Trial opens for former massage therapist accused of sex crime

Joseph Rankin, left, and defense attorney Roy Polich wait for testimony to begin in Rankin’s Iron County jury trial on criminal sexual conduct and practicing massage therapy without a license charges. (Nikki Younk/Daily News photo)

CRYSTAL FALLS — It’s a case of “he said, she said” as testimony unfolded Tuesday in the Iron County jury trial for a former Iron River massage therapist accused of criminal sexual conduct while practicing without a license.

Joseph Rankin, 26, reportedly touched a woman inappropriately Aug. 22, 2016, during a massage at his Full Circle Fitness and Massage business in Iron River. He was not a licensed massage therapist at the time, prosecutors say, as he permanently gave up his license in March 2016 as part of a settlement on criminal sexual conduct charges from 2015.

But defense attorney Roy Polich noted the prosecution’s case rests solely on the woman’s testimony, which he claims has been inconsistent throughout various pre-trial hearings.

As to the sex charges, Polich argued the touching was consensual up to certain points when the woman told Rankin to stop, which he immediately did. Rankin never used physical force, threats or weapons, Polich added.

Polich acknowledged Rankin didn’t have a massage license at the time but pointed out the law is confusing on what actually constitutes a massage. Rankin and the woman were friends, she didn’t pay for the massage, both were fully clothed, no oils were used and it didn’t take place on a typical massage table, Polich said.

Rankin faces criminal sexual conduct-second degree, a 15-year felony; health profession-unauthorized practice, a four-year felony; criminal sexual conduct-fourth degree, a two-year high court misdemeanor; and assault and battery, a 93-day misdemeanor.

The woman testified Tuesday she has known Rankin for several years. She exercised with him at her home with her family present and, more recently, at Full Circle Fitness and Massage as a paying member, but she noted they never socialized outside of class.

When she showed up for a group class Aug. 22, 2016, she found Rankin was the only person there. Although she had come for a workout, she told Rankin her back hurt.

Rankin offered to “work on her” and she said she was unclear at the time if he had a massage license or not.

The woman testified she laid on her stomach so he could massage her back. He then asked her to flip onto her back, at which time she said he touched her breast under her clothes. She threw his hand off and told him to stop, which he did.

She said she was in shock at that point and complied with Rankin’s suggestion to turn back onto her stomach. He then straddled her back, she testified, and rubbed his lower body against hers. She again told him to stop, which he did.

After leaving Full Circle Fitness and Massage, she received a text from Rankin asking her how she was doing. She replied she wouldn’t be returning, and he should be ashamed. He told her he didn’t know what she was talking about.

The woman said she did go back to Full Circle Fitness and Massage on Aug. 24, 2016, because she wanted to “be the stronger person and face him.” However, he wasn’t there that day.

She told her husband and some friends and acquaintances about the incident later that week, and told police one week later on Aug. 29, 2016.

Rankin’s parents testified they found out about the incident later that week when Rankin told them the woman had been calling his clients and trying to destroy his reputation and business. He claimed the woman had been fine when she left Aug. 22, 2016, and he didn’t understand what triggered the allegations.

Rankin’s mother, Joyce Rankin, and Martha Piwarski, an instructor at Full Circle Fitness and Massage, testified they saw the woman Aug. 24, 2016, and she didn’t appear out of the ordinary. Joyce Rankin also hinted she believed the woman had a motive for bringing the case against her son, but would not reveal that motive.

Several Full Circle Fitness and Massage members and instructors said they never noticed any flirtatious behavior, nor any “bad blood,” between Rankin and the woman.

Piwarski testified Rankin called her later that week and said he had done “something stupid” but didn’t elaborate. Rankin also called Melissa Passamani, a Full Circle Fitness and Massage member, to “apologize for letting us down.” Passamani said Rankin didn’t offer details but didn’t deny the accusations.

Iron County Prosecutor Melissa Powell called 11 witnesses Tuesday and will continue her case today with an expert witness. The defense then will begin its case.