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Misfortune, Murder or Manslaughter?

Back in September, we noted the strange case of Lewis Bennett, his wife of just three months, Isabella Hellman, and their honeymoon-gone-wrong aboard their 37-ft catamaran. The couple were on the way back to Florida on the final leg of a two-week Caribbean cruise in the spring of 2017, when, according to Bennett, he was awoken around midnight by the sound and feel of the boat hitting something.

On Monday, Lewis Bennett pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter at a hearing in Miami, Florida.
© 2018 Broward Sheriff's Office

The last time Bennett had seen his wife on their cat, Surf Into Summer, was at the helm about 8 p.m. the evening before. But when he ran topside, there was no sign of her — and the boat was sinking. Bennett, 41, eventually set off an EPIRB and climbed into the boat’s liferaft with a few belongings. He was rescued by the Coast Guard a few hours later. A four-day search turned up no trace of Hellman, a 40-year-old real-estate agent from Delray Beach, Florida.

During that search, the Coasties did find the half-sunk Surf Into Summer, which they dove on and photographed. There was no damage on either hull that indicated a collision with anything above or below the water. There were, however, indications that “holes had been made from the inside.” A beacon was put aboard but later stopped transmitting, suggesting the boat probably sank.

As if all that weren’t weird enough, among the items Bennett had in the liferaft was a stash of coins that it turned out he’d stolen from a charter boat in St. Maarten. He was put in jail in Florida for that offense. While he was there, the FBI worked the case and eventually charged him with the murder of his wife, citing insurance money and property she owned in Florida among the motives.

Bennett was due to go to trial for second degree murder in December. But on Monday, he pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter for basically doing nothing to look for his wife — not turning the boat around, not shining a light, nothing. He doesn’t even remember calling her name. Bennett also admitted that her loss was foreseeable and caused by his negligence.

The plea, which carries a sentence of no less than seven years, is quite a step down from the original charge of second degree murder, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Bennett, a mining engineer who holds dual citizenship in Australia and the UK, will be sentenced in January. Hellman’s family is proceeding with a civil suit to prevent him from getting any of his wife’s assets.

We will have a more detailed version of this story in an upcoming issue of Latitude.

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