She wanted a massage to ease her sore back muscles, a lingering injury from a car accident years earlier.
J.K. was visiting her mother in northern Utah in the summer of 2016, when she decided to go to Better Massage, a business inside the Newgate Mall. She had never been there before, but felt safe visiting because it was inside the large Ogden shopping center.
“It never threw up a red flag,” the woman recalled.
But while she was there, the massage therapist touched her genitals several times. She felt paralyzed, unable to get up or fight him off.
She had asked for a 40-minute massage but realized later that Hongwei Yang had kept her there much longer, more than once taking a break to talk to potential customers who walked in.
“My body wouldn’t move,” she said in a recent interview. “I remember while I was laying there, a woman came in and I could hear them talking, and she wanted her daughter to get a massage. My head was just screaming inside, ‘Don’t bring her here!’ ”
After he told her the massage was done, J.K. dressed, paid Yang and left in a daze. Was that a sexual assault?
She went to the bathroom, looked at her reflection in the mirror and started to cry.
“I was just trying to figure out what happened," she said, “kind of realizing what happened, but not wanting to believe what happened.”
When she got to her car, J.K. called her husband, who is a police officer where they live in southern Idaho. He reported the assault to Ogden Police.
Officers met J.K. in the parking lot, and Yang was arrested shortly after.
But by this time, J.K. wasn’t the first woman to report that Yang had sexually assaulted her.
In the three weeks before her Aug. 7 report, four other women had already told police about Yang’s inappropriate touching. Several had complained to mall management and security officers — but nothing was ever done.
Now J.K. and two other women are suing the Newgate Mall’s owners, its security company and the massage parlor that employed Yang, who was not licensed by the state to give massages.
“The mall should have stepped up,” the now-49-year-old woman said. “If they would have simply looked at the paperwork, he would have been gone. It never would have got to the rest of us.”
‘A complete and total failure’
Like J.K., another woman chose to go to Better Massage because it was located inside a mall — a place she assumed would protect her. She felt safe, in part, because L.T. had worked as a cosmetologist in other malls, her father said in a recent interview.
“This wasn’t a little strip mall or something,” the father said. “She was familiar with it and felt safe.”
L.T. didn’t know Yang wasn’t licensed, according to the lawsuit, and agreed to a massage. But during the treatment, Yang removed her underwear without her permission and touched her.
After the massage, she paid Yang and left. She called her parents, who urged her to contact the police. The now-25-year-old woman also tried to report the assault to mall management, according to the lawsuit, but she couldn’t find the mall office or a security officer.
“It was just shocking,” the woman’s father said. “The mall basically provided him a place where he could go on a serial sexual assault rampage.”
A week before L.T.’s assault, another woman, J.C., had a similar experience at Better Massage, where Yang pulled off her clothing and touched her inappropriately. Immediately after the massage, J.C. went to the mall office to report the assault, according to the lawsuit — but the offices were closed. The woman encountered a security guard and reported what happened, but the employee did nothing more than offer a vague description of where to find the security office. J.C. reported the assault to police that same day.
The woman also called the mall office twice to tell them she had been harmed during the massage — once the day after the assault and then again a week later when she learned from a family member that the business was still open and Yang was still working.
The mall took no action, according to the lawsuit.
“Better Massage remained opened,” the lawsuit reads, “Yang remained employed, and none of the defendants made any effort to warn the public about Yang.”
The Salt Lake Tribune does not generally identify victims of sexual assault, but the three plaintiffs agreed to the use of their initials.
The women’s lawsuit names as defendants the two companies that owned the Newgate Mall during parts of 2016, the mall’s management company and its security company. None of the companies — GGP Inc., Time Equities Inc., The Woodmont Co. and Professional Security Consultants Inc. — responded to requests for comment.
The women’s attorney, Michael Young, said it would not have been difficult for the mall management to take steps to prevent the women from being harmed.
“It’s kind of mind-boggling to me,” the attorney said. “Even if you were a skeptic, you do a little investigation and see that he’s not licensed. It was such a complete and total failure to do even the easiest of things.”
‘It wasn’t accidental’
It’s unclear what Ogden investigators did in response to the first four reports of sexual assaults before Yang was arrested that August day after J.K. came forward. A police spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment, and only partial reports were released in response to a public records request.
Police officials declined to release more information about the first five cases because it might reveal “investigative or audit techniques.” The Tribune is appealing the decision.
Prosecutors charged Yang with a dozen misdemeanor crimes, accusing him of sexual battery, voyeurism and unlawful conduct by a massage therapist.
Investigators wrote in charging documents that Yang told police he had worked at Better Massage for just a few months. He had never been to a certified massage school, he told investigators, and had learned “on the job” at massage parlors in California.
After Yang’s arrest was publicized in media reports, more women contacted police. One told an investigator she had been assaulted in May 2016, according to a police report, when Yang touched his genitals against her hand and he touched her body inappropriately.
“I thought it might be accidental,” she said when asked why she didn’t report immediately. “I tend to brush it off because of my mentality. I’m not one to falsely accuse people. I felt awkward about it the whole time. The more I thought about it, I’ve realized it wasn’t accidental.”
That September, Yang pleaded no contest to a charge of third-degree felony attempted forcible sexual abuse and six counts of misdemeanor sexual battery. He was sentenced to serve a term of up to five years in prison, where he remains today.
Along with the prison sentence, Yang was fined $500 by state authorities for conducting massages without a license. Better Massage’s owner, Xinjun Wei, was also fined for aiding in unauthorized massage practices — but not because of Yang’s conduct.
Wei was fined the following year after an investigator with the state Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing found that an unlicensed massage therapist was working at Wei’s business, which had moved to the Fashion Place mall in Murray.
No other action has been taken against Wei’s massage license, according to DOPL records.
Wei and Better Massage are also listed as defendants in the women’s lawsuit, but court filings indicate that attorneys have not been able to find her to serve her the lawsuit.
For J.K., her experience at Better Massage has had lasting effects. She is not the outgoing person she once was. She said she has anxiety and recently had a panic attack in a grocery store.
She hopes now that her lawsuit will bring change to how businesses respond to reports of sexual assault and might encourage others who have had similar experiences to come forward.
“This shouldn’t be pushed under the rug,” she said. “It is a real problem. ... Don’t be afraid to say something because nothing will stop if we don’t.”