Multiple women allege they were sexually battered by massage therapists at a Santa Monica hotel spa, supporting claims made by the spa’s former manager in a lawsuit filed last September.

The JW Marriott Le Merigot is now the subject of two lawsuits alleging that the hotel failed to properly respond to reports of massage therapists sexually violating spa guests. Additionally, two other women who wish to remain anonymous have told the Daily Press that they were sexually battered or touched inappropriately by the same massage therapist in November 2017 and January 2018.

Natalie MacNeil, who said she was sexually battered by a different massage therapist last February, filed a lawsuit against the therapist and the hotel Thursday that alleges the hotel failed to properly train, supervise and dismiss employees.

Last September, former spa manager Christina Mills filed a lawsuit alleging she was wrongfully terminated after she repeatedly asked the hotels’ general manager, Damien Hirsch, for permission to fire massage therapists who had allegedly sexually violated spa guests. 

The other two women who allege they were sexually battered say they reported the incidents to Mills and the Santa Monica Police Department, but the Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office declined to file charges against the massage therapist due to a lack of sufficient evidence.

According to Mills’ lawsuit, Hirsch denied her request to fire massage therapists and terminated her in November 2018, three months before MacNeil says she was sexually battered.

MacNeil said she booked a 60-minute Swedish massage at Spa Le Merigot on Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019 at 1 p.m. She said she asked the massage therapist, Luis Rivera, to focus on her neck, back and shoulders, where she had been experiencing pain. 

She lay on her stomach and he briefly massaged the area she had described. MacNeil said Rivera had draped her very loosely in a sheet, exposing her buttocks. He then began massaging her upper thighs and buttocks. 

Rivera asked her to turn over and draped her in a way that exposed her genitals. He massaged her upper thighs and then touched her genitals. MacNeil closed her legs tightly, but he touched her genitals two more times.

“I managed to say “that’s enough”,” MacNeil said. “They felt like the hardest words I’ve ever uttered in my life. I felt tears welling up … I felt so frozen in that moment.”

MacNeil said Rivera stopped and briefly massaged her neck. When he finished, he said she could get dressed and left the room. She said she laid on the massage bed for a few minutes in total shock and then went to the women’s locker room, passing Rivera on the way.

“I stayed (in the women’s locker room) and showered,” she said. “I felt really gross and I just didn’t want to leave. I probably stayed there for half an hour — maybe longer —  just trying to clean myself.”

After exiting the locker room, MacNeil quickly signed the bill for the massage at the spa’s reception desk and left the hotel.

In the days following the incident, MacNeil said she felt violated and struggled to sleep and interact with others. She confided in a few close friends, she said.

On Monday, Mar. 4, she emailed the spa manager who had succeeded Mills, the former manager who filed the wrongful termination lawsuit, and described what had happened.

Hirsch, the general manager of Le Merigot named in Mills’ lawsuit, replied to her email the following day and asked to speak with her by phone. He said he was shocked and sorry to hear of Rivera’s conduct and said he would no longer be working at Le Merigot.

“He also offered me a free massage, which felt really insensitive,” MacNeil said. “I was pretty upset about that.”

MacNeil asked Hirsch to provide Rivera’s name, photo and state registration number, which she used to contact the California Massage Therapy Council to file a complaint. An investigator at the CMTC worked with her to file a declaration against Rivera, but it was never finalized. His license expired earlier this month.

“(The investigator) wrote up the whole declaration and I was supposed to sign it to proceed forward. The declaration was written from my perspective and there were a few things she wrote that were not accurate and I would have to make edits on that document,” MacNeil said. “Every time I opened the document to make those edits, it was just so triggering and upsetting for me, I did not end up signing it.”

MacNeil also reached out to an attorney, who told her that prosecutors typically decline to file charges in similar cases that lack forensic evidence. 

Until the Daily Press contacted MacNeil earlier this month on an anonymous tip, she did not know that at least two other women had been violated by a Le Merigot massage therapist before her assault occurred and had also reported the incidents to hotel management. 

“That this was brought to the attention of management and management chose their own interests over the safety of women, that is so appalling and upsetting,” MacNeil said. “I can’t not hold Damien Hirsch and the (hotel) to some sort of accountability for the toxic environment they created.”

Sexual battery and sexual assault by massage therapists is common across the United States. In 2017, a Buzzfeed News investigation found that more than 180 women nationwide reported sexual assaults at Massage Envy, the country’s largest massage chain. An October 2019 article by The Cut revealed that sexual assault lawsuits have been filed against luxury hotels in New York, Chicago and Sonoma County.

MacNeil’s lawsuit accuses Rivera and Columbia Sussex, which owns and operates Le Merigot, of sexual battery, sexual harassment, simple battery, gender violence, and the negligent training, supervision and retention of employees.

“The hotel should have reported the massage therapist to the police. That’s pretty obvious,” said MacNeil’s attorney, Dan Gilleon. “They knew he did it once and that he would do it again.”

Gilleon said he is pursuing the case in civil court because District Attorneys and City Attorneys rarely prosecute sexual battery. He filed a similar suit last month against a San Diego hotel and massage therapist on behalf of a San Diego woman who says she was sexually assaulted in December 2018.

“The reality is that DAs just don’t have the resources to go after the horrific amount of sexual battery and assault that happens all the time,” he said. 

Columbia Sussex declined to discuss the allegations, and Hirsch could not be reached for comment.

madeleine@smdp.com

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