Mystery: Isabella Hellmann and Lewis Bennett were on a belated honeymoon cruise
A Briton whose wife mysteriously vanished as the newly-weds sailed off the Cuban coast could plead guilty to an allegation he was smuggling stolen coins when he was rescued alone.
Lewis Bennett, 40, will appear in custody in a Miami court for a change of plea hearing on December 11 over the gold and silver coins allegedly from a batch worth up to $100,000 that he previously reported stolen from an employer.
The charge carries a maximum sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment and was brought by the FBI as it investigates the disappearance of Isabella Hellmann, the mother of Bennett’s baby.
Rescuers found the British-Australian dual citizen alone in his life raft on May 15 after he made an SOS call to say Ms Hellmann, 41, was missing and his 37-ft catamaran was taking on water.
Detectives said they found a stash of silver coins in the raft before uncovering a haul of gold coins in the couple’s home in Delray Beach, Florida.
Bennett’s lawyer previously said he would deny a charge of transporting the coins while knowing that they were stolen and taken by fraud and a trial was set for December, but a judge earlier this month ordered for him to be given an opportunity to change his plea.
Capsized: Bennett’s abandoned catamaran
On May 14 — Mother’s Day in the US — the British yachtsman 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.
As Lewis Bennett later recounted to the US Coastguard, he had gone to bed in his cabin at 8pm, exhausted after five days on the water as they sailed from Cuba to Key West in Florida.
Bennett said that his wife, Isabella Hellmann, had been given the helm and left alone in charge of the vessel.
He described how he had been woken at around 1am by the loud thud of the boat hitting an object, and, that when he went on deck, his wife had disappeared.
Mr Bennett, a 40-year-old businessman and mining engineer from Poole, Dorset, 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 — safe and sound, but alone — by a US Coastguard helicopter about 30 miles west of the Bahamas.
He was floating in a life raft 1,000 yards from the now half-submerged boat, which he had abandoned after first gathering his possessions.
He said he believed the catamaran had hit something.
He also told investigators that the mast had been loose and ‘there is a possibility that she may have (fallen) in the water due to an accident with the mast hitting her’.
An exhaustive four-day air and sea search for his 41-year-old wife, a Colombian-born estate agent he had married three months earlier, never found a trace — even though he said she had been wearing a life jacket.
At 5ft 4in and 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.
The tragedy has left motherless the couple’s daughter Emelia, now 13 months, who was being looked after by Isabella’s family in Florida.
This week, the mystery of what exactly happened that night was spectacularly revived as Lewis Bennett was arrested and put behind bars in Florida, charged with a completely different crime.
He has been accused of transporting stolen goods worth at least $5,000, a charge that prosecutors say relates to the theft of a hoard of missing gold and silver coins in total worth about $100,000.
Intriguingly, they had gone missing from another yacht in the Caribbean last year at a time when Lewis Bennett was sailing it on its owner’s behalf.
In court papers filed in Florida, prosecutors mentioned that the Coastguard diver who dropped into the sea to rescue Mr Bennett from his life-raft reported that the yachtsman had taken only one item off the raft with him, a backpack that was ‘unusually heavy’.
It was never searched, but among his belongings left on the raft the Coastguard found nine plastic tubes holding 158 silver coins celebrating the Lunar Year of the Horse, produced by Britain’s Royal Mint in 2014, and 77 Canadian Maple Leaf silver coins.
Their estimated value was $4,730.
The Coastguard returned the coins to Mr Bennett, but almost immediately discovered they might have been stolen.
The case was handed to the FBI, which raided the home in Delray Beach, Florida, which Mr Bennett shared with his wife.
There, according to court papers, they found 162 gold coins — worth more than $26,000 — ‘hidden’ in a pair of boat shoes in a cupboard in the master bedroom.
An exhaustive four-day air and sea search for his 41-year-old wife, a beautiful Colombian-born estate agent (pictured) he had married three months earlier, never found a trace
Prosecutors say the owner of a Gibraltar-registered yacht, Kitty R, has confirmed that all the gold and silver coins discovered in Bennett’s possession were just a ‘portion’ of a collection stolen from the Kitty R while it was moored off the Caribbean island of St Maarten in May 2016.
Mr Bennett had been sailing the boat at the time, and filed a police report about a burglary which had occurred, he claimed, when neither he nor the yacht’s owner had been on board.
The burglars took the coins from their hiding place by breaking open the vessel’s floor beneath a pallet of food.
Investigators say about a third of the coins have still not been recovered.
Mr Bennett, who was remanded in custody by a court in Key West at the end of August, faced calls from the prosecution at another hearing that he be denied bail because he’s a flight risk.
Lawyers for his wife’s family believe the couple’s daughter, Emelia, is being looked after by Mr Bennett’s parents in Hampshire.
Marc Shiner, Mr Bennett’s lawyer, said his client will deny the charge against him over the coins at a plea hearing on September 11.
He was arrested on Monday night by FBI agents after reportedly flying in from the UK for an interview with an insurance company.
According to papers filed at court by his sister-in-law Adriana Difeo, in a legal challenge relating to Mr Bennett’s control of his wife’s finances, just one day after the Coastguard called off its search for her, Bennett asked the service for a ‘letter of presumed death’ — a document that would speed up the process of sorting out her financial affairs.
(In fact Florida law says nobody can be declared legally dead until he or she has been missing for at least five years.)
The latest colourful allegations about plundered boats and stolen treasure have, of course, only deepened the riddle over Ms Hellmann’s fate.
The Coastguard returned the coins to Mr Bennett (pictured), but almost immediately discovered they might have been stolen
Isabella’s disappearance remains officially under investigation, although no law enforcement agency has said whether or not Mr Bennett is a suspect.
However, in a police report relating to the Briton, an officer said he had been told by the US Marshals Service that Mr Bennett was being investigated over his missing spouse.
In an eight-hour search of his car and home in June, FBI agents were spotted leaving his £90,000 flat — bought jointly with his wife last year — with numerous boxes.
Meanwhile, prosecutors chose to include in their outline of the stolen coins case some fascinating travel records.
These show that Mr Bennett and Isabella flew to St Maarten in March this year — ten months after the ‘burglary’ on the yacht Kitty R — and again at the end of April.
What remains clear is that — before this week’s arrest — there has been a very public fallout between Mr Bennett and Isabella’s family, with both sides making accusations against the other.
On the one side, her family have accused him to his face, and in front of police, of killing her.
He in turn has accused them of stealing from his home.
On May 28, he contacted police in Boca Raton, Florida, where — with his daughter Emelia in tow — he was visiting one of his wife’s sisters.
He requested the presence of officers as he recovered possessions belonging to his wife — including computers, an engagement ring, clothes and handbags — which he said her family had taken from his home while he was in Cuba after Isabella went missing, scouring its hospitals for his wife.
According to police, as soon as Mr Bennett arrived, his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Rodriguez screamed at him to get out and ‘repeatedly stated that Lewis killed her sister’.
Mr Bennett and the accompanying officer decided it was best not to pursue the matter and left empty-handed.
Other 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. Another 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.
‘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.’
Bennett also told investigators that the mast had been loose and ‘there is a possibility that she may have (fallen) in the water due to an accident with the mast hitting her’. Pictured: The family home in Delray Beach
She 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.’
In June, weeks after Isabella Hellmann’s disappearance, her oldest sister, Adriana Difeo, went to court in order to take over her sister’s finances from Mr Bennett. That case has yet to be settled. Asked about her sister’s death, Ms Difeo said yesterday: ‘We don’t know the truth yet. We’re waiting for the FBI report.’ For his part, Mr Bennett has insisted he is entirely innocent of any involvement in his wife’s death, and that it was ‘absolutely devastating’ to lose the ‘soulmate I had always searched for’.
Two months ago, in his first public formal comment since his wife’s disappearance, he wrote on Facebook that he had returned to Britain with his daughter ‘to seek the comfort of my friends and family’.
He added that he was taking ‘a time for reflection’ that he hoped might ‘lessen the negativity that I have encountered in this emotionally charged situation, and hope in the future a reconciliation will occur for all parties concerned, if not for my sake but for Emelia’s’.
In recent years, he has preferred to travel far and wide. Having studied at Bangor University in Wales, and then the Camborne School of Mines, part of Exeter University, he moved to Australia, where he worked for several years in mining in Queensland before setting up a solar power business.
He met Isabella Hellmann — who was living in Florida at the time —on the internet four years ago, although friends say he hardly ever went to visit her in America, instead having her fly out to meet him in places like Tahiti and Singapore, when he put into port on the yachts on which he was then working.
According to Sarah Cortes, a close friend at the Chase bank where Isabella used to work as a member of the counter staff, her relationship with the British engineer ‘started as a fling’ but soon became serious, and that she went to meet his parents at their home near Southampton. Ms Hellmann told her friend that Bennett had come into some ‘family money’ and poured most of it into buying the catamaran, which he used to skipper for paying clients. Hellmann’s baby, said Ms Cortes, was her ‘last shot at being a mother’.
Ms Cortes claims the couple didn’t have an easy relationship as parents, disagreeing over how to bring up their child.
Mr Bennett, she said, was a very hands-on father, and the couple argued over everything from whether to give the girl an English or Latino name to what sort of nappies she should wear, and whether to pierce her ears (a Colombian tradition which Mr Bennett hotly opposed).
More fundamentally, they were at odds over where they should live, according to Ms Cortes. Mr Bennett, she added, had been determined to move back to Australia, while his wife was equally set on staying in the U.S., said her friend.
Despite their differences, the couple were married in February in Atlanta, Georgia.
It was apparently an impulse decision, with Ms Hellmann texting her shocked friend to say: ‘Hey, I just got married.’
As for the last days of the fateful honeymoon cruise, nearly two weeks before she vanished, Isabella posted her last message on Facebook in Puerto Rico, saying simply: ‘Another day in paradise.’
Her friend Sarah Cortes says Ms Hellmann’s family received a final call from the missing woman at 8.30pm on the night she disappeared, to say they had had trouble with the boat’s satellite phone, but it was now fixed. ‘We’re heading home,’ she told them.
As for Mr Bennett, he does not seem to have been keen to hang around in America.
David Mayer, a neighbour of Bennett in Florida, recounted offering his condolences to him just two days after his wife’s disappearance. ‘He said: “Yeah. I’m going to be leaving for England. I’ve got to move on with my life,” ’ he recalled.
Isabella Hellmann’s family clearly have their own views on what became of her, while her friends simply say they are holding out for a ‘miracle’. But more than three months after that mysterious night in the Caribbean, that seems less likely with every passing day.
Intriguingly, photographs taken at the time have now confirmed that there was a sizeable hole in the starboard hull of the catamaran.
But despite having attached a tracking beacon to the ship, the Coastguard lost track of it, and it’s presumed to have sunk into the depths of the ocean — perhaps taking with it any hope of finding out what became of Lewis Bennett’s wife.