CHICAGO (CBS) -- A lawsuit was filed Wednesday against a suburban massage therapist and a national massage company – centering around claims from a Kane County woman of inappropriate touching.
The victim and plaintiff is coming forward to tell her story only to CBS 2's Tara Molina.
"This didn't happen in a back alley at midnight. This happened someplace I felt so safe," said Christine Schirtzinger. "Massage Envy allowed a convicted felon to be in the room with me. My assault was completely preventable."
An Ironman triathlete and coach, a mother, and a mentor, Schirtzinger, 51, is choosing to put her face and name out publicly through this for that reason.
"I couldn't live with the thought of this continuing to happen," she said.
For Schirtzinger, it happened on Dec. 12, 2020, at the Massage Envy Geneva Commons in west suburban Geneva - where she went consistently for years. She called massage therapy an important part of her decades as a triathlete.
It was a normal visit - until it wasn't.
"He violated me," Schirtzinger said. "He penetrated me with his fingers."
"He" is massage therapist James R. Garrett, who went by Rob.
"I immediately told him to stop," Schirtzinger said. The moment was so surreal I couldn't even comprehend what had just happened to me."
Schirtzinger said she didn't say anything else. She went home, and ultimately talked to a sexual assault counselor and her husband.
"I didn't even know if I would be able to say the words out loud," she said.
Schirtzinger chose to go on the record and report the crime to Geneva police five days later.
"I have two daughters," she said. "I thought of my daughters, and I thought of my friends."
The police report claims Garrett first asked to work on Schirtzinger's hip flexors, to which she consented – and went on to digitally penetrate her four times in a matter of seconds. The report said Schirtzinger told Garrett to stop, which he did. The report said Schirtzinger then declined when Garrett asked if she wanted him to massage her pectorals – saying he could massage her shoulders and nothing lower.
Eventually, Garrett was charged with multiple felonies. Fourteen hearings and more than two years later, he pleaded guilty to attempted criminal sexual abuse in March of this year.
"It's this grueling process," Schirtzinger said.
This plea required Garrett to register as a sex offender and no longer work as a massage therapist.
But you're hearing from Schirtzinger because it didn't end there. She didn't learn until after the plea deal - a deal she thought would protect other women – that Garrett had a felony history before all of this.
It took the state seven months to revoke his license officially.
"Was there a loophole?" said Margaret Battersby Black of Levin & Perconti, an attorney for Schirtzinger. "How does this happen?"
That's what led Schirtzinger to sue.
"There's a lot of questions we have to ask in this lawsuit," Battersby Black said.
The lawsuit was filed Wednesday against Massage Envy, the franchise in Geneva, and James R. Garrett.
"After everything I've gone through -- I have gone through 14 hearings, hours of interviews, two years of my life -- and this man who's been convicted of a sex crime, is still a licensed massage therapist in the state of Illinois?" Schirtzinger said.
Schirtzinger said there is a reason she is choosing to keep fighting - this time publicly - nearly two years later.
"The system has let me down from one end to other," she said. "I had no choice but to come forward and put a face to what has happened to me."
Massage Envy refused to answer our questions, but sent us this statement on their commitment to safety:
"Massage Envy is committed to promoting a safe environment for members, guests and service providers at each of the approximately 1,100 franchised locations nationwide. We urge anyone who experiences anything other than a safe, quality massage to report it immediately to the franchised location so that it can be investigated. We cannot comment on pending allegations or litigation involving any independently owned and operated franchised location. For more information please visit the Commitment to Safety section of our website at https://www.massageenvy.com/about-us/health--and-safety/commitment-to-safety
CBS 2 has covered past allegations of sexual assault by Massage Envy therapists in past years. In 2020, CBS 2's Charlie De Mar reported two women said they were sexually assaulted at an Old Town neighborhood massage center.
In 2014, three years before the BuzzFeed News investigation, CBS 2 Investigator Pam Zekman reported on multiple allegations of sexual assault at Chicago area Massage Envy locations, including one in which an alleged victim claimed a therapist was inadequately vetted.
For this story, Molina obtained answers to the following questions about massage therapist licensing and background checks from Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation public information officer Chris Slaby:
What does it take to get a massage therapist license in the state of Illinois?
The requirements for licensure as a massage therapist in Illinois may be found under the Massage Licensing Act's Administrative Code.
Is there any kind of background check or criminal history search done by the state? If not, why?
Fingerprints are required per the rules. FAQs about how having a criminal conviction could affect obtaining a massage therapy license can be found on the Department's website: Microsoft Word – Massage Therapist FAQs.docx (illinois.gov)
What kind of background would prevent someone from getting a license?
Please refer to the Department's FAQs above.
Understand those licenses lapse every even-numbered year…what checks are in place during those lapses?
When a licensee of a fingerprinted profession is convicted, the county where the licensee was convicted informs Illinois State Police, who then in turn informs the Department. The ISP informed the Department in early October; however, the Department was already in the process of revoking his license. Moreover, the general public can also file a complaint with the Department when an incident occurs, even before a conviction.
If an incident occurs, on record with police, how does this impact state licensing? In this case, it's my understanding it took the state months to officially revoke the license, is there a standard timeframe or protocol?
IDFPR takes all allegations against licensees seriously and looks into allegations based on information from public proceedings and/or complaints filed against a licensee. IDFPR received the first and only complaint against Mr. Garrett on July 22, 2022. Once IDFPR received notice from ISP in early October of the conviction of an offense requiring registration as a sex offender, it triggered Section 45(c) of the Massage Licensing Act (conviction of prostitution, rape, sexual misconduct, or of any crime requiring registration as a sex offender is a permanent bar to licensure) and took this case out of the normal process (normal process meaning where the Department has discretionary authority to discipline as opposed to statutorily mandated discipline). The Department then sent a Notice of Intent to Revoke which included a 30-day opportunity to request a hearing to contest the basis of the action. After the Department did not receive a request for hearing, the Director issued the Order revoking the license on November 7.
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