Nine women were sexually assaulted or touched inappropriately during massages at a Massage Envy franchise in West Goshen Township, Chester County, in episodes that their lawyer says are part of a pattern of attacks at the national massage chain.
The women who were assaulted are among scores who say massage appointments at the chain turned into frightening and invasive encounters. The wave of assaults — more than 180 at Massage Envy franchises, as first reported by BuzzFeed — has spawned dozens of lawsuits in several states and in some cases led to criminal charges.
The issue is of particular concern in Pennsylvania, which, like many other states, does not require massage centers to report sexual-assault allegations to police or to the state board that licenses massage therapists. Now, some advocates are calling for mandatory reporting and fines and penalties for those who fail to do that.
In the Chester County case, massage therapist James Deiter pleaded guilty in 2016 to indecently assaulting the women. As they lay naked beneath a sheet on Deiter's massage table, he groped their breasts and genitals, and rubbed against them with his erect penis, court records show.
After an assault in May 2015, a Glen Mills woman called the center in tears to report that Deiter had touched her breasts and put his fingers in her vagina. The salon suspended Deiter but did not call police, according to a lawsuit the woman later filed against Massage Envy Franchising & Spa Dogs LLC, which runs the West Goshen franchise. It was the woman who called police, beginning an investigation that led Deiter to confess to that assault and eight others, including two earlier incidents and one that occurred on the very same day. In that episode, a West Chester woman said Deiter pushed his erect penis against her hands and head as she lay on the massage table.
Deiter was convicted of three counts of aggravated indecent assault and six counts of indecent assault and sentenced to 6½ to 13 years in prison. But the path to that moment was long, lawyers for the women say, and included warnings that they say Massage Envy ignored.
"It's horrific," said Brian D. Kent, who represents the nine women who filed lawsuits in the Chester County assaults. "There's no more vulnerable a position than a woman — or a man — could be in than face down with your clothes off and someone's hands on you. These women, it changes their lives forever, and they [Massage Envy franchises] just don't take it seriously."
Kent also represents dozens of others who say they were sexually assaulted at Massage Envy franchises in other states.
Massage Envy officials say there is a "zero tolerance" policy for inappropriate behavior at all of its nearly 1,200 franchises.
On Thursday, the company's chief executive officer, Joseph C. Magnacca, sent an email message of apology to the chain's members and customers, saying he was "sickened and disheartened" by the sexual misconduct allegations.
"The safety of our members and guests has always been and will always be paramount," he wrote. "And we're always looking for ways to do more. … We are taking a hard look at ourselves and at the additional changes we must make. We will never stop working to earn your trust."
Earlier, Massage Envy had issued a statement calling the incidents "heartbreaking" and said it would work to improve its handling of such complaints.
The company, which has 1.65 million members in 49 states, noted that its therapists are licensed or certified and go through strict background and reference checks. Despite the independence of its franchises in handling day-to-day operations, Massage Envy says it requires its franchises to report any alleged misconduct to the company for investigation.
Kent and other lawyers counter that Massage Envy should require its franchises to report assault allegations to police and also to the state Board of Massage Therapy rather than handling the reports themselves.
Kate Diffenderfer, owner of the firm that runs the West Goshen franchise, could not be reached for comment Thursday. In court documents, her lawyers said the center had been diligent in investigating and reporting assault complaints to Massage Envy Franchising.
In their lawsuits, the women who sued the Chester County franchise say it was first alerted to Deiter's inappropriate behavior in early 2015. In February of that year, court records show, a West Chester woman called the center to report that Deiter had "touched [her] inappropriately" three months earlier. Massage Envy officials asked her to come to the center to discuss the incident more fully, and she declined, lawyers for the franchise say. In the end, officials at the center questioned her credibility, in part because she had waited months to complain and was vague about what happened. She had also tried unsuccessfully to end her membership earlier than her contract required, something lawyers for the franchise said gave her "a clear motive to lie."
Deiter continued to work at the center, which — "unfathomably," according to Kent — recommended his services to other women.
In a similar incident in April 2015, court records show, a Phoenixville woman called the center to report that she had "a bad experience" with Deiter in November 2014 and that she wanted to cancel her membership. She was asked to come in to discuss the complaint in person and she declined to do that, lawyers for the franchise say. Massage Envy officials questioned her credibility, they said, in part because she had waited months to report the incident, did not provide much detail about what happened, and would not come to the center to talk about the incident.
So Deiter was still working at Massage Envy when the two women were assaulted in May. After the Glen Mills woman called police, Deiter admitted to assaulting her and eight other women, including the two women whose reports officials at the center had concluded were not credible.
The women's lawsuits are pending.