By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Suerae says she didn't then know her LVN license would not allow her to perform massages at her business. In her native Indiana, where she attended nursing school, the state allows nurses also to do massage, she says. A state cosmetology-licensing official in Indiana confirmed the state does not license or regulate massage therapists or massage businesses.
"I called the LVN licensing people in Austin and asked them if my license would be enough for me to do massage, and the lady I talked to said yes," Suerae says. (A spokesman for the Texas Board of Vocational Nurses licensing department says he does not recall the case, but adds, "The law is very clear on who can do therapeutic massage, and LVNs can't without the proper license. It's highly unlikely one of our people would get that wrong.")
In an effort to keep the massage business legitimate and to control illicit sexual activity, the Texas Legislature has mandated strict licensing regulations for therapists and schools that teach massage. The Massage Therapy Registration Department--a division of the state Department of Health in place since 1992--monitors the industry. State law requires a registered massage therapist to have a minimum of 300 hours of basic massage-therapy training, with specific instruction in anatomy, physiology, hygiene, hydrotherapy, and other aspects of massage, according to Leslie Green, a department administrator. Therapist candidates must also practice for 50 hours as interns. Once they finish their training, they receive a six-month temporary license that allows them to work until they pass a board exam in Austin for a permanent license. Licenses must be renewed yearly, Green says.
Beyond the individual therapist's license, a massage business must also be licensed, and comply with state health and safety codes.
Suerae Robertson, records show, had satisfied none of the training requirements, and had acquired no licenses. "I did a lot of deep-tissue massage as a nurse, and I was able to do it in Indiana," she explains. "I honestly didn't know I was doing something wrong."
But she does acknowledge that Kelly Page, a state health-department investigator, made the law abundantly clear to her in June 1995, when Page cited Suerae for working and advertising as a massage therapist without possessing a license. Page had investigated after receiving a complaint about the business. Suerae pleaded no contest to the misdemeanor charges before Smith County Justice of the Peace Quincy Beavers Jr. on December 14, 1995. Beavers fined her $200.
After her run-in with the law, Suerae planned to play by the rules. She expanded the services at her business to include hydrotherapy, cosmetology, and a snack and juice bar. She hired Arvilla Bateman, a registered massage therapist. Bateman, who now works as a massage therapist at a Tyler beauty salon, declined to discuss her former job or association with Suerae. And Suerae says she herself stopped doing massages--except for Armstrong, who "insisted" on having her for the job.
Suerae changed the name of her salon to "Victorian Hospitality Spa." She says she kept regular business hours--Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Occasionally she stayed open one night a week until 8, she says, but by appointment only. "Suerae was building up a steady clientele, people with back problems or who had been in accidents and needed regular massage," Royce says.
In May 1995--her best month, Suerae says--"I probably made about $1,500." The Robertsons provided the Observer with the names of some former clients who did not return telephone calls.
On March 31, 1995, Garner Ted Armstrong, responding to one of Suerae's newspaper ads, called the spa for an appointment. According to Suerae's lawsuit, Armstrong said he needed massage therapy because he "spent long hours driving in his automobile," and that his lower back and groin area were particular trouble spots.
As Suerae told the story of her relationship with Armstrong, she sat in a chair at the Observer office, kneading her hands, glancing every few seconds at Royce, who sat five feet away. Her voice was as flat as pavement. "I had no idea who Garner Ted Armstrong was," she said. Although she had lived in Tyler for nearly five years, and although Armstrong is well-known in the region, she added, "I'm not a churchgoing person, and his name didn't mean a thing to me."
She conceded, though, that once he walked into her teal-colored massage room, Armstrong's requests were, well, kind of bizarre. He insisted on being totally nude during the massage--except for his dress socks. "He couldn't stand to have his feet touched," Suerae recalled. According to Suerae's court pleadings, Armstrong also insisted on a "nondeep-tissue massage," and that Suerae "concentrate her therapy on the area of his groin, lower back, inner thigh, and buttocks because of the stiffness he purportedly felt from his driving."
That initial appointment led to regular, twice-monthly sessions with Suerae, who conducted the massages even though she knew she was breaking the law by performing them without a license. She says she informed Armstrong about the law and suggested he visit Bateman, the licensed therapist she'd hired.
"But he insisted I was the only one who could work with him," Suerae explained. "He said that getting a massage is something like going to a doctor. You trust a doctor you've been with for a while, and you're real skeptical about going to a new doctor.