the high seas,” Tom Jones, acting special agent in charge of the FBI’s Miami office, said in a prepared statement. Prosecutors left the courtroom without comment. Defense attorneys were not available.The tale of the woman who vanished at sea, and her mysterious husband, became a sensation on three continents.
The original complaint alleged Bennett had murdered his wife and staged it to look like an accident. Prosecutors never have said how they allege Bennett killed her.
The last time Hellmann’s family heard from her was when she had posted on her Facebook page that she and her husband of three months were savoring their belated honeymoon cruise on Bennett’s catamaran, Surf into Summer. They were about to leave Cuba for the home stretch back to Florida.
They are believed to have pulled out around sunset on Mother’s Day, May 14, 2017.
After midnight, Bennett called the U.S. Coast Guard to say his catamaran had struck something west of the Bahamas and southeast of Key West and was taking on water. And that he’d come topside to find his wife gone.
Days of searching turned up nothing.
In the early hours of May 15, the complaint alleges, Bennett poked holes in both of his catamaran’s hulls from the inside and popped open two portholes below the water line.
It says he later admitted doing almost nothing to find his wife, devoting his efforts to loading a life raft with foodstuffs, water, a satellite phone and a homing device. And some of the tens of thousands of dollars in coins whose 2016 disappearance, while Bennett worked as a mate aboard a yacht in the Caribbean, led to his initial arrest in August 2017. He has been in federal custody in the 14 months since.
Bennett later pleaded guilty. In February, at the same hour he was sentenced to seven months in prison in the coins case, federal prosecutors filed the murder charge.
The murder complaint said getting Hellmann declared dead would immediately gain for Bennett things that were in his wife’s name but not his, such as their condominium and car and a bank account.
Isabella Hellmann mystery spans three continents
On Monday, Bennett did not dispute the recounting by federal prosecutor Kurt Lunkenheimer, who said Hellmann had little or no sailing skills and was a weak swimmer and that Bennett did little in the way of instituting boating-safety practices for his wife.
He said Bennett knew or should have known conditions would be more hazardous on the open water.He said Bennett cannot recall whether he called her name after he came topside. And that he told investigators he did throw a life ring but did not fire a flare or turn the vessel to look for her. He also did not activate his electronic homing device or use his satellite phone. Bennett had denied any foul play in his wife’s disappearance. But from the start, family members questioned that and in some cases called Bennett a murderer.
When Bennett wrote to the Coast Guard within 48 hours of that agency calling off the search for Hellmann, he asked if the agency had the authority to declare her dead, something the murder complaint mentions.
And when he showed up at the Boca Raton home of Isabella’s parents 13 days after her disappearance to pick up his daughter and her things, the family had plenty to say.
In police video, grandmother begs Lewis Bennett not to take baby to England
“Don’t take my baby. Don’t take my baby,” grandmother Amparo Alvarez sobbed in Spanish.
“You already killed my sister. What else do you want. Do you want to kill my mom? Right now?” Dayana Rodriguez, Isabella’s sister, told Bennett.
“I’m going to take Emelia now,” he said. “I want her stuff please now.”
Bennett drove off. Except for moments on internet video, Isabella’s family have not seen Emelia again.
The probate case Bennett filed in Palm Beach County also has been on hold since earlier this year. Bennett’s lawyers in that case repeated Monday they could not comment on the criminal case because it is unrelated.