Helga Luest: Miami Survivor’s Tale

Q&A with an Advocate for  Trauma Victims
(“Tourist Trap,” Forensic Files)

Amid the violence of the Miami tourist-robbery epidemic, Helga Luest’s case stands out as something of an anomaly. As recapped in the November 10th blog post, Luest and her mother faced attackers in stereo, one on either side of their car.

Helga Luest in 2016

The unusual part was that Stanley Cornet and his accomplice seemed caught up in brutality for brutality’s sake. “We offered to give them everything to leave us alone,” Luest recalls, “but they said they were going to kill us.” The pair either forgot, or never intended, to steal anything from the women.

Instead, Cornet and an unidentified associate pummeled them. Cornet bit down on Luest’s arm, piercing the muscle.

Luest subsequently apppeared on “Tourist Trap,” the Forensic Files episode that told the story of the early-1990s South Florida crime wave that shocked the world. At the time, nightly newscasts were reporting story after story about brazen thieves ambushing travelers in daylight, smashing the windows of their rental cars, and occasionally killing those who resisted and some who didn’t.

Today, Luest lives in the Washington, D.C., area and is a senior manager at research and consulting firm Abt Associates. “Tourist Trap,” filmed in 2003, briefly mentioned the other work she started, as an advocate for people living with the effects of trauma.

To catch up on her work on behalf of victims since then, I spoke to Luest last month. She also discussed the Florida robbery epidemic, the assault by Cornet, and her efforts to ensure he stays tucked away in prison forever. Edited excerpts of our conversation follow.

One theory said that assailants made the South Florida robberies so violent to make victims afraid to revisit the crimes by working with investigators, testifying, etc. Do you think that’s valid? I know that in my case, the nature and intensity of the violence was largely due to the assailants’ being on drugs.

But yes, tourists were specifically targeted because they were less likely to come back to prosecute. The theory was that tourists were targeted because they would be so traumatized that they would go back home and stay there.

How much time was there between the attack on you and your mother and the jailing of Stanley Cornet? It was a matter of a week or two weeks because he was apprehended while attacking a police officer’s mother — whom Cornet was robbing and assaulting [including a biting]. It’s very unusual for a victim to be bitten during a crime, so that made the link to our robbery stronger. They flew me to Florida to do an in-person ID of photographs, and I identified Stanley Cornet.

So the fact that the police caught him in the commission of another crime helped to speed along your case? Yes, if not, it would have been just my word against his. With the bite mark evidence, it was more difficult for him to claim he didn’t do this and to be believed by the jury.

You were originally a TV producer. How did the attack change your career path? My career changed completely. Because of my physical injuries, I could no longer carry gear in the field when I was producing news stories — so I knew I had to make a change. I came to see my life’s work as helping to prevent violence wherever possible and making sure victims have the support they need to heal and live well again.

What happened gives me insight into the nature and impact of trauma and how trauma affects whole health. When someone is traumatized, the effects are not just physical and mental but also spiritual and economic. It can lead to workplace presenteeism [difficulty focusing because of the trauma, so your productivity is affected].

I believe the final stage of the healing process is when you can take the dark cloud of what happened to you and make it something positive. I’m serving on the Governor’s Family Violence Council in Maryland. I use my experience to try to better inform programs and use what I know as a survivor to inform and help other people. What was once a senseless incident that happened to me became something I could turn into actions with a positive purpose.

I  manage two groups, on Linkedin and Facebook. The Facebook “Trauma Informed” group has more than 1,300 members (with 3 to 5 new members daily) and is more conversation-oriented. It includes people from as far away as China and Australia. The LinkedIn group has more than 700 members.

What’s the first thing you should do if you’re the victim of a crime? First and foremost, is safety — get with people who can support you. If it’s a rape, go to the hospital. If it’s something else traumatic, report it. More people regret not reporting a crime than reporting it.

How long does it take to overcome the effects of trauma? Everyone heals differently. Sometimes after a year a two, it can seem that everything is back to normal, but then a life change — like getting married, losing a parent, starting a new new job, having an illness — can unearth pieces of healing that you weren’t ready to explore earlier. People heal along their lifespans and in their own time and in their own way.

Is counseling generally effective? I believe counseling can be good, but victims also benefit from connecting with other trauma victims and those who can relate to their experience.

How do victims find one another? When I was attacked, there really weren’t any groups for crime victims.

Now with social media, it’s easier. Sometimes a victim can use a different name to protect privacy. We now have a deeper understanding of the nature of trauma. I see more state and grass-roots level opportunities to have discussions on crime and trauma in the community, so that heightens awareness.

Does it take longer for children to recover? It can be different for kids and adults. Kaiser and the CDC did an Adverse Childhood Experiences study some years ago. We know from the study that, although one event can have a big effect, children can be resilient. But if it’s happening again and again, it can ultimately affect a person’s life span.

How can children heal from trauma? They need at least one supportive and safe person and a safe space to heal. The research has really informed what’s being done with schools. For example, 15 years ago, if a child wouldn’t sit in her chair, it was because she’s a bad child. Now, we’re not asking about what’s wrong with this kid but rather what’s happening with this kid and what are they trying to tell me. If things are volatile at home, it makes sense that school would be a place a child would let it out. This is where we would see the school-to-prison pipeline. Now we’re in a different place and can use trauma-informed approaches to help and provide interventions.

What’s the most common effect of trauma on victims? The feeling that so much is out of their control. When an assailant is caught, he has Miranda Rights. But you as a victim don’t have a right to a speedy trial. No one tells you how long the process is or when VINE (Victim Information and Notification Everyday) is going to contact you. It really is a long-term commitment.

The forensic dental expert lost the photo of the bite wounds I sustained [from Stanley Cornet]. And I called every week for years to ask where the photos were, if they’d been found. Also, Cornet’s cap came off in the attack, and I gave it to police but it was never registered into evidence. I’m wondering: Will this ever go to trial? Will this ever be over? These are things you would never know until you have experienced it.

Forensic Files also didn’t show that Cornet found a loophole in the prosecution process. In 2001, I got a call from VINE notifying me that he was transferred back to Miami for a hearing. They resentenced the case, so I went back down to Florida and testified again.

Stanley Cornet sat there and smiled at me during proceedings — now, for a second time — as he heard what I went through physically and emotionally.  The court saw that he was not remorseful. This judge sentenced him to life in jail without parole.

Your mother didn’t appear on Forensic Files. How did she contend with the aftermath of the robbery? My mother didn’t testify or come back to Florida to see the case investigated or prosecuted. Every surivor has a different process of dealing with that kind of thing. It happens along the survivor’s own timeline and in their own way — and it’s important to understand and respect that.

So she didn’t want to relive it? Yes, it was hard for my parents to even hear about what happened to me.

Do you still have physical effects from the beating? Yes. I don’t have feeling on one side of my face. I’ve had chronic back issues, although now I’m back to running — and now I’m running marathons. I also have scars, but I’ve become more comfortable with them as part of my body.

I’m a big fan Forensic Files. Did you have a good experience with the show? I felt that they did an accurate portrayal. It was difficult for me to see the reenactments. The producer and crew were very respectful, though, and I appreciated their including information about the nonprofit I founded. [Luest now works with Trauma Informed.]

Do you feel incidents that cause trauma are on the downswing? As we’re changing administrations, the US is in an unusual place where violence and threats of violence are increasing. I work with the National Bullying Prevention Initiative and have been tuned into news reports of increased bullying and hate crimes in school. The NEA recently said these incidents are rising. We’re seeing more bullying in schools. We need to set the right example, build empathy, and pay attention to what can cause kids lifelong problems.

10 thoughts on “Helga Luest: Miami Survivor’s Tale”

  1. Hello Rebecca:
    Excellent interview. Anything can happen to anyone at anytime.

    Forensic Files is my favorite TV show. Each episode features brilliant detection and a satisfying conclusion.

    I follow weird murders in the news. The murder of Diane McIver should be on some investigative show soon.

    Best wishes,

    1. Thanks, Mitchell! Always glad to hear from another Forensic Files watcher — I think it’s the best of all the true crime series.

      And yes, the McIver death seems worthy of a Dateline or 48 Hours (since FF is no longer making new shows).

  2. That’s a beautiful piece. Great interviewing. Ms. Luest is doing of terrific job of conveying both the facts and feelings. The piece evokes empathy without evoking any sense of weakness. The reader sees a whole person who has gone on with her life. This article goes far beyond the usual intrigue of crime. Great work!

    1. I have to agree with these comments — well said. I love that I stumbled upon your interview and I’d LOVE more follow-ups like these. I find myself Googling after every FF and can never find the answers: is this animal still in jail? How much of his sentence did he wind up serving? I almost never find the answers to my questions. Thank YOU, Rebecca, for doing such a good job and asking all the questions the rest of us would have asked.

  3. What a terrific interview. Very inspiring that Helga Luest has been so articulate and focused in leveraging the experience to benefit others. When things go wrong and we’re tempted to ask, “Why me?” maybe the answer is in part that there’s something in the experience that we are uniquely equipped to turn into an opportunity to serve other people.

    This was a pleasure to read and very informative!

  4. Good follow-up post. It is nice to see that Ms. Luest is healing and is helping others to heal. Now, look into the Papini case!

  5. Great interview! Glad to hear about groups like Trauma Informed, and to know that people helping trauma victims are sensitive to people having different responses and needs after events like that.

  6. Helga Luest is an inspiration to every victim of crime.
    We need tougher punishment on crime and we need to end early release of violent criminals.

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