116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Laura Palumbo refused to be a victim after her former boyfriend stabbed her 16 times in her neck and head in 1995 and she underwent multiple surgeries for her injuries.
Palumbo, 51, of Cedar Rapids, determined instead to be a survivor.
As she recovered from her injuries, she left an accounting career and went back to college to get a degree in criminology and sociology so she could help others — even though she didn’t receive the justice she’d hoped for in her former boyfriend’s 1996 trial.
Lester Williams, once a star Iowa State University football player, was charged with attempted murder and willful injury causing serious injury in Palumbo’s stabbing. A Linn County jury convicted Williams, 32, on the willful injury charge. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, instead of the 25 years an attempted murder conviction would have brought.
The day of the assault — July 22, 1995 — Palumbo, then 25, was living with her parents in their southwest Cedar Rapids home after she’d left Williams. The two had been in a relationship for five years and had a 2-1/2 year-old daughter.
Palumbo and her daughter were in the home’s basement when Williams arrived around 4 p.m. to pick up the child for a visit. He began talking about getting back together. Palumbo said she wasn’t interested.
Their daughter was sitting on her lap when Williams pulled a knife from his waistband and knelt on her feet, pinning them. He stabbed her 16 times in the neck and head. She also had a large, defensive wound on her left arm.
Palumbo was screaming, and her daughter was crying and screaming, which her mother, who was upstairs, heard. She ran down the steps and screamed at Williams to stop. Williams did and then left.
“I had no idea (that would happen),” Palumbo said. “I actually thought it was going to be a gun when he reached for it.”
Williams, she said, had been verbally abusive during their relationship, which is why she left him, but never physically abusive.
Her parents called the police. Williams ran to a neighboring house, asking to use the phone and saying the blood on his clothing was from a car crash. But the neighbor overheard Williams telling his mother he “just killed” Palumbo.
Palumbo said the neighbor heard police sirens and ran out of the house, telling officers their suspect was inside. Williams was quickly arrested.
Williams claimed during trial that he was high on crack cocaine and didn’t remember the attack. Palumbo said she didn’t believe that.
For Palumbo, she not only didn’t get the outcome at trial she wanted, she also couldn’t leave the violent attack behind.
The stabbing “hit my jugular and an artery,” Palumbo said. “I know I am absolutely blessed to be alive. They (doctors) were shocked and surprised. They said I was very fortunate.”
She spent time in the hospital and in rehabilitation and recovery. A long-term medical issue — a neck aneurysm — presented itself two weeks before Williams’ trial.
To fix it, surgeons in 1996 inserted a metal coil to prevent the bulging or ballooning of the artery — the first the procedure had been done at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, she said.
The nerves on the left side of her neck were severed, and she developed a mass that had to be surgically removed. But it continued to grow back, Palumbo said.
From 1996 through 2020, Palumbo has had 46 surgeries on her neck to remove the masses.
“The crime stayed with me,” she said. “I couldn’t get away from it.”
After the trial and after going back to school, Palumbo said she couldn’t understand how a defense attorney could represent someone like Williams and treat those they assaulted with disrespect and try to shame them for reporting the crime.
To better understand that, she became an intern at the Linn County Public Defender’s Office. She assisted a defense lawyer in preparing evidence and getting a case ready for trial.
The experience, she said, helped her understand that everyone has a right to a defense. But she said she also helped defense lawyers understand the impact a crime and trial has on a victim.
She became involved with the restorative justice board of the Iowa Department of Corrections in 1996 and started traveling to prisons and community corrections facilities, such as the Lary Nelson Center in Cedar Rapids, talking with inmates, probationers and parolees about what had happened to her and how it had impacted her life.
Palumbo wanted her listeners to understand how their actions harmed others.
“It was my form of therapy,” Palumbo said. “I could have gone down the wrong path. I had a great family to support me.”
Her attorney also obtained a no-contact order against Williams and terminated his parental rights.
As she was changing her life and doing well, Palumbo experienced another trauma in 2004 when his sister, Sara Palumbo, 26, of North Liberty, was killed by her fiance, Erich Newton, then 31.
It wasn’t a typical domestic abuse situation. Rather, Newton slipped cocaine into Sara’s glass of wine in order to force her to have sex with him. She had a seizure and died of a drug overdose.
Newton was convicted in 2006 on federal charges of conspiracy to distribute cocaine resulting in death and possession of firearm in furtherance of the drug crime. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
“I did go through survivor’s guilt and never knowing what she (Sara) went through,” Palumbo said. “Never getting the answers as to why.”
After getting her degree in social work, Palumbo worked at the Madge Phillips Center Shelter.
She then became a family advocate with Horizons, a nonprofit, and its Survivors’ Program, which supports and advocates for victims and their families in homicide and vehicular homicide cases. The Survivors’ Program is now offered through Waypoint Services.
Palumbo began working at the Iowa Department of Human Services in 2007, where she still works as a social worker/case manager.
She continues to tell her story to survivors and other groups and usually participates in National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, which wraps up on Saturday.
Palumbo also stressed how a support group and some form of therapy — whatever works for individuals — can help survivors of violent crime.
“Survivors,” she said, “should never be ashamed.”
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