DELRAY BEACH – Friday’s all-day raid of Isabella Hellmann’s suburban Delray Beach condominium dispelled any idea that authorities are satisfied the woman’s vanishing was an accident.
About 20 FBI investigators Friday morning pushed through yellow evidence tape that the agency had used weeks earlier to seal the front door of the unit, which Hellmann shared with Lewis Bennett, her husband since February and the father of their 10-month-old daughter.
FBI spokesman Michael D. Leverock said Friday morning in a statement that the agency “initiated a court-authorized search” at about 9 a.m. as “part of the investigation into the disappearance of Isabella Hellmann.”
Bennett has told the U.S. Coast Guard he was awakened early on May 15 — one month ago Thursday — after the 37-foot catamaran Surf into Summer struck something about 30 miles west of Cay Sal in the Bahamas.
He said he came topside to find that the vessel was taking on water and Hellmann was gone. A Coast Guard helicopter rescued Bennett in a life raft about three hours later.
A four-day Coast Guard search failed to find Hellmann, 41. Both the Coast Guard and the FBI confirmed May 26, eight days after the search was called off, that they were conducting a “missing person investigation.”
Neither agency has said whether Bennett is a target of their investigation or even if they suspect foul play.
But on June 1, the FBI sealed the front door of the couple’s condo at Pine Ridge at Delray with the yellow evidence tape.
On Friday morning, neighbor Anne Fennimore, whose condo is on the second story immediately above Hellmann’s residence, told The Palm Beach Post she and other neighbors were ordered to stay inside as agents approached the front door downstairs.
“One yelled that they had a warrant to search the place, and then broke the (tape) to get inside,” Fennimore told The Post. She said she saw six crime-scene technicians in latex gloves enter the condo. They appeared to find no one inside, she said.
At the complex, near the intersection of Atlantic Avenue and Florida’s Turnpike, federal authorities had arrived in unmarked black SUVs and an unmarked sedan pulling a small trailer containing items marked “investigative material.” Palm Beach County sheriff’s vehicles blocked access.
“To see this happening in this development is surprising,” said Thomas O’Grady, who lives about a block north of Hellmann’s condominium. “It’s a quiet neighborhood.”
Late in the day, investigators made several trips from the residence to their vehicles, loaded down with items wrapped in evidence bags. They drove off at about 5:30 p.m., 8½ hours after they’d started.
Leverock said Friday morning that the FBI would not be providing reporters with any documents or details for now but added that “there is no public safety issue related to the search.”
Asked specifically if the agency could speak to the whereabouts of either Hellmann or her husband, Leverock had no comment.
The Coast Guard on Friday said it continued to work with the FBI but had no comment.
The Coast Guard has confirmed it has lost track of the catamaran. And a relative of Hellman’s has said authorities have told the family the boat sank in more than 4,000 feet of water.
On May 24, the Coast Guard said responders inspected the boat “the best they could from the surface” and never saw what it might have struck. But the agency did say at the time that the hulls had neither visible holes nor obvious places where water could have filled them. A Coast Guard photo shows the catamaran upside down with one pontoon below the surface and the other above the water line. Another shows the entire boat floating just below the surface.
On Thursday, family and friends used the one-month anniversary of the disappearance to post videos on a “Find Isabella” Facebook page.
Friends have said the family fears Bennett and the baby have left the United States. Family members, friends and neighbors have said Hellmann told them she and her husband argued regularly over Bennett’s desire to return with her and the baby to Australia; Bennett has dual British-Australian citizenship.
Sources confirmed last week to The Australian, that country’s national newspaper — which has been working in partnership with The Palm Beach Post — that Bennett was not there.
During a May 28 confrontation with Bennett at the Boca Raton home of Hellmann’s relatives, one of her sisters screamed accusations that Bennett killed her sister, a police report said.
The Post has been unable to reach Bennett, 40. He did tell a DailyMail.com reporter at his condominium, for a May 30 story, that federal investigators “haven’t accused me of anything” but that “I understand why they have to investigate and that is fair enough. I have got nothing to hide. They have to do what they have to do.”
The family repeatedly has not responded to inquires from The Palm Beach Post, except for brief exchanges early in the search and again this past week.