Foreign National Pleads Guilty to Involuntary Manslaughter on the High Seas
Lewis Bennett, 41, a dual citizen of Australia and the United Kingdom, pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter for killing his wife, Isabella Hellman, while on board a sailing vessel on the high seas.
Ariana Fajardo Orshan, U.S. Attorney of the Southern District of Florida, Tom Jones, Special Agent in Charge, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Miami Field Office, and Zinnia P. James, Special Agent in Charge, U.S. Coast Guard Investigative Service (CGIS), Southeast Region, made the announcement.
Bennett pleaded guilty to a superseding information charging him with one count of involuntary manslaughter of Ms. Hellman, a naturalized U.S. citizen, on the high seas, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 1112 (Case No. 18-CR-20136). He is scheduled to be sentenced by U.S. District Court Judge Federico A. Moreno in Miami, on January 10, 2019 at 9:45 a.m. Bennett faces a maximum statutory sentence of eight years in prison.
“Although nothing can ever erase the pain and suffering caused by Lewis Bennett’s criminal acts, the U.S. 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 Hellman, and her family,” stated U.S. Attorney Fajardo Orshan. “The federal government remains committed to the safety and security of our U.S. citizens, whether they are at home in South Florida or traveling on the high seas.”
“Lewis Bennett will now be held accountable for his wife's death while on the high seas” said Tom Jones, acting Special Agent in Charge, FBI Miami. "We commend the U.S. Coast Guard for their professionalism and close cooperation throughout this case."
“The arduous work by all key partners in this investigation demonstrates the impact of solid investigative effort and the strength of collaborative enforcement,” stated Zinnia James, Special Agent in Charge CGIS.
According to the court docket, including an agreed upon factual proffer, Bennett is an experienced sailor who received a certification from the Royal Yachting Association in the United Kingdom as a Coastal Skipper. This training included instruction on emergency procedures such as man overboard protocols and night sailing safety. Bennett also had hands-on sailing experience on the open water for extended periods of time, including a three month voyage from St. Maarten to Australia. In contrast to Bennett, his wife had not been trained in emergency sailing procedures, did not have a sailing certification and had substantially less sailing experience.
In late April 2017, Bennett and Ms. Hellman set sail from St. Maarten on board the vessel “Surf Into Summer,” with the intention of sailing to the United States. On May 14, 2017, Bennett and Ms. Hellman departed Cuba on Bennett’s catamaran (“the vessel”), bound for Florida. At approximately 8 p.m. that evening, Bennett had Ms. Hellman take over control of the vessel. Bennett did not require Ms. Hellman to wear a life jacket, harness, or personal locator beacon (“PLB”) while at the helm during this night watch.
In the early morning hours of May 15, 2017, Bennett was awoken by a loud noise, while the vessel was on the high seas. 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 was not there. Bennett could not recall whether he called out for his wife. He did not deploy flares to illuminate the area in order to look for Ms. Hellman or to signal his position in the open water for safety and/or recovery. Additionally, Bennett did not search for Ms. Hellman with either the catamaran or the attached dinghy (a small boat). Further, Bennett did not immediately activate any emergency equipment or utilize the satellite phone to signal and/or call for help to locate Ms. Hellman. Bennett ultimately abandoned the vessel and boarded the life raft. When Bennett abandoned the vessel, the catamaran and the dinghy attached to it were inoperable. The factual proffer also states that the United States has evidence in the form of expert testimony that the catamaran was intentionally scuttled.
Before Bennett abandoned the catamaran and boarded the life raft, Bennett loaded various items from the vessel onto the life raft, including a suitcase, two duffle bags, a backpack, water, unexpended parachute flares, a radio transmitter, buoys, food, and silver coins. It was not until Bennett boarded the life raft that he called for help and reported his wife missing, approximately 45 minutes after he was awakened.
The U.S. Coast Guard received an emergency alert from Bennett when he was approximately 26 nautical miles west of Cay Sal Bank, Bahamas, upon the high seas and in international waters. A Coast Guard helicopter ultimately rescued Bennett shortly after 4:30 a.m. and transported him to the Marathon Jet Center, in Marathon, Florida, which is located in the Southern District of Florida.
In the following days, Coast Guard ships, planes, and helicopters searched over approximately 4,980 square miles. On the evening of May 18, 2017, the Coast Guard suspended the search. To date, Ms. Hellman has not been found and has not contacted any of her family. Based on all evidence, Ms. Hellman is dead.
According to the stipulated factual proffer, Ms. Hellman’s death occurred as a result of Bennett’s knowledge of circumstances that existed that could have reasonably enabled him to foresee the threat to life to which his acts or failures to act might subject another, namely Ms. Hellman; and his gross negligence, amounting to wanton and reckless disregard for human life, in acting or failing to act as a result of that.
Bennett was arrested in connection with criminal charges related to these events in Miami on February 20, 2018.
U.S. Attorney Fajardo Orshan commended the investigative efforts of the FBI and CGIS in this matter. This case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Kurt K. Lunkenheimer and Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily A. Rose.