Coconut Grove salon wants judge to shield identity of massage sexual assault victim

07/24/2014 5:54 PM

07/24/2014 11:16 PM

Massage therapist Victor Antonio Sanchez was arrested in February after authorities said he sexually assaulted a woman during a session at the upscale Tiano Salon & Spa in Coconut Grove that month.

It was not the first complaint against Sanchez.

Seven months earlier, another woman complained to the spa that she had been sexually groped during a session at the business, 2840 Oak Ave. “I wish this man to be fired because it is the logical and moral thing to do,” she wrote to the salon in a July 2013 email. “If you keep him there, he will continue to do this.”

Yet, he continued to work there. And Miami-Dade prosecutors investigating sexual assaults at the salon now want to know the identity of the first woman. She never reported the episode to law enforcement but could still be a valuable witness in the case against Sanchez.

But the salon is fighting a subpoena for an unredacted copy of the email, which first surfaced as part of a civil lawsuit. The Tiano salon’s claim: The woman has a right to privacy.

“This individual elected not to publicize the alleged incident or seek criminal charges,” the spa’s attorney, Jeffrey Bell, wrote in a court filing. “To have one’s name disclosed and publicized with potentially intimate and personal information would be grossly unjust.”

Under Florida law, however, law enforcement cannot release the names of sexual-assault victims to the public. The spa’s efforts are a “thinly veiled attempt to withhold evidence of a crime,” Miami-Dade prosecutor Christine Zahralban wrote in a motion.

“This is a blatant attempt by Tiano to hide a potential witness and victim whom they do not even represent,” she wrote.

The legal skirmish takes center stage Friday as lawyers for the Tiano Spa will appear in court to ask Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Thomas Rebull to issue a “protective order” barring release of the email to prosecutors.

The spa’s attorneys did not return a call from the Miami Herald seeking comment.

Sanchez, 53, of Hialeah, was an “independent contractor” working at the salon. He is charged with sexual battery, and has pleaded not guilty.

Investigators believe there may be at least two other possible victims — women who posted online reviews about the salon and complained that a massage therapist had touched them inappropriately.

Sanchez was arrested in February after a woman — who bought a coupon for the massage through the website Groupon.com — immediately told police he suddenly began performing oral sex on her during the session. He later admitted to a Miami police detective that he touched her genitalia, but claimed “she did not object.”

The woman later sued the spa, alleging it allowed Sanchez to continue working there despite a known “risk of perpetuating unwanted sexual conduct.”

It was during that litigation that her attorney, Randy Weber, asked for any records showing previous complaints against Sanchez. The salon produced the email from the first woman, with her name redacted.

Weber declined to comment.

She provided a detailed and harrowing account of his groping — and a kiss he planted on her head. “I think about it constantly and have flashbacks to what happened to me in that room, which results in spurts of anxiety, frustration and anger,” she wrote.

The woman also mentioned the online reviews from other women, posted on Yelp.com, complaining about their encounters. She also demanded a refund and threatened to go to police unless the massage therapist were fired.

But Tiano’s lawyers refused to provide the full email. Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Spencer Eig, who is presiding over the civil case, agreed to allow them to keep her identity secret from the attorney of the woman suing the salon.

Prosecutors, however, say they are not bound by Eig’s order because they are investigating a potential crime. The woman in the earlier incident could possibly testify against Sanchez even if he is not charged in connection with the first incident.

“This is a serious public-safety issue,” said Ed Griffith, a spokesman for the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office. “We believe there are other victims out there, and it is our duty to investigate.”

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