More than 52,000 professionally trained and certified massage therapists practice in California. But an NBC Bay Area investigation found that some certified massage therapists with a history of serious complaints and even arrests are allowed to continue practicing at spas throughout the state.
The California Massage Therapy Council (CAMTC) is in charge of disciplining massage professionals, but the agency keeps details about complaints and arrests hidden from the public.
Greenbrae resident Soo Young Kim fears that the lack of transparency creates a safety concern for consumers. Kim alleges she was sexually battered by her massage therapist, who was fired from two previous jobs for complaints he was “too aggressive.”
“The massage started off with him being so rough,” Kim told NBC Bay Area. “It was like a crazy nightmare, and I just remember thinking the words ‘I’m getting a brutal beating.’”
A day after the incident, Kim filed a report with the Central Marin Police Department on July 20, 2015.
“He was rubbing his crotch on the top of my head, and I’m scooting down to avoid this from happening,” Kim said, adding “I [was] fearful and just thinking how am I going to get out of this situation?”
But after a few phone calls to the massage therapist and the spa owner, who both denied anything happened, police closed the case without an arrest. In his report, the investigating officer called the incident a “misunderstanding” and stated Kim had “no proof” that a crime occurred.
Frustrated, Kim sued her massage therapist, Joseph Sanchez, and the spa owner, alleging a “painful, inappropriate massage” and “sexual touching” by her massage therapist. In her suit, Kim claimed “Sanchez rubbed his genitals on [her] head and foot through his pants” and “repeatedly attempted to push her legs apart.”
Records subpoenaed in the lawsuit showed a complaint from an Army paratrooper who said his massage from Sanchez felt like he was being “tortured by the CIA” and “numerous client complaints” that led to his dismissal from two previous jobs at spas in San Francisco and Sausalito.
Kim also found several photos of topless clients clad only in thong underwear on Sanchez’s social media accounts, including one photo with the caption “The most extreme therapist in the country.”
Sanchez did not respond to our calls for comment. In the lawsuit, he denied Kim’s allegations against him. Sanchez’s work history and arrest record did not include any prior complaints of a sexual nature.
ENFORCEMENT AT CAMTC
Kim sent the photos and her police statement to the California Massage Therapy Council. The nonprofit corporation receives more than 200 complaints a year against massage therapists, ranging from tardiness to sexual assault.
“One of the reasons why the California Massage Therapy Council has been so effective in protecting the public is not being a governmental agency. The burden of proof that we're looking for is a preponderance of evidence, which means more likely than not,” CEO Ahmos Netanel told NBC Bay Area.
In order to be certified by the council, a massage therapist must graduate from an approved school and pass a criminal background check. Most California cities require that all massage therapists obtain a certificate and remain in good standing.
CAMTC has the authority to deny, suspend or revoke a certification if an investigator suspects wrongdoing. Netanel said his agency has sanctioned more than 7,000 massage therapists and can close a case within days of receiving a complaint. But nearly two years after Kim filed her complaint, Sanchez remained certified.
MASSAGE COMPLAINTS AND ARRESTS
CAMTC complaint data show a rise in sexual assault cases since 2010. But the council keeps details about those complaints hidden from the public.
“It's striking a balance between protection of the public and also making sure that the integrity and the reputation of fair, honest, hardworking certificate holders are being maintained,” Netanel said.
Even if a therapist has been arrested for work-related crimes, the council does not disclose that information. The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit found several examples of massage therapists in the Bay Area and across the state who were arrested for sex crimes and still hold an active certification.
SAN MATEO COUNTY ZERO TOLERANCE
In San Mateo County, Detective Sal Zuno said the Sheriff’s Office takes a zero tolerance approach when it comes to regulating the massage industry. Unlike CAMTC, the Sheriff’s Office publicizes information on all massage therapists who have been arrested. Zuno said it helps deputies find other potential victims
“In the past, we've had incidents where we posted information to social media ... [and] the posting has motivated them to come forward,” Zuno said.
After NBC Bay Area began investigating, another former client of Sanchez came forward. She asked NBC Bay Area not to disclose her identity but said she had no idea Sanchez posted racy photos of her online. She too filed a complaint with CAMTC. The agency finally suspended his license, more than two years after Soo Young submitted her police report and those same photos to CAMTC.
“I just want to know that this [is] never going to be done again,” Kim told NBC Bay Area.
Kim settled her lawsuit with Sanchez and his employer. Neither admitted liability.