When told about the abuse, company employees turned away police and failed to report incidents to regulators, they say.
Tempe Massage Envy employees didn't call police or file a regulatory complaint after customer Beth Fox reported that her massage therapist, Gabriel Lopez, had sexually assaulted her in 2014.
The response from Massage Envy employees was essentially, "We will talk to him and you should leave," Fox told The Arizona Republic. "I was the one who had to call the licensing board and the police. If I hadn't done those things, would he still be practicing and assaulting other people?"
Fox is among the dozen women who have filed lawsuits over sexual abuse against at least eight Phoenix-area Massage Envy franchises since 2005, according to an investigation by The Republic. Numerous other allegations have been made against the Scottsdale-based company nationwide.
Employees fail to act on complaints of abuse
The Arizona State Board of Massage Therapy is looking into two additional complaints made within the past month involving locations in Glendale and Chandler, The Republic has learned.
In the Tempe case, Lopez pleaded guilty to one charge of attempted sexual abuse. Fox is suing him in civil court, along with the Massage Envy franchise owner.
In another case, Gilbert Massage Envy employees in 2007 kept a 52-year-old woman in a room away from her husband and other customers and blocked her from reporting to police that massage therapist Lee Wells Jr. had penetrated her twice with his finger, according to court statements filed by the victim.
Wells was sentenced to two years in prison, and the woman won a civil settlement.
In another case more than a decade ago, an unlicensed Massage Envy therapist, Charles Vasquez, is believed to have assaulted as many as 15 people before being caught and convicted.
But there are likely more victims of massage therapists.
Not all cases are easily found because some Massage Envy franchises operate under different business names. Several lawsuits mention victims who did not want to go public. And additional cases have been reported at massage businesses besides Massage Envy.
It appears that none of the accused therapists continues to work at Massage Envy and almost all have had their licenses revoked.
One, who was never criminally charged, now practices at a different Phoenix massage company.
Across the nation, at least 180 people have filed sexual-assault lawsuits, police reports or complaints with state licensing boards against Massage Envy franchises, employees and the company, according to a BuzzFeed News investigation.
Fox said she is speaking out to compel the billion-dollar company and other massagebusinesses to improve their training and reporting policies.
“You should be able to walk into a business and trust that the professional is going to do their job without assaulting you.”
"The expectation shouldn't be that you have to protect yourself or go online and look up a massage therapist's license," she said. "You should be able to walk into a business and trust that the professional is going to do their job without assaulting you."
Massage Envy CEO Joseph Magnacca said Thursday that the company has taken action in the wake of media coverage by requiring its 1,170 franchise locations, including 39 in Arizona, to review corporate safety and reporting standards and has hired a third-party backgrounding company to re-screen each of its 20,000 licensed massage therapists.
He said the company soon will announce a plan to improve its policies and "make meaningful change in this industry."
"I, like so many of you, continue to be sickened and so disheartened by the stories that have recently been published about sexual misconduct at Massage Envy franchise locations," Magnacca wrote in an email to customers. "We have zero tolerance for this type of behavior and to those who suffered, I am deeply sorry."
The Tempe case
Lopez, the Tempe massage therapist, had treated Fox before with no incidents, she said. But at one appointment, he touched her lips, pulled down the sheet covering her and placed his mouth on her nipple.
Fox, 37, stopped him and told him to leave. Twice more, Lopez, 40, tried to massage her and she told him to go.
Gabriel Lopez (Photo: Maricopa County Sheriff's Office)
" 'I'm really sorry. I (messed) up,' " she recalled he said, pleading that he needed to keep his job.
When the mother of two alerted the Tempe Massage Envy manager, the manager told Fox the company had a "zero tolerance policy" but couldn't specify what that meant. Fox left, called the police and returned to find the manager had sent Lopez home.
Massage Envy never reported the incident to the Arizona State Board of Massage Therapy, according to board officials. The regulatory agency revoked Lopez's massage license several months later, after which he was terminated.
A DNA swab of Fox's breast confirmed her complaint. Lopez pleaded guilty and was sentenced last year to 30 days of jail and 10 years of probation. He was not required to register as a sex offender.
Fox calls that too lenient. She is suing the Massage Envy franchise owner and Lopez in civil court.
Lopez's civil attorney and the Tempe Massage Envy owner did not return calls seeking comment.
The Gilbert case
The Gilbert woman, who asked that she not be named, said she immediately told massage therapist Lee Wells Jr. in 2007 she was not comfortable with the way he was touching her, according to court records.
While massaging her thigh, he put his fingers inside her underwear and penetrated her twice.
After she expressed discomfort, he laid on top of her in a hug, apologized and asked her not to tell anyone.
Lee Wells Jr. (Photo: Maricopa County Sheriff's Office)
“I said, ‘Get off of me and get out of this room,’ ” the woman told The Republic.
When she tried to report the incident to Massage Envy employees, they refused to interrupt her husband’s massage, placed her alone in a back room so other customers would not see her upset and turned away police who had responded to the woman's call, court documents show.
Her husband had to call police again and ask them to return.
"Their whole thing was to protect their employee. They told him to leave. … They told me, 'We'll give you lifetime massages.' And I was like, 'No, thank you,' " she recalled to The Republic. "I didn't feel supported by them at all."
Afterward, she suffered from crying spells, depression, fear of being alone and physical issues, leaving her less able to take care of her children, she told the court.
Wells admitted to police he had engaged in sexual intercourse with previous clients at the business, police records said. The civil lawsuit the Gilbert woman filed claimed Massage Envy knew about prior incidents of "an unwelcome sexual nature" involving him.
Wells surrendered his license and was sentenced in a 2008 plea agreement to two years in prison, lifetime probation and registering as a sex offender. He served another three years for violating probation by having sexual contact with a minor and was released in July.
Massage Envy settled with the Gilbert woman.
Wells and the former Gilbert Massage Envy owner did not respond to messages left at phone numbers and email addresses that appeared to belong to them in the past. A message sent to a Facebook account that appeared to belong to the former franchisee also went unanswered.
The Gilbert woman said she is glad that more people are speaking up about sexual assault now, but she hopes they will do it sooner than later.
"It could have saved problems for other people if they had," she said. "I know it's a hard thing, and they (authorities) don't make it easy. ... (But) that's the only way you can stop it."
Face to face: Accuser and accused
A sometimes intimidating complaint process at the Arizona licensing board may complicate victims' efforts to stop abusers, Fox said.
When the five-member board considers revoking someone's license, the accused massage therapist may cross-examine the accuser if the therapist has not chosen to retain an attorney to handle witness questioning.
Though Lopez did not show up to his hearings, Fox said she watched someone else be questioned.
"He actually got to sit and interrogate this poor woman who is trying to speak on her own behalf," Fox said. "It's just two people sitting at tables very close to each other, and that's terrifying."
A board official said the administrative hearing process assures that the board hears both sides.
"Just like a Criminal Proceeding, it can be uncomfortable for both parties, but we have to (be) fair and judge both sides of the table," board investigator Andrew White said in an email.
Ryan Edmonson, the agency's newly appointed executive director, said he wants to do more to persuade accused therapists to give up their licenses quickly instead of going to a revocation hearing, which can take up to four months.
"If somebody's willing to give up their license, you might as well stop them from practicing sooner than later," Edmonson said.
The incentive for therapists, he said, would be to avoid what he called the "embarrassing" ritual of hearing accusations dissected in public and to receive a final ruling that describes their actions generally, such as "touched inappropriately," instead of noting specific acts.
Asked if the watered-down language would let abusers off the hook, Edmonson said the full description of the incident would be available through a public-records request and the end result of therapists losing their licenses would be the same.
"It's still doing the same damage," he said, "but saying it without being super-graphic about how it took place."
Incomplete records are another problem in addressing assault complaints, said Sara Powell, Fox's attorney.
Arizona Massage Therapy Board officials for years refused to acknowledge any complaints if investigations of them were ongoing. Questioned by The Republic about the legality of that policy, Edmonson, who became director about a month ago, said he would reverse it.
Early last week, officials told The Republic there were no current complaints against Massage Envy or its employees in Arizona.
Edmonson later acknowledged his agency is investigating two complaints involving the company or its employees.
He is making other changes to increase transparency, Edmonson said. By the end of the year, for instance, all disciplinary actions will be posted online.
But some information still will be unavailable.
The Arizona licensing board, for example, doesn't keep records of how many complaints have been made at massage locations across the state because it is tasked with regulating therapists, not companies.
The agency also doesn't keep records of where therapists previously worked. Even current business addresses for therapists are often out of date, Edmonson acknowledged.
That means it can be difficult to track the full extent of assaults at Massage Envy and elsewhere, Powell said.
She wants to change that.
Powell hopes to force Massage Envy through her clients' civil lawsuits to turn over records she believes are kept nationally on every incident, even when franchise employees do not report to police or the state board.
"I know of attorneys across the country involved in cases against Massage Envy, and I get the feeling that this is but the tip of the iceberg," Powell said.
Here are some of the criminal and civil cases The Republic found in Maricopa County court records:
Charles Gonzales Vasquez (Photo: Maricopa County Sheriff's Office)
Charles Gonzales Vasquez was sued in 2005 by four women for inappropriate touching at a Cave Creek Massage Envy. The women said he touched their private body parts with his fingers or mouth. One lawsuit was dismissed; the others were settled.
Police believed he had assaulted another 11 clients. In a plea deal, Vasquez was sentenced to lifetime probation, sex-offender registration, $9,300 restitution and forbidden from working as a massage therapist again. He did not go to jail.
State records do not show Vasquez ever possessed a massage license.
Christopher Bayoneta told a woman he could treat her scoliosis and then digitally penetrated her three times at a Glendale Massage Envy in 2005, according to a lawsuit.
The owner told police a woman previously complained Bayoneta had left her breasts uncovered. The state revoked his massage license, but he was not prosecuted. The civil lawsuit was settled.
Clark Finney Edwards (Photo: Maricopa County Sheriff's Office)
Clark Finney Edwards put his hands in his client's underwear and fondled her breasts at a Fountain Hills Massage Envy in 2006, according to court documents.
She received a $50,000 settlement in a civil lawsuit, and Edwards was sentenced to 10 years' probation.
Edwards told police he had touched other women in the same way, and a second victim came forward.
He let his massage license expire. His case never went before the state board. Board officials said he may have fallen through the cracks of their disciplinary system.
At a Gilbert Massage Envy, Lee Wells Jr. in 2007 inserted his finger into a woman twice and when she protested, laid on top of her in a hug, asking her not to tell anyone, police reported.
He took a plea deal for two years in prison, lifetime probation and sex-offender registration after admitting to inappropriately touching other clients. He surrendered his massage license. The initial victim won a civil settlement.
In 2014, Wells was sentenced to another three years in prison for violating probation by having sexual contact with a minor.
Gabriel Lopez undraped a woman's chest and placed his mouth on her at a Tempe Massage Envy in 2014. Lopez was sentenced to 30 days in prison and 10 years probation, but he did not have to register as a sex offender. A civil lawsuit is ongoing.
Abenego Fayah was working at a Mesa Massage Envy in 2015 when he touched a woman in an inappropriate, sexual manner, a lawsuit alleges. No criminal case was filed. He lost his massage license and is being sued in civil court.
Derrick Scott Douglas (Photo: Maricopa County Sheriff's Office)
Derrick Scott Douglas rubbed two women in their crotch area at a Peoria Massage Envy in 2016, police documents say. He was sentenced to 10 years' probation, and his massage license was revoked. A civil lawsuit is ongoing.
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