Massage Envy therapists in the East Valley have been accused of sexual assault multiple times over the past decade, joining the spate of customer complaints across the country.
The popular Arizona-based franchise first became embroiled in controversy in late November, when Buzzfeed News reported that over 180 women nationwide reported sexual assaults at Massage Envy locations throughout the country.
One such incident occurred in 2014, when Gabriel Lopez touched Beth Fox inappropriately with his mouth during a massage at the location at 315 W. Elliot Road in Tempe, according to filings in the criminal court case.
The mother of two was a graduate student at the time and said the incident impacted every aspect of her life.
Prior to the assault, she was a regular massage customer because of neck and jaw issues. She said it took a long time before she felt comfortable receiving treatment again.
The effects of the assault extended well beyond massage, though.
“It doesn’t just change that piece (of your life),” Fox said. “It changes your outlook, because you go into a business and you expect that people are going to do their jobs and that you’re safe in that space.”
She added, “Every time you then go into a situation where you’re on the vulnerable side of it, you’re wondering, ‘Am I safe with this dermatologist, am I safe with this dentist?’”
Following the incident, Fox said she immediately attempted to end the massage and had to tell Lopez to stop touching her two more times before he relented. She then contacted police after reporting the incident to management and being sent home.
A DNA test corroborated Fox’s story.
Lopez eventually pled guilty to one count of attempt to commit sexual abuse and was sentenced to 30 days in jail and 10 years of probation. He also lost his license to practice massage therapy in Arizona.
Fox is speaking publicly about the incident in order to let all victims know that it is safe to speak out and to prompt changes to the processes of reporting and responding to sexual assault allegations.
Following the incident, Fox said the onus was on her as the victim to prove she did nothing to provoke the assault.
“Every step of the way – the spa manager, the police officer, the sexual assault nurse – every single person asked if there was something I did to initiate that contact … It happened again when I reported to the massage board,” Fox said. “It is hard as a victim to constantly have to explain that you didn’t ask to be assaulted.”
The problems did not end there.
Fox had to contact the Arizona State Board of Massage Therapy herself to file a complaint against Lopez because Massage Envy failed to do so. The spa also failed to call the police.
She also noted that the board hearing process can be intimidating for victims, because the accused is given the opportunity to directly confront victim’s accusations in person, which can create a potentially volatile encounter.
Fox was initially hesitant to pursue a civil suit because of the arduous process it would entail, but she eventually filed one against Lopez and the local Massage Envy franchisee, Desert Massage Inc., to prompt changes in their response process.
In the wake of the assault, the city of Tempe appointed a victim advocate to work with Fox. She praised the city’s response and said the advocate checked in with her regularly and supported her in the eight months it took to complete the DNA test.
Fox is not the only victim in the East Valley.
In Mesa, a woman alleged that Abenego Fayah touched her in an inappropriate sexual manner in 2015 during a massage at Massage Envy at 6626 E. McKellips Road and filed a lawsuit against Fayah, the local franchisee and Massage Envy.
No criminal charges have been filed in that case. Fayah’s license to practice massage therapy in Arizona has been revoked, according to the Arizona State Board of Massage Therapy database.
In 2007, Lee Wells Jr. pled guilty to two counts of attempted sexual assault stemming from an incident at a Gilbert Massage Envy location in which he inappropriately touched a female victim on two occasions while giving her a massage.
Wells initially served two years on the first charge and eventually served an additional three years in prison after violating probation. He also gave up his license to practice massage therapy in the state of Arizona as a part of the plea.
The victim in the Gilbert case also filed a civil lawsuit against Wells, the local Massage Envy franchisee M.E. Gilbert LLC and Massage Envy, which resulted in an out-of-court settlement.
The victim alleged that Massage Envy employees attempted to cover up the situation in part by keeping her away from her husband and blaming her for the incident, according to the complaint filed in the lawsuit.
In both the Mesa and Gilbert cases, the accusers alleged in their complaints that other Massage Envy customers had previously complained about the accused touching them in an inappropriate manner.
In an official statement, Massage Envy CEO Joe Magnacca said, “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. We have zero tolerance for this type of behavior and to those who suffered, I am deeply sorry.”
The Arizona State Board of Massage Therapy receives approximately 35 complaints of misconduct each year, Executive Director Ryan Edmonson said.
Customers can search for details about specific massage therapists, including license status, on the board’s website at massagetherapy.az.gov/find-a-therapist.
Massage therapists accused of misconduct are permitted to continue practicing while the investigation takes place, Edmonson said.
Customers wishing to file a complaint can do so through a complaint form on the board’s website at massagetherapy.az.gov/complaint-form.
– Reach Wayne Schutsky at 480-898-6533 or firstname.lastname@example.org.