British Columbia

Judge scolds Victoria police as he acquits massage technician of sexually assaulting clients

A Facebook post from Victoria police has played a key role in a judge's decision to acquit John Heintzelman of fondling two female clients, despite strong similarities in the women's stories about what happened.

Public Facebook post provided too much information about suspect John Heintzelman, B.C. judge says

John Heintzelman was charged with sexually assaulting two patients. (Shutterstock/Prostock-studio)

In the fall of 2017, Victoria police told their Facebook followers they were looking for more alleged victims of a local massage technician named John Heintzelman who'd recently been charged with sexual assault.

A little more than a year later, that Facebook post has played a key role in a judge's decision to acquit Heintzelman of abusing two female clients, despite strong similarities in the women's stories about what happened.

"I am concerned by the notice published by the Victoria Police Department, asking other victims to come forward," provincial court Judge Ted Gouge wrote in his recent ruling, finding Heintzelman not guilty of two counts of sex assault.

The judge said police should have written the post without including Heintzelman's name or the address of his in-home massage studio.

"If the police had published such a notice, and received one or more complaints in response, it would have been possible for them to test the veracity of those complaints by asking the complainants for the name of the assailant and the address where the assault took place," Gouge wrote.

With that in mind, the judge said he had no choice but to acquit, explaining that he found both Heintzelman and his accusers to be equally credible.

The massage technician was arrested on July 9, 2017 after one of his clients reported he'd fondled her breasts, inner thighs, buttocks and genitals during a hot stone massage earlier that month. She also said he'd placed her hand on his penis and moved it up and down.

Victoria police made their public plea for more alleged victims to come forward on Oct. 20.

A second alleged victim contacted police the same day, claiming that Heintzelman had assaulted her during a massage in 2013.

"I suppressed it right away," she said in a police statement. "I was worried that I would not be believed because of my mental health issues."

The second woman told a similar story to the first, according to the judgment, and the two were of similar age, size and body type, "which may be significant when sexual assault is alleged," Gouge wrote.

Witnesses all 'eminently credible'

But Heintzelman denied everything. His wife testified that she was sitting in the family's living room, directly above the massage studio in the basement, during one of the appointments and didn't hear anything unusual.

That left the judge in a quandary.

"Each of the witnesses in this case presented as eminently credible. There was nothing in their demeanour or in the presentation of their evidence which caused me to doubt their veracity or the accuracy of their recollection," Gouge wrote.

Crown prosecutors argued the similarities between the two women and their stories should serve as corroborating evidence.

But the judge said he couldn't give too much weight to that corroboration because police had given away too much information in their Facebook post, and because he didn't have enough information to gauge the impact of the second alleged victim's mental illness on the reliability of her evidence.

He said he was unable to decide which version of events to believe, and had no choice but to acquit.

Gouge's judgment also included a cautionary word for police seeking help from the public in an ongoing investigation.

"The police should also be conscious that the publication of a notice containing the name of the suspect: (i) may prejudice the right of the accused to a fair trial, particularly where the accused elects trial by jury; and (ii) may unfairly damage the reputation and livelihood of the suspect if the allegation is unfounded," the judge wrote.

A Victoria police spokesperson declined to comment on the judgment. Crown prosecutors are still considering whether to appeal.

Clarifications

  • An earlier version of this story referred to Heintzelman as a "massage therapist," quoting the language in the legal judgment. However, "massage therapist" is a legally protected title reserved for registered massage therapists in B.C. Heintzelman is an unregistered massage technician.
    Jan 11, 2019 10:25 AM PT

About the Author

Bethany Lindsay

Journalist

Bethany Lindsay has more than a decade of experience in B.C. journalism, with a focus on the courts, health and social justice issues. She has also reported on human rights and crimes against humanity in Cambodia. Questions or news tips? Get in touch at bethany.lindsay@cbc.ca or on Twitter through @bethanylindsay.