Recorded phone call in dispute at groping trial of East Lyme massage therapist

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A New London jury listened to the recorded phone call Tuesday in which massage therapist Joseph L. Baribeau seemed to confess to groping a client.

A short time later, Baribeau took the witness stand and explained it was a misunderstanding.  

Baribeau, 63, of Niantic, owner of Body Kneadz Therapeutic Massage and Wellness Center in Flanders Plaza, East Lyme, is charged with fourth-degree sexual assault, a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison. The state alleges he inappropriately touched a longtime customer while massaging her legs on Jan. 8, 2014. Baribeau, whose massage therapist license with the Department of Public Health is at stake, has pleaded not guilty and opted for a jury trial.

The alleged victim had testified Monday that she was shocked when "Joe," from whom she had been receiving massages for 2½ years, touched her sexually during a 90-minute session. She said she hesitated to go to the police, but did so after receiving advice from her husband and close friends. Prosecutor Theresa Anne Ferryman played for the jury a videotaped police interrogation in which Baribeau repeatedly denied groping the woman.

On Tuesday, Ferryman elicited testimony from East Lyme Police officer Jean Cavanaugh, who recorded a phone call that the alleged victim placed from the police department two days after the incident.

"He said he had a moment of weakness," Cavanaugh testified. "He said he was very, very sorry. It wouldn't happen again. He was very apologetic throughout the entire conversation."

The state rested after the jury listened to the recording and followed along with a printed transcript as the distraught woman told Baribeau she couldn't believe where he had put his hands.

"I can't either," Baribeau responded. "I will never, ever do that again."

Baribeau offered the woman a free massage at the end of the conversation.

Taking the witness stand in his own defense, Baribeau described the standard technique of keeping most of a client's body covered with a sheet and towel during a massage. He demonstrated how he had been massaging the woman's inner leg when she pushed his hand away. He said he thought he had applied too much pressure. He said he finished the massage without incident and that he couldn't figure out why the client was so upset when she called him two days later. He said he was late for a cousin's wake in Killingly when he spoke with the woman and that he was "half-listening" and trying to appease her. His attorney, Michael A. Blanchard, entered the cousin's obituary into evidence.

Ferryman re-played the recorded phone call during her cross-examination of Baribeau and confronted him repeatedly with his seemingly incriminating statements.

"And you want us to believe that conversation had something to do with physical injury?" Ferryman asked.

"Absolutely," Baribeau responded. He said he had done thousands of massages and nobody had ever reacted that way.

"She was hysterical," he said. "I don't handle confrontation well. I was in a hurry to get her off the phone. I was trying to appease her."

Baribeau's wife of 28 years, Linda Fogleman-Baribeau, testified that the first time she heard of the incident was when Cavanaugh went to their Niantic home a few days after the incident and said she wanted to speak with Baribeau. As she drove him to the interview, her husband told her about the client.

"He said he thought maybe he hurt her, but it wasn't to any degree that she would go to the police," the wife testified.

Three employees of Body Kneadz testified that Baribeau was "very professional" and was a pleasure to work with.

Baribeau is expected to return to the witness stand briefly Wednesday before attorneys deliver their closing arguments. Judge John M. Newson then will instruct the jury on the relevant law before the six-member panel begins deliberating.

Twitter: @KFLORIN 

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