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Lewis Bennett: Missing woman's husband pleads guilty in coin case

Posted at 10:11 AM, Nov 30, 2017
and last updated 2017-11-30 18:50:15-05

The husband of a Delray Beach woman who went missing at sea has pleaded guilty to a federal charge accusing him of transporting stolen coins valued at $5,000 or more. 

Lewis Bennett will be sentenced on February 12, 2018.

He faces a maximum of 10 years in prison and fine up to $250,000.

Bennett, who has dual citizenship in Australia and the United Kingdom, could be deported after serving his sentence.

Bennett’s wife, Isabella Hellmann, vanished from Bennett's boat in the Florida Straits in May during a trip from St. Maarten to Key West.  

Bennett says he felt the boat hit something, and he was jolted out of bed around 1 a.m. When he looked for Isabella she was gone, he said.

Hellmann's family's hands shook as Bennett pleaded guilty. 

"We had not seen Lewis till today. It was very sad to see him in this situation because I loved him very much like a son and I didn't expect this," said Amparo Alvarez, Hellmann's mother. 

Amparo said the last time she saw Bennett was less than two weeks after her daughter disappeared at sea. He came to her home to take the daughter he shared with Isabella to England. 

"We only want to see Emelia, we don't want anything else. We are very sad," said Alvarez. 

On May 14, Bennett claims he and Hellmann were traveling from Cuba to Key West when their boat hit something in the water. When he went on deck, Bennett claims the boat was taking on water and his wife was gone. 

The Coast Guard rescued Bennett from a life raft where he had put some of his belongings when he abandoned the boat. The Coast Guard later located the life raft and took an inventory of its contents. Federal agents said there were tubes of coins in his life raft. The coins were stolen from a boat in St. Martin in 2016 and the FBI said Bennett was a member of the crew and was the one who was reporting the gold and silver coins stolen. Bennett was arrested in August. 

"It was two tragedies back to back, it's been about 7 months since Isabella has been gone and we don't know anything about what happened to her," said Alvarez. 

The family says they wrote to Bennett in England before he was arrested asking him to allow them to visit Emelia for her first birthday. They said they did not get a response but did receive a photo from him of the little girl. Now they hope they can obtain visitation or temporary guardianship of her. 

Florida law gives them some right to visitation now that one parent has been convicted and the other is missing, but where the baby has been for the last six months changes things. 

"Only by the conviction of the husband at this time does the grandparent have standing," said Joel Weissman, a matrimonial and board-certified family law attorney in West Palm Beach.

Weissman said though, standing does not mean they have jurisdiction in Florida. 

"The statute further requires that the court in Florida determine whether the home state of the child, meaning where the child resided in the last 6 months, is viable," added Weissman.

Meaning the only chance of gaining visitation or temporary guardianship of the child might be to take the case to court in England where the family believes the child is with Bennett's family. Weissman said in a case like this the Florida Department of Children and Families has no jurisdiction.

Amparo said she wants to take care of her granddaughter and believes bringing her to Florida would also allow her to continue a relationship with her father who will likely be in federal prison. 

"If he wants, we could also bring her to see him wherever he will be so he can see how she is doing," said Alvarez. 

It's been seven months since Hellmann disappeared. Amparo feels she lost her daughter and her granddaughter and just wants to be a part of the child's life. 

"We don't know anything about my baby, nothing, nothing," she added.