Miami Robbery Mayhem

A Crime Wave Rages and Recedes
(“Tourist Trap,” Forensic Files)

The whole world pretty much already knew how bad the smash-and-grab tourist robbery epidemic in Miami, Florida, had become by the time of Helga Luest’s 1993 ordeal — the subject of the Forensic Files episode “Tourist Trap.”

Helga Luest during her appearance on Forensic Files
Helga Luest during her appearance on Forensic Files in 2003

Two years earlier, another attack had made international headlines when thieves shot and robbed two British visitors, John and Rose Hayward; fortunately, they survived.

And that was only one of the six southern Florida tourist robberies taking place within a single 24-hour period in 1991. Between 1992 and 1993, the continuing horror show claimed the lives of nine visitors — including Barbara Jensen Miller, 39, who died when a vehicle driven by escaping thieves ran over her in front of her mother and two children.

Shortly before a would-be thief clamped onto Luest’s arm with his jaw as she hit the gas pedal and sped away in a rental car, a German man had died at the hands of an assailant on Miami’s Dolphin Expressway.

Futile prep. Uwe-Wilhelm Rakebrand recognized a bump-and-rob attempt and, as law enforcement recommended, he continued driving, refusing to stop his Alamo rental vehicle.

Instead of giving up, the teen-aged thieves pulled their truck alongside Rakebrand’s red Toyota Corolla. Patsy Jones fired a .30-caliber sawed-off rifle into the front seat, killing the 33-year-old agricultural engineer.

Newspapers reported on the irony of the murder occurring just moments after Rakebrand’s wife had finished reading off a list of tourism safety tips from the Greater Miami Visitors and Convention.

At the time, I remember thinking that instead of printing out pamphlets, the city should concentrate on arresting robbers and keeping them incarcerated.

Conspicuous. Likewise, there was a push for companies to remove stickers and license plates that identified their vehicles as rental miami-welcomcars. Again, that seemed like a weak remedy: Even with those deterrents, wasn’t there still the same population of thieves out there who would simply find other ways to intimidate and rob?

As an Alamo spokesperson told the LA Times in 1991, “It’s not as though tourists are not spottable in unmarked cars. They have a lot of luggage, they dress differently than you or I, they carry maps and cameras.” She also asserted that thieves were identifying tourists at rental car lots and following them.

Even those who didn’t conspicuously look like tourists couldn’t help but be tailed once thieves saw them leave rental car facilities. As the New York Times reported the day after the Rakebrand crime:

The police said Mr. Rakebrand had not demonstrated any of the behavior that typically draws the attention of criminals to tourists. He was driving at a normal speed, not slowly as if bewildered, and his valuables had been placed out of sight. The police said his car had no emblems or special license plates identifying it as a rental vehicle.

I’ll revisit that issue in a moment, but first the story of Helga Luest as told in “Tourist Trap.”

Sheer brutality. There’s plenty of irony in her tale as well. Luest worked as a  producer for German TV.

She was assigned to cover the Sunshine State crime woes and even produced a segment about tourist safety for German television. Coincidentally, Luest and her mother, who both lived in the U.S. on the East Coast, had made arrangements for a vacation to the Florida Keys before the crime wave hit. They decided to go ahead with the trip anyway.

Unfortunately, forewarned wasn’t entirely forearmed. The women got lost near Miami International Airport and pulled onto a side street to turn around. Two assailants suddenly materialized and blocked their rental car.

One of the attackers kicked through the driver’s side window, reached in, disabled the horn, shifted the gear to park, and began punching Luest while the other yelled threats at her mother.

Repeat performance. Luest fought back and, as mentioned, one of the men — later identified as 23-year-old Stanley Cornet — bit down on her arm and managed to hang on for a few moments as she raced from the scene.

The assault left Luest with a dislocated jaw, injuries to her back and neck, and a large bite wound. She retained a lack of feeling on one side of her face, according to her interview on Forensic Files.

The 5-foot-6-inch Cornet apparently bounced off the pavement without major injuries, because he felt well enough four days later to bite and attempt to rob another motorist. The victim’s son, a Miami police officer, intervened and took Cornet into custody.

A forensic odontologist made a cast of Cornet’s teeth and determined a match to Luest’s bite wound.

Mystery accomplice. Unlike many other tourist robbery victims, Luest was willing to travel back to Miami to assist with the investigation and legal actions against her assailant.

(The physical distance between the victims’ homelands and south Florida wasn’t the only detriment to prosecution during the crime wave. Thieves hoped that the dramatic and brutal nature of the smash-and-grab jobs would leave their prey too shaken up or scared to testify, according to the 2006 book Crime Scenes: Revealing the Science Behind the Evidence by Paul Roland.)

Cornet, who had prior convictions, ended up receiving life in prison. Honor among thieves does occasionally exist, it seems, because he never gave up the name of his accomplice in the Luest attack.

Stanley Cornet is serving his sentence in Hardee Correctional Institution in Blowling Green, Forida
Stanley Cornet is serving his life sentence in Hardee Correctional Institution in Bowling Green, Florida

The Forensic Files episode concludes by noting that the south Florida tourist-robbery wave ended after companies stopped marking rental cars as such and police increased their vigilance around rental parking lots.

Finally, results. I did a little research and found that southern Florida’s efforts to protect travelers were more extensive than what the show detailed. The state and Broward County put up additional lighting and signs to help tourists avoid getting lost. The rental car agencies began playing audio messages about safety on their PA systems.

Rewards were offered to members of the public who helped the police apprehend robbers.

Most important, law enforcement invested half a million dollars in a multi-jurisdicion task force to prevent crimes against tourists — and did, in fact, make hundreds of arrests within a few months.

In 1994, tourist robberies in Dade County dropped 58 percent from the previous year.

An upcoming post will offer an update on Helga Luest, who lives in the Washington, D.C., area and has become an advocate for people suffering from the effects of trauma.

Until then, cheers. R.R.

Update: Read the Q&A with Helga Luest.

2 thoughts on “Miami Robbery Mayhem”

  1. Thanks so much for revisiting this story — I had forgotten about the Miami tourist robbery crime wave, I’m sorry to admit. Not to be flippant about it, but when a rash of similar crimes like this occurs, it seems like criminals must get together at an annual convention to discuss the favored M.O. for the upcoming crime season. “Keynote Address: Tourist Smash-And-Grab — Opportunities and Challenges.” Good for Helga Luest that she has chosen to redeem her experience by helping others who have been traumatized.

  2. A ways back a friend visited Key West, and loved the way all the rental cars were bright red. I later learned that by having fleets of red rental cars, it’s especially easy for thieves to identify tourists.

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