LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — A trip to a high-end massage chain turned into alleged sexual assaults, according to several Southern California women.
CBS2’s investigative reporter David Goldstein has the story.
One woman, who wished not to be identified, recalled paying for a session at Massage Envy Spa in Glendale, part of a nationwide chain with more than 1,000 locations across the country.
But the woman, 34, said she was “shocked” when the male masseuse’s hands wandered where they shouldn’t have.
“The next thing I know, he just put his hand underneath my underwear and started touching me sexually,” she said. “When he pulled my underwear to the side that’s when I finally jumped up and said ‘OK, this is not what I was looking for. This is not what I’m interested in.’ ”
She sued Massage Envy and therapist David Iler, claiming the assistant manager told her they “had filed a police report about the incident.”
Her attorney, David Ring, says they never did.
“What that signaled to me that Massage Envy wanted to protect itself over protecting its own customers,” Ring said.
Another woman, a 30-year-old nursing student from Glendale, also went to the same Massage Envy spa location, paying for a massage with a different therapist.
“His hands went underneath the sheet on my breasts. He massaged it for a couple of seconds, whereafter I took his hands. I swayed it away with the sheet on top of me. I sat up on the bed. I asked him to leave,” she said. “It’s so scary. You’re in that bed, and it’s no different than having someone walk into your house and rape you, because you’re unaware, your guard’s down.”
Her lawsuit against Massage Envy and therapist Ryan Coombes alleges she wasn’t his first victim. It says Massage Envy “should have known of his inappropriate conduct as a result of prior complaints.”
“He violated me and he got away with it. And they let him continuously work there,” she said.
The lawsuits have been settled confidentially.
Both women also filed complaints with Glendale police but neither therapist was charged with a crime, although they no longer work at Massage Envy.
The manager of the Glendale branch never returned calls for comment. Employees at the establishment were reluctant to contact her.
However, the branch isn’t the only one where women claim to have been sexually assaulted.
Goldstein found criminal filings and civil lawsuits against Massage Envy locations in Southern California and more than a dozen states across the nation, including: Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Nebraska, Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin, Texas, Georgia, Florida, Pennsylvania, Maryland and New Jersey.
At a Seal Beach location in 2012, 29-year-old massage therapist Jason Michael Elliott was arrested and accused of sexual assault against three women, one saying “he touched her vagina under the sheet over 20 times.”
Elliott was arrested and convicted of three counts of sexual assault.
At a Laguna Beach location in 2011, a woman claimed massage therapist Mark Valenzon “placed his erect penis against Plaintiff’s head.” Valenzon is now a registered sex offender after being convicted of sexual battery.
All of Massage Envy’s 1,000 locations are franchised.
A company spokesperson insisted, however, that despite multiple cases their “rate of incidents is extraordinarily low.”
“Inappropriate conduct is a challenge for the entire massage therapy industry,” the spokesperson said.
Ahmos Netanel runs California Massage Therapy Council, a nonprofit agency set up by the state to police massage therapists, as the organization’s CEO.
The agency does not, however, police the spas they work in.
“We have no knowledge, jurisdiction over businesses, Massage Envy or others,” he said.
The California Massage Therapy Council does certify therapists and run background checks.
Even so, Elliott and Valenzon passed and were certified. They’ve since been suspended due to their arrests.
But the two therapists accused by the two victims who won their cases retain valid certifications because they were not charged with crimes, meaning they can work anywhere in California.
“The law does not allow us to use settlements – civil lawsuits – as a ground for revocation,” Netanel said.
The nursing student who says she was assaulted by Coombes hopes that will change.
“It’s kind of scary because anyone’s daughter, anyone’s sister, anyone’s mom could end up in his hands again for a massage,” she said.
Experts say the best advice is to remember you’re in control. If you feel uncomfortable, you should stop the massage.
CBS2 tried to contact the two therapists alleged to have assaulted the women but both have moved out of California.