Nine months after Lewis Bennett's wife disappeared during a honeymoon at sea, he now stands accused of killing her.
Bennett, 40, was taken into custody by the FBI at the federal courthouse in Miami on Tuesday while awaiting sentencing on a theft conviction. He was charged with second-degree murder for his alleged involvement in the death of Isabella Hellmann, 41.
Bennett is accused of killing Hellman with "malice aforethought" and then intentionally sinking the couple's catamaran to make it look like there had been a boating accident, according to the FBI. Authorities did not say how they think Hellmann was killed.
Bennett has told investigators he last saw Hellmann, of Delray Beach, on Mother's Day while cruising the Caribbean on a belated honeymoon voyage in their catamaran, court records show. Bennett said his wife was at the helm and the vessel was on "auto pilot" en route back to Florida as he slept below deck. That's when he heard a thud, he said, and the vessel began to sink.
But a Coast Guard expert found that the couple's boat appeared to have suffered intentional damage on both sides of its hull that was not the result of a collision.
The expert said the damage came "from inside the vessel," according to FBI records. Two escape hatches below the waterline were also found open, which caused the cabin to flood, investigators said, adding they believe the boat was "intentionally scuttled."
The damage alone wouldn't have sunk the vessel had measures been taken to close the hatches, according to an expert and the vessel manufacturer.
"The opening of both escape hatches is unexplainable as an accident and defies prudent seamanship," a U.S. Coast Guard Academy associate professor of Naval Architecture and Ocean Engineering wrote in a report detailing his findings to investigators.
When authorities interviewed Bennett at his home days after being rescued, he said he didn't try to stop the flooding and instead abandoned ship, cutting the tether between his life raft and the capsizing vessel for fear of getting pulled under with it.
Investigators also said Bennett initially told them he did not try searching for his wife or light the flares he had on board to illuminate the area. He also told them he didn't yell for her while in his life raft, the complaint said.
Bennett changed his story when talking to investigators from other agencies, telling them he called out for Hellmann and threw out a life preserver for her, according to the FBI charging document.
Hellmann's family issued a statement through an attorney that said the FBI has confirmed their worst fear -- Hellmann is indeed gone and Bennett is accused of killing her. They also expressed anguish over losing contact with the couple's daughter, Emelia, who was about 10-months-old when her mother went missing.
"This is a tragedy on all levels and the family must now wait for the legal process to move forward," the statement said. "Despite the charge against Mr. Bennett, my clients want to take a moment to acknowledge their appreciation to Mr. Bennett's parents for continuing to send photos of Emelia to them, so they can, at least, see her and know that she is well."
Hellmann's family lost contact with the now-18-month-old girl when Bennett took her overseas. They pleaded "Bring Emelia Back" on a Facebook page they launched after Hellmann's disappearance. They marked each passing month without mother and daughter.
"No matter how this criminal charge resolves, Isabella's family wants Mr. Bennett's parents to know that everyone involved has Emelia's interests close to their hearts," the family statement said. "There will be stressful times ahead for both families and for Emelia as well."
The day after the Coast Guard ended its search for Hellmann, Bennett asked for a letter declaring his wife presumed dead. The agency declined, saying it wasn't authorized to do so.
Less than two weeks after Hellmann disappeared, Bennett flew to his native England on a one-way ticket with daughter, Emelia. He later returned alone to South Florida on Aug. 28 to attend a meeting for the insurance claim he submitted for the loss of his catamaran.
That's when he was arrested in connection with the stolen coins case.
This article was written by Erika Pesantes from Sun Sentinel and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.