UPDATED: Massage therapist gets jail time for secret videotapes
MIDDLEBURY — It’s just a handful of footsteps from the visitors’ gallery to the prosecutor’s desk in courtroom 1 of the Frank Mahady Courthouse in Middlebury.
But it must have seemed like a mile to each of the six women who courageously took their spot before an Addison County judge on Monday to tearfully recount how the man sitting just 10 feet away from them had promised to relieve their physical pain through massage therapy, only to instead condemn them to a lifetime of emotional trauma after having videotaped them in various states of undress during sessions at his Middlebury office.
“I was devastated; I couldn’t really tell anybody,” one of the women said of the humiliation she felt after learning her nude body had appeared on videos secretly recorded by massage therapist Roger Schmidt, who on Monday began what will be a six-month jail term after pleading guilty to 25 counts of voyeurism and “no contest” to two counts of illegal advertisement of medicine.
Addison County Superior Court Judge Alison S. Arms rejected an initial plea deal struck between Addison County State’s Attorney Dennis Wygmans and Schmidt’s attorney, Robert Keiner, because it called for only three months of jail time.
The sentence in part speaks to the misdemeanor classification of the crimes with which Schmidt was charged and the lack of regulation of Vermont’s massage therapy industry (see related story here).
“You devalued and objectified these women at the same time you took their money under the auspices of helping them,” Arms told Schmidt during sentencing. “Your rationalization that you were helping them was a fantasy you were telling yourself and that this court does not accept.”
Prosecutors estimate Roger Schmidt, 54, of Middlebury used hidden equipment to make 70-100 video recordings of 30 women customers during a period spanning 2016 to 2018 at his former business, Roger’s Relaxing Massage Therapy on Court Street in Middlebury. Many of those woman elected not to show up at Monday’s hearing because they didn’t want to see Schmidt, according to Arms.
She noted Schmidt was originally charged with 42 offenses, including a count of possession of child pornography. Prosecutors dropped the child pornography charge and several of the original voyeurism charges.
Each of the original 37 counts of voyeurism carried a potential sentence of two years in prison, Arms noted.
“This is a potential 74-year sentence,” she told Schmidt.
Arms endorsed a sentence of two to six years, with a mandatory six months to serve. Schmidt’s punishment also calls for probation, restitution and mandatory sex offender counseling that Schmidt has already begun.
But the harsher sentence was not tough enough in the opinion of several of the women who told their stories at Schmidt’s sentencing hearing. Among them was Karie Sinks, a Schmidt client who noticed the secret recording equipment at Roger’s Relaxing Massage Therapy and tipped off authorities. She was hailed as a hero by fellow complainants.
“It was very scary,” Sinks said of her decision to come forward. She knew she was accusing Schmidt of a serious offense, but was confident she was doing the right thing.
“You need to go with your gut feeling, and I was right,” she said. “I feel like God guided me in some way to come to this full circle of (having one massage session with Schmidt) and catching him.”
The Independent doesn’t publish the names of crime victims without their permission, and Sinks gave hers. The women in this case have collectively announced they want to be referred to as “complainants” rather than victims.
The first complainant who spoke at Schmidt’s sentencing said she made an appointment with him in August of 2017 in hopes of getting relief from “horrible back pain.” She said she conquered her trepidation about being worked on by a male massage therapist, only to have her worst fears confirmed.
She alleged that during one session, Schmidt touched her inner thighs and reached between her legs in order to access her lower back.
“I didn’t say anything; I was mad at myself for judging him as a man,” the first complainant told the court.
She subsequently became angry with herself for not mentioning her discomfort with Schmidt’s handling of her body, feeling a further sense of violation after being told he had made secret videos.
“I put my trust into you, sir, to touch my body — the most personal part of me,” she told Schmidt. “I trusted that you would heal me, free me of pain. Little did I know that you would cause me more pain than I would ever imagine… You did what you did to benefit yourself at our expense.”
The complainant — a social worker — said she suffered the further embarrassment of professionally knowing some of the police investigators who were required to view (as evidence) Schmidt’s videos of her naked body.
“I was disgusted and mortified; I couldn’t look anyone in the eye — especially my husband,” she said. “I tried to work through the PTSD, but no matter how much I healed, I was always reminded of you.”
The first complainant added she’s spent the past 15 months fearing she might see Schmidt in local stores or other public venues.
“It took me 30 days (to return to work), 30 days to look my husband in the eye, and I felt sick every second of every day knowing you had violated me,” she said.
A second complainant, who called herself “a wife, mother and nurse” told Arms she began treatment with Schmidt in October of 2016. She said she was shocked when Schmidt, during one of the massage sessions, allegedly removed the sheet covering her naked upper body.
She added she was overcome with fear and horror as she lay exposed, eyes closed and arms wide open, “like I was being crucified on a cross.”
This same complainant said she tried to talk herself out of her discomfort with Schmidt, with whom she had six massage sessions. During her final massage visit during the fall of 2017, the complainant said Schmidt offered to demonstrate a massage technique he called “stripping, cupping, fluffing” that he claimed could decrease breast cancer risk.
“I had shared with Roger that both of my parents had died of cancer and shared that I’m afraid of being diagnosed with cancer and dying young as they did,” she said, weeping. “I felt manipulated and tricked as I thought I might be able to save myself from breast cancer, never guessing that I would become one of Roger Schmidt’s four charges of practicing medicine without a license.”
She added she feels the guilt of having referred others to Schmidt — including her teen daughter.
“There are no words for how sad, horrified and disheartened I feel for subjecting my young, vulnerable daughter to a grown man who was (alleged) to possess child pornography on his electronic devices,” she said.
Prosecutors ultimately dropped that possession of child pornography charge against Schmidt. His attorney argued that Schmidt had not intentionally acquired the roughly 30-second clip, nor had he looked at it.
The complainant had urged Arms to sentence Schmidt to a minimum of one year in jail.
“I hope that through fair jail time, fines, counseling and pure community recognition of what a monster you have been, that you will finally be able to acknowledge and process your wrongdoings and make future gains toward positive life change,” she told Schmidt.
NOW LESS TRUSTING
A third complainant said the aftermath of having been videotaped by Schmidt has left her fearful of undressing anywhere outside her own home. She said she now worries that images of her naked body might someday be posted on the internet, even though Schmidt has said he never shared any of the videos.
“I’m less trusting of men, in general,” the complainant said, adding massages, for her, now produce anxiety as opposed to pain relief.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be able to trust a male massage therapist again,” she said.
She recounted the discomfort of having recently crossed paths with Schmidt at a Middlebury pizza restaurant. Schmidt, who was ordered to stay away from the complainants following his arraignment more than a year ago, paid for his pizza and ate it in his car in the parking lot, according to the complainant.
“I don’t want to see him or for him to have any contact with me,” she said.
Complainant Michelle Audette has agreed to have her name used in reporting on the case. Like one of the other women who spoke out on Monday, Audette has a professional connection with the law enforcement community, some of whom had to view Schmidt’s videos of her.
“It’s probably one of the hardest things to have to deal with,” she said of her loss of privacy.
Audette told those assembled she’s been grieving the loss of a part of herself.
“It’s the part of me that looked for the good in every situation, the part of me that’s always hopeful,” she said, wiping away tears.
“My life has never been impacted on so many levels.”
Audette added she believes the impact of the Schmidt case will reverberate beyond the courthouse walls. Those repercussions might include people not seeking out massage therapy for fear of having their privacy violated.
AN INTROVERTED PERSON
Keiner portrayed his client as a quiet, introverted person who grew up in Nebraska. Schmidt, who worked in construction and on the family farm, found he had a talent for “finding and relieving tension knots” in people. He elected to train as a massage therapist and ultimately opened his own business in Middlebury.
Schmidt told the complainants he was sorry for what he had done and that he was committed to his rehabilitation from a pornography addiction.
He said he started viewing online pornography after determining he and his wife had been drifting apart.
“It was a compulsive and unhealthy habit,” he said, adding it “desensitized” him to what was right or wrong.
Secretly recording massage clients, he said, was crossing “a line I never thought I would cross.
“I was hoping something I recorded would somehow make me feel whole again,” he said.
Schmidt said his feelings of guilt brought on depression that had him thinking about taking his own life.
“I know I made a gigantic mistake, thoughtlessly hurting people around me the way that I did,” Schmidt said. “While the idea of going to jail is an incredibly scary prospect, I realize that if me going to jail will allow even one woman to begin to heal slightly, then jail becomes a gift from the universe to assist me in learning and growing to become a better person in the future.”
Arms acknowledged Schmidt has already been paying a price for his transgressions. She noted his loss of income — estimated at $30,000 — the cancelation of his homeowner’s insurance, the stress on his marriage and his self-imposed exile since his arraignment. Schmidt told the court he has felt shunned by the Middlebury community, to the extent that the pastor of a local church told him not to return to Sunday service. His longtime dentist also showed him the door, he said.
But Arms said Schmidt’s contrition and good attendance at counseling can’t wipe away the harm he’s done.
“Mr. Schmidt, you’ve written that ‘judicial limbo can turn life into a dark pit of anxiety,’” Arms said. “I assure you, it has been much worse for those you have preyed upon.”
She noted one of the complainants reported she was “made to feel as a living doll for a serial predator’s sexual gratification.”
Another one of those whom Schmidt videotaped was pregnant at the time, according to Arms.
“Whatever reason you offer for your rationale for committing these offenses, they boil down to this: You placed your own need for gratification over the trust of your targets,” Arms told Schmidt. “Each time you victimized a woman, you placed your needs above hers.”
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.