RUSKIN — The two Mexican women who arrived at the Ruskin Big Lots parking lot on a windy afternoon in March were afraid.
They had similar stories to tell: of being on a massage table when the man whose hands were supposed to comfort them instead touched them in inappropriate areas of their bodies.
Neither had reported what had happened to law enforcement.
However, advocates for Tampa Bay area migrants had been hearing stories about the masseur and a meeting with two of his female clients was arranged to encourage and assist them in coming forward to the authorities.
One of those advocates, Ann Garrison, climbed out of her car in the Big Lots parking lot that afternoon when she saw the women approach. She shook their hands, hugged them and praised them for their courage, she said.
Then she escorted them to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, where she said deputies took their statements.
On April 6, deputies arrested the masseur, José García, 68, on multiple counts of sexual battery and practicing massage without a license.
The sheriff’s office issued news releases about the arrest and shared the news on both their English- and Spanish-language social media accounts. They encouraged other women who had been abused to come forward.
By mid-April, a total of 14 women had told deputies that García, who ran his massage operation out of his Ruskin mobile home, had abused them.
García, who by that time had bailed out of jail, was arrested on more charges and jailed again.
According to a spokesperson for the Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office, prosecutors as of Monday had filed a total of 32 counts against García: 14 counts of sexual battery and 18 counts of practicing massage therapy without a license.
García was being held in jail this week in lieu of $155,000 bail. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
That so many women would come forward is remarkable because of long-held distrust of law enforcement in immigrant communities combined with the stigma and secrecy of sexual abuse. The sheriff’s office credits its ongoing efforts to connect to Hispanic communities in Hillsborough County, though advocates say much work still has to be done in that area.
“The victims wanted this guy to be stopped so others don’t suffer, particularly young vulnerable teens,” Garrison said.
A ‘universal compassion’
Ana Lamb, multicultural and diversity committee chair at Campaign Against Human Trafficking and Domestic Violence Southshore, or CAHT, had heard in the spring from a member of her WhatsApp group who had gone to Garcia’s home. The woman said she felt that García’s technique was uncomfortable and invasive.
“Then we heard from other women who dared to speak out,” Lamb said.
One woman said García got upset when she asked her husband to be with her during the massages. Another recounted that García inappropriately touched her under her belly even though the woman had come in for a massage only on her arm.
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Lamb, who was in Mexico at the time, reached out to Garrison, who is the programs coordinator at CAHT, and a meeting with the women at Big Lots was set up. Garrison reached out to the sheriff’s office. At least one other client had already reported García to authorities.
Garrison does not speak fluent Spanish, but she still was able to talk with the women and take them to the sheriff’s office. Two other women the advocates had found did not want to speak with the sheriff’s office; a third said she just wanted therapy.
“Even with the language barrier, women have a universal compassion for each other when we have been exposed to sexual exploitation and other forms of abuse,” said Garrison, 79.
The investigation continues
García has been operating his massage business for 12 years in a three-bedroom home, where he lives with his wife Rosa, 63, his younger daughter Yalexi, 23, and her two children.
García could not be reached for comment. His daughter denied the charges against her father and described him as a good man and dedicated grandfather.
She said her father is a well known ‘sobador’ -- or traditional massage healer -- in the Hispanic community and has never performed a massage without his wife at home. She also said investigators misunderstood her father’s testimony because he’s not fluent in English.
“He is a decent neighbor who helped many men and women without any incident,” she said.
The Sheriff’s Office, however, said in a news releases issued after Garcia’s first arrest that he admitted to detectives that he sexually battered a client.
Advocates for local immigrants said several challenges have to be overcome when women in these communities have been victimized.
Not only do migrant women tend to distrust law enforcement, it often takes time to find a Spanish-speaking deputy, and usually it’s a man, not a woman, according to Garrison. She said the deputies she worked with in this case showed empathy and listened, but she has heard that others have not had positive experiences.
“There is the language barrier, lack of transportation and learned fear of law enforcement as well as the personal trauma and fear of further exposure,” Garrison said.
Crystal Clark, the chief communications officer for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, said her agency is always working to tackle the language barrier.
“We also have a system in place where anyone can report a crime in Hillsborough County online and in Spanish,” Clark said. In addition to bilingual deputies and support staff, the Sheriff’s Office has a Hispanic liaison who is deeply involved in the community.
“The liaison is female, not male,” Clark said.
Clark said the investigation into García remains active.
“We continue to ask any additional victims to come forward and speak with our detectives,” she said.