MIAMI – The husband of a Delray Beach woman who disappeared during a sailing trip near the Bahamas has pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter.
Lewis Bennett entered the guilty plea Monday in Miami federal court. He faces a maximum eight-year prison sentence when he is sentenced in January.
According to an FBI criminal complaint filed in February, Bennett, 41, "knowingly and unlawfully killed" Isabella Hellmann while they were sailing from Cuba to Florida in May 2017.
Bennett told the U.S. Coast Guard that he went to sleep on the evening of May 14, leaving his wife at the helm, and woke up early the next morning to the sound of their catamaran crashing. He said the catamaran was taking on water, and Hellmann was nowhere to be seen.
The Coast Guard rescued Bennett from his life raft, which had several personal items on it, including a suitcase and two backpacks.
According to the complaint, "Bennett chose to only take one pre-packed backpack with him at the time he was rescued."
A review of the Coast Guard video and photographs of the capsized catamaran showed that a small portion of each hull was breached.
The damage to both hulls appeared to come from inside the vessel, FBI Special Agent James Kelley wrote in his complaint.
Experts familiar with boating accidents and search-and-rescue procedures told the FBI that the "damage was not catastrophic."
The manufacturer of the catamaran told the FBI escape hatch portholes in the port and starboard aft cabins are below the waterline and should never be opened while the vessel is in the water unless someone is trying to escape through them. Doing so, the manufacturer warned, would cause water to flood the cabins.
When the FBI interviewed Bennett on May 23, "Bennett never mentioned seeing these portholes in the open position, even though he claimed he was in the port aft cabin of the vessel before moving topside and eventually noticing the vessel was taking on water."
An associate professor of naval architecture at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy agreed to review the evidence collected and completed a detailed report of his findings.The professor concluded that it "does not appear the vessel sinking was caused by accidental damage. Rather, it appears the vessel was intentionally scuttled."
He wrote that the "opening of both escape hatches is unexplainable as an accident and defies prudent seamanship."
Bennett told the FBI that he and Hellmann set sail for either Key West or Fort Lauderdale about 5:30 p.m. He said he set the catamaran to auto pilot before having dinner and going to bed about 8 p.m., leaving Hellmann to take watch.
According to the complaint, Bennett said he was awakened by a "crash underneath" a few hours later, so he went to the upper deck, saw that Hellmann wasn't there and that the catamaran was taking on water.
"However, Bennett indicated that he did not try to locate the source of flooding and did not mention taking any steps to stop the vessel from taking on water," Kelley wrote in his complaint.
Bennett said he abandoned the catamaran about 45 minutes to an hour after he woke up.
But, Kelley wrote, Bennett made no efforts to look for Hellmann and didn't use any of the flares on the life raft that could help authorities in the search for her.
"In fact, Bennett stated that once on board the life raft, he cut the line that tethered the life raft to the vessel," Kelley wrote. "Bennett explained that he did this because he was afraid of being pulled under water if the vessel were to sink."
Bennett told the FBI that, before he was rescued, he used a satellite phone to call Hellmann's sister and tell her what happened. He said he then called the Coast Guard.
Kelley said the FBI learned that Bennett didn't activate his satellite phone until he was in Cuba in mid-May after he and Hellmann had traveled from St. Maarten to Puerto Rico and then on to Cuba.
Bennett waiting until the final leg of his voyage to activate the satellite phone "is indicative of the fact that he wanted to ensure his own rescue and survival after murdering his wife and intentionally scuttling his catamaran," Kelley wrote.
Five days after being interviewed by the FBI, Bennett and his daughter took a one-way flight to the United Kingdom and didn't tell Hellmann's family, Kelley wrote.
In September 2017, lawyers for Bennett unsuccessfully filed for a presumptive death certificate for Hellmann.
Under Florida law, Hellmann would have to be missing for five years before being legally presumed dead. The FBI said that Bennett would be entitled to the Delray Beach home that Hellmann owns if she is declared dead.