This story contains graphic description of sexual assault.
At her first meeting with prosecutors in Little Rock, Arkansas, Kayla Browning says she was told the man she accused of sexual assault could be the next Larry Nassar.
Like the hundreds of gymnasts who testified against the Olympic team doctor, Browning had allegedly been assaulted by a man who promised to make her feel better—in her case, a local massage therapist named Thomas Winne, who had also been accused by at least three other women.
But while Larry Nassar got 175 years in prison after pleading guilty, Winne was sentenced, earlier this month, to just four months in county jail. In a deal with prosecutors, the charges against him were downgraded from three counts of felony rape to two counts of second-degree sexual assault.
And his victims say they had no idea.
“The last thing I heard was that [the prosecutor] was going to go for 20 years in prison,” Browning told The Daily Beast. “And then the next thing I know is, ‘Hey, he’s pleading tomorrow and it’s going to be 120 days in county jail and five years probation.’”
“It makes you want to throw up,” she added. “It’s not right.”
The Pulaski County prosecuting attorney’s office told The Daily Beast that the victims were aware of Winne’s plea before his hearing date. John Johnson, the chief deputy prosecuting attorney, said the plea bargain was the best possible outcome based on the facts of the case. Winne’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment.
Winne, 40, was arrested last October for allegedly assaulting Kate McConathy at his private Little Rock massage studio. McConathy told police it was her second appointment with the masseur, who had been recommended to her by a friend.
Much like her first appointment, McConathy told investigators, Winne stressed how injured she was and asked if she trusted him. When she said yes, she claims, he stuck his gloveless finger inside of her. Later, she says, he warned her not to tell her friend what had happened.
McConathy told police she was afraid to resist Winne because they were alone in his studio. She also says he told her the assault was a legitimate medical procedure—an attempt to reach her “donut muscle.” It was only after speaking with her roommate’s mother—a registered nurse—that McConathy realized the donut muscle does not exist. Her roommate told police McConathy burst into tears when she realized what had happened.
“You're supposed to be able to trust licensed medical professionals,” McConathy told The Daily Beast at the time. “You shouldn't have to worry about, when you go into an appointment, that you're going to be sexually assaulted.”
In the course of investigating McConathy’s claims, the police uncovered at least three other women with similar allegations. One was a former client who claimed Winne assaulted her at a local chiropractor’s office years earlier.
During a routine massage, the woman said, Winne began rubbing his penis against her arms until he became erect. She reported the incident to the chiropractor, who fired Winne for sexual misconduct. (In his application to Massage Envy years later, court records show, he would not list the chiropractor’s office in employment records.)
Two other women told police that Winne had groped them during appointments at Massage Envy, just a few miles down the road from where McConathy was assaulted. The first, who did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment, told police he groped her breasts and penetrated her with his finger during a massage in 2012.
When the woman reported the incident to Massage Envy, Winne claimed she had been flirting with him and playing with herself under the draping—claims she strongly denied.
“There was actually a whole lot of victim-blaming in this conversation,” the woman later told investigators of her experience with Massage Envy staff. “Asking me why I didn’t leave sooner, why I didn’t say something, why I did not leave right away or come to the front desk as soon as it was over. Things like that.”
Discouraged, the woman decided not to report to police. She says the spa later offered her a free one-hour massage.
Four years later, Browning made her report to Massage Envy. She later told police she was referred to Winne by her mother, who had received massages from him for years. In fact, she said, she often requested her mother’s presence during massages because of Winne’s odd behavior. He always required her to be naked under the draping, she said, and once massaged the area around her vagina so hard it left bruising.
But at her final appointment, Browning said, Winne asked her mother to leave the room, and again began moving his massage toward her vaginal area. When she told him to stop, she said, he explained he needed to reach a specific muscle group. Then, Browning claims, he stuck an ungloved finger inside of her.
Browning and her mother reported the incident to the Massage Envy franchise owner, who brought in Winne for a recorded interview. According to the police report, the masseur admitted on tape to touching Browning inappropriately, claiming his hand “accidentally slipped.” He also admitted to asking her mom to step out of the room.
Winne lost his job at Massage Envy, but Browning never reported him to police. She later said her mother and the franchise owner told her it would be a case of “he said, she said.” Describing the incident to investigators later, her mother broke down in tears.
In her final report on the investigation—for which she interviewed Winne and four of his accusers, spoke to their family and friends, and reviewed the taped interview—Little Rock Detective Paige Cline was decisive.
“During my investigation, I have developed a behavioral pattern of Thomas Winne that is frightening,” she wrote. “Thomas Winne used the naive and young mentality of these victims to satisfy his ‘sexual predator behavior’ while being a massage therapist.”
She added, “What I find most disturbing about this whole investigation is how many more victims are out there that might have been raped and/or sexually assaulted at the hands of Thomas Winne.”
Prosecutors eventually charged Winne with three counts of felony rape in connection with McConathy’s allegations and the two incidents at Massage Envy. The charges were all classified as “Y” felonies—the most serious offenses under Arkansas state law. If convicted at trial, he would have faced a potential life sentence.
One year after Winne was charged, McConathy says, she received a call from the prosecutors office telling her that Winne had taken a plea deal. The charge from her and Browning’s complaints had been lowered to second-degree sexual assault, and the one connected to the third woman was dropped completely. She says the office presented the deal as a win.
In a local TV interview that week, McConathy said she was unsatisfied with the plea, but relieved about not having to testify. But in the days that followed, she says, her disappointment turned to anger.
“This isn’t a win for any of the victims,” McConathy told The Daily Beast this week. “If they’re just going to go from three life sentences to 120 nonconsecutive days in jail, why would I go through all that?”
“If my options were to go to trial or for him to get what he got, I would for sure 100 percent go to trial,” she added.
Browning, meanwhile, says she found out about the plea deal when she called the prosecutor's office to see if she should show up for the trial scheduled that week. Instead, she was told she could go to the courthouse the next day to see Winne take his plea. When she confronted prosecutor Sam Jackson at the hearing, she says, he told her the plea deal was “something we could all live with.” She left before the proceedings began.
Jackson was not available for comment, but Johnson told The Daily Beast he is “a dedicated prosecutor that is in this job for all the right reasons.” Of Browning, he added, “You can’t stop someone from attributing comments to someone when they’re mad at them… She’s going to have to live with whatever she’s saying about him.”
Johnson said his office downgraded the charges after learning new information in their interviews with the victims that made it “difficult if not impossible to prove the force element of rape.”
“We entered into a negotiated plea, with [the victims’] knowledge, in the hopes that we would be able to mete out some degree of punishment against this person for what he’d done, and in the hopes that other victims would be protected from being sexually assaulted in the way these young women were assaulted,” Johnson said.
Johnson declined to state for the record what information had changed prosecutors' minds. Browning and McConathy say they were never informed of any issues with their statements, and McConathy said she never spoke at length with prosecutors about the details of her case.
Tiffany Murphy, a professor at the University of Arkansas Law School, said it would take a significant difference between the victims’ interviews and the police report to merit such a reduction in charges. And if the victims were still prepared to testify, she added, it raised questions about why exactly the prosecutors changed their minds.
“Someone thought this was serious enough at some point in time to charge three counts of first-degree rape,” she said, adding later: “Somebody in that office, for whatever reason, didn’t see it was truly a first-degree rape.”
"If the women are onboard, then you’re looking squarely at the prosecutor," she said.
In an email to Browning, Jackson said he was “very satisfied with the outcome” of the case. He emphasized that Winne is now registered as a habitual offender, meaning any further convictions will make him ineligible for parole. He was also required to register as a sex offender and surrender his massage license. His nursing license is currently on hold.
Under Arkansas state law, habitual offenders convicted of two or more violent crimes serve a mandatory sentence or life. McConathy said that, despite the outcome of her case, she hopes that more victims will step forward.
But even that rang hollow for Browning.
“I hate the feeling that we’re just waiting for another victim before he actually goes down,” she said. “That’s just another girl that gets hurt.”