Tragic tale of love, loss and a bag of stolen coins
IT WAS meant to be a belated honeymoon cruise through the Caribbean, but it ended with a sunken yacht, a missing wife and a bag full of stolen coins.
Today, former Gold Coast businessman Lewis Bennett, 41, is expected to be sentenced in a Florida court over the death of his wife of three months, whose body has never been found.
Late last year, Bennett admitted involuntary manslaughter after his Colombian wife Isabella Hellmann vanished on their cruise near Cuba.
Bennett had claimed Hellmann fell off their 37ft catamaran when they hit a mystery object in the dead of night while he was asleep below deck in May 2017.
He admitted he never asked her to wear a life jacket even though she was a weak swimmer and acknowledged he did almost nothing to find her, instead scuttling the yacht and escaping in a dinghy filled with stolen gold coins.
Police accused Bennett of murdering his wife as their relationship grew increasingly acrimonious while they lived with their daughter in Florida - but the charge was downgraded and he avoided a trial.
The couple started their expedition in the Caribbean island of St Maarten in April 2017, before sailing the catamaran Surf Into Summer to Puerto Rico and Cuba.
They then left for their home in Delray Beach, Florida.
According to court documents, experienced sailor Bennett, who has Australian and British citizenship, was awoken on May 15, 2017, when he heard a loud noise while resting in their cabin.
He said he climbed to the exterior of the boat and observed that the sails and rigging were loose, the helm of the vessel was unmanned, and his wife - who had limited emergency sailing procedure knowledge - was not there.
He also told investigators "there is a possibility that she may have (fallen) in the water due to an accident with the mast hitting her".
Bennett said he could not recall whether he called out for his wife, he did not deploy flares to illuminate the area to look for Hellmann or to signal his position in the open water.
The court heard Bennett did not search for his wife with either the catamaran or the attached dinghy, nor did he immediately activate any emergency equipment or raise the alarm.
He later abandoned the 37ft vessel and boarded the life raft.
The FBI says an inspection of the catamaran before it sank showed portholes below the waterline had been opened and damage to the twin hulls appeared to have been caused from the inside, meaning the boat may have been intentionally scuttled.
It was not until Bennett boarded the life raft that he called for help and reported his wife missing, approximately 45 minutes after he woke up in the cabin.
Two hours later, at about 4.30am he was rescued - safe and sound, but alone - by a US Coastguard helicopter about 50km west of the Bahamas. He was floating in a life raft about 1km from the now half-submerged boat.
An exhaustive four-day air and sea search for his wife never found a trace. Dressed only in light clothing, she would probably only have survived in the water for a few hours if she had been conscious.
Prosecutors initially alleged he murdered her and deliberately scuttled the vessel to end his "marital strife", thus inheriting her apartment where they lived in Delray Beach and the contents of her bank account.
Investigators also discovered that Bennett was smuggling rare coins during his rescue, which they alleged could have been a further motive to kill her.
Bennett had said the coins, worth nearly $100,000, had been stolen from a former employer in St Maarten in 2016.
He admitted transporting the coins, and was convicted and sentenced to seven months' jail. He faces a maximum eight-year prison term when he is sentenced for the death of his wife.
Bennett, a mining engineer, had told the FBI that he and Hellmann, a South Florida real estate agent, had left their infant daughter, Emelia, with her family in Florida.
Hellmann's family have now threatened a civil law suit to ensure Bennett does not inherit her assets. In a statement issued through their lawyer in November, Hellmann's parents and sisters said their "hearts are broken (after) confirmation that their beloved daughter and sister … was taken from us by her husband, Lewis Bennett".
"The pain he has caused them is unbearable and never goes away.
"There is nothing that Lewis can do to ease the pain he has caused them by taking Isabella from them."
Other members of Hellmann's family have revealed they became dubious about Bennett's account because of the unemotional way he reacted to the tragedy.
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.
Before he was arrested by the FBI, Bennett flew the couple's two-year-old daughter Emilia to Southampton in England where she is being looked after by his parents.
Florida attorney Fajardo Orshan said: "Although nothing can ever erase the pain and suffering caused by Lewis Bennett's criminal acts, the US Attorney's Office and our law enforcement partners hope that the defendant's admission of guilt is a step toward justice for the victim, Ms Isabella Hellmann, and her family.
"The federal government remains committed to the safety and security of our US citizens, whether they are at home in South Florida or travelling on the high seas."