How Low Can You Go?

When a Tyler masseuse accused televangelist Garner Ted Armstrong of sexual assault, no one came out smelling like a rose

Armstrong arrived around 9 a.m. and went into the dressing room next to the massage room. When Suerae entered, according to court records, Armstrong was naked and lying on the massage table. "Immediately, Armstrong's actions were more aggressive than any of his previous therapy sessions," the lawsuit states. "Armstrong began to fondle his own genitals and wanted the plaintiff to rub massage oil on his penis. Plaintiff declined but became extremely frightened when she discovered the smell of alcohol on Armstrong's breath."

Suerae claims she tried to leave the room, but that Armstrong grabbed her and refused to let her go. Over the next several minutes, she says, Armstrong grabbed her breasts, bit her nipples, and finally forced her mouth onto his penis.

Shortly after the oral-sex episode, according to the lawsuit, "plaintiff broke free of Armstrong and ran and hid from him. Upon returning a short time later, [she] discovered the defendant had left, but had left a sum of money."

Forty dollars, to be exact.
When Suerae tells this story, she fidgets in her chair and her voice trails off. Royce picks up the story from there, and expertly supplies the remaining details.

Just one month before the July 4 incident, he says, the couple had decided to try and reconcile. So it was no surprise that Royce was the first person Suerae called after Armstrong left her business that day.

The Robertsons did not call the police or a rape-crisis line because, Royce says, "the Tyler police are just a bunch of good ol' boys, and they wouldn't believe us." Instead, they called a private-investigator friend who lived in Oklahoma City. The investigator referred them to an attorney there, who, they say, also advised them against reporting the incident to police. He did tell them, however, that since Armstrong was likely to return, they should videotape the next session as "evidence" for a lawsuit.

On July 15, the day Armstrong returned for an appointment, Royce hid a video camera inside a wall clock in Suerae's massage room. From an upstairs bedroom, Royce watched the situation on a video monitor. "I was close enough to get there quick if anything turned the least bit violent," he says.

The 43-minute, black-and-white tape--of which 300 copies are now floating around worldwide, thanks to Royce's entrepreneurship--begins with Suerae walking into the massage room, dragging on a cigarette as she throws a sheet over the massage table. A nude Armstrong then walks in. The two embrace--"though very lightly," Royce says. Then Suerae snuffs out her cigarette in an ashtray on the corner of a nearby hot tub, and Armstrong lies face down on the table.

The rectangular table is not like the ones most registered massage therapists use in their work. It splits apart in the middle, where, Suerae explains, "men can, you know, sort of hang," and can also split into an upside-down V, on which the client's legs are extended. On the tape, Suerae stands inside the V, between Armstrong's spread legs. During the next 43 minutes, she performs a feather-light massage on the minister as he masturbates, grabs her breasts, and tries to pull her on top of him.

The sound of their voices is largely drowned out by the incessant ticking of the wall clock and a tape of big-band music. "Autumn Leaves" is playing about 15 minutes into the tape, as Armstrong tries to pull Suerae's hands to his genitals. When she says, "That's not part of the massage," he lets go. At 42 minutes, Suerae leaves the room, and Armstrong then walks out of camera range. A low moan is heard off-camera. The final scene is of Armstrong walking back into view, dressed in double-knit pants and a sweater. There's a little lift in his step, and he is singing along with the Andrews Sisters: "Don't sit under the apple tree/With anyone else but me/Anyone else but me.../Till I come marching home."

When Sterling Mansoori, director of the Sterling Health Center, a licensed massage-therapy school in Addison, saw the tape recently, he called Suerae's technique "completely inappropriate for therapeutic massage." As for the masturbation and groping on Armstrong's part, Mansoori says, "A therapist who wants to keep her license would never allow anything like that."

Attorney John Osborne says people who would judge Suerae should understand that "she was living alone, trying to make an income during her divorce. It's easy for them to say she should have just kicked the guy out, but the mortgage payment came due. She needed to pay bills. She needed to work."

The tape will buttress Suerae's claim of a sexual assault on July 4, Osborne says. And the charge by Armstrong's attorney and his closest advisors that the tape and the lawsuit are merely a setup sends Osborne into a fury. "Whether they think he was set up or not, he chose to do what he did, and his actions were completely inappropriate for a husband, a father, a businessman, and a minister. I doubt you could trick Billy Graham into doing something like that."

Osborne adds he is likely to depose other Tyler massage therapists who can corroborate Suerae's claims. One witness may be Mary Irby, owner of Mary Irby and Company, a Tyler beauty salon and day spa that caters to the city's toniest clients. Shortly after Suerae's lawsuit was filed, Irby gave an on-camera interview to KETK, a Tyler television station, saying that prior to the incident at Suerae's business, Irby had banned Armstrong from her salon because two massage therapists had reported that he had acted inappropriately toward them. On the advice of her attorney--who initially asked if the Observer would be willing to "compensate" Irby for her information--Irby declined to be interviewed for this story.

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