Two years after the incident, a Westport sexual assault case still lingers in traffic court
Kendra O’Sullivan is tired of her Kansas City commute. No, not from her apartment to work each day. She’s tired of driving hundreds of miles every month to implore our city to take her sexual assault seriously.
O’Sullivan is prone to making jokes. Like the bit about this commute frustration. She has thick Midwestern niceness combined with a Minnesota accent that makes our phone calls… funnier than they should be? Despite the conversation’s substance. She’ll overshare, laugh something off, and then apologize for rambling.
We’ve mentioned to her that this amount of levity isn’t usually how our interviews around an assault tend to go. She’ll laugh and apologize again. (The Midwest nice is strong here; we cannot overstate.)
But each time our calls come to an end, the truth is there waiting to remind us: Kendra O’Sullivan is only laughing because, at this point, there’s nothing else she can do.
In May of 2019, O’Sullivan went to Imperial Foot Care (4120 Pennsylvania Ave) in Westport for a massage. Rather than the relaxing afternoon she had planned, the massage therapist trapped her in the room with him. For more than an hour, he groped her, attempted to penetrate her, chased her, and even tried to crush her eyes with his thumbs if she didn’t submit.
When O’Sullivan finally found an escape, she was so traumatized that she paid at the front desk on her way out. She even tipped.
“In that space, in every moment of that assault, I wondered what the worst thing was that could happen,” she recounts. “Me being raped? Me being blinded? The worst thing that could happen would be that it would never end. So tipping 20% was part of not rocking the boat; escaping in a normal way without drawing further attention.”
The massage therapist was identified by his employer as Xiang Jun Wang. This was one of several similar complaints made about him, and one of as many as five reported to the police department.
Imperial Foot Care is still open. Xiang Jun Wang is a free man. The criminal justice system has failed the victim(s) to such a degree that it feels almost like taunting. And Kendra O’Sullivan’s life is in a holding pattern.
For two years she’s tried to making something—anything—happen. Now she’s like a ghost with unfinished business; unable to touch the machinations that would create the change she requires, unable to move on to the next phase of life, and seemingly unable to be heard.
O’Sullivan reached out to The Pitch back in early December. We get a lot of requests from the community for us to cover what’s happening in their court cases. More often than not, the investigations or legal processes seem to be moving through the natural phases of the system. But in O’Sullivan’s case, nothing had happened at all. Or, more accurately, everyone in a position of power had run away from this, as fast as they could.
As someone who, from the outset, was concerned about what might happen with the elaborate and archaic systems of criminal justice, O’Sullivan began keeping detailed notes. She directly quotes everyone she encountered, from lawyers to judges, in what can best be defined as an impressive mega-document, complete with filings, statements, emails—Kendra kept the receipts.
So for the last few months, we’ve caught up with O’Sullivan once a week while trying to ask around about how such a miscarriage of justice could have come to pass. What we’ve been introduced to is a systemic set of problems that goes much larger than Kendra O’Sullivan, and indeed larger than the group of shared police reports from similar victims at the same massage parlor. This is a structural process problem that almost anyone could find themselves trapped within. And that’s scary as hell.
The day after the May 8, 2019 attack, O’Sullivan reported the incident to the police. The officer who took down her information immediately told her he believed her, as did most other law enforcement that were part of the conversation. Why offer that up so early? Because they’d taken down the similar reports from the exact same location. They were familiar with this pattern of behavior. They knew she was just the latest victim. They would get started on the investigation.
Later in the week, O’Sullivan was fired. “Work said I’d been acting weird and not being ‘a team player’ and I cried at my desk,” O’Sullivan says. That’s when they let me go and I lost my health insurance. My insurance and the ability to pay rent.” Kendra began living out of her car as she spent the next few months trying to further this case against her assailant while getting back on her feet.
By the end of July, O’Sullivan had participated in three different police line-ups. She thought she was looking for her assailant, but it turned out she was supposed to identify the assailant of another woman who had reported. Among the other cases opened against this massage parlor, it has been determined that there is more than one employee implicated in these cases.
“I called my detective in July and asked what the next steps were,” O’Sullivan recalls. “He told me nothing was going to happen because I had not identified my attacker. So my case was going to be closed. I was shocked.”
Lin Ling, the owner of Imperial Foot Care, finally returned requests from detectives in September of 2019. Ling claimed that, yes, Wang had been the employee in the schedule for O’Sullivan’s assault. However, Ling fired Wang due to other reports of similar malicious activity, and apparently, Wang had moved away from town. That happened in May, and they only told police come September. O’Sullivan had participated in line-ups after her attacker had already left the state.
O’Sullivan began working with different lawyers, and reaching out to media outlets and members of local government—including the mayor and the city’s Anti-Violence Committee. Only one member of that committee even returned her email.
“I just kept thinking there’s something more I could do,” O’Sullivan says. “When nothing happens I feel like I have to take responsibility for it. If there was any motivation I could hold onto it’s just how everyone at the police station believed me immediately when I first reported. Not because police are great people, but because other victims were courageous people, and they came forward to build a path for me. I needed to take that path they made for me and further that path for others.”
O’Sullivan’s firing meant she needed to look for work, but she had a non-compete clause. In order to work in her field at a similar level, she’d need to move away. She settled on returning to her home state of Minnesota. She knew this meant she’d be further from the case, but vowed not to let it drop.
The powers that be had no such dedication to keeping that ball in the air.
The state of Missouri passed on the case multiple times. Jackson County prosecutors decided they couldn’t make a conviction stick with the evidence available. Jackson County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Jill Icenhower tried to make it clear why this was happening.
“She told me that their job is to protect the community,” O’Sullivan recounts. “He was gone. He was no longer in the community. So the community was safe. That was heartbreaking. And further, I was no longer in the community. I’d literally been run out of the community because of this non-compete and a firing stemming from the emotional pain of this event. I’d had to move away. So I no longer counted as ‘the community’. It was cruel.”
The case just kept falling further down the rungs of justice. This was no longer a felony case or even a misdemeanor—it became a violation of the municipal ordinance. No longer attempted rape, or assault, or even domestic battery, the case was now a city code violation. Which placed Kendra O’Sullivan’s assault in the lowest of city courts.
“My assault was being heard between people paying parking tickets,” she says. “This man attacking me for more than an hour was being brought up between tickets and folks who got pulled over for going 60 miles per hour in a 30 zone. It’s dehumanizing.”
“What’s worse,” she says, “I went to therapy at one point and parked in a no parking zone. I got a ticket and knew that I could pay this ticket at the same time, next time I was in court. Why couldn’t all justice work that way? Why can’t he pay for what he did wrong as easily as the rest of the people in this courtroom could be held accountable for their actions?”
As a municipal violation being held against a man, now living in Houston, a path forward would look like a minor fine and her assailant never having this case show up on a background check for future jobs. Under COVID-19 and with the jail situation, there’d be little chance of him serving time. But all of that is indeed dependant on him returning to Kansas City, as there’s no way to extradite someone from another state over a city code violation.
Compounding that, under COVID-19 a defendant can opt to postpone a case if they do not want to appear in person.
“There’s literally a button you press on the court website,” O’Sullivan says. “His lawyer can press it as many times as he wants.”
Throughout all of this, O’Sullivan has been making 400+ mile round-trip drives to appear for every court date, to talk with legal teams and other advocates, and to keep showing the judge that she’s not letting this go.
“Sometimes I drive all the way down, get an Airbnb, show up to court and it’s been postponed. Or cancelled and they didn’t bother to tell me. And then I have to drive 400 miles home the next day. This has happened all throughout the pandemic. I’m putting myself in danger to stand up for what’s right, and the belief that there will be some small amount of justice served. And I’ll keep coming back to do it.”
O’Sullivan was forced out of town, then ignored for leaving the city because she was no longer KC’s responsibility. Now, she’s become essentially a long-haul trucker for seeking consequences for a stranger’s actions—on behalf of her and the others entangled in this.
This morning, Melinda Henneberger from The Star released an in-depth report on Kendra’s case entitled “Assault victim on Westport massage business: ‘If they had rats, they’d be shut down’“. O’Sullivan’s case actually builds on Henneberger’s previous excellent reporting on the universal theme exemplified here: Why are violent attacks being heard between parking tickets and lawncare violations?
When we first started speaking with O’Sullivan, we asked what her best-case scenario was on the horizon? With this languishing eternally in city court, and almost unenforceable due to the abuser’s new home, what would be the result that would give her any sense of closure? Her response was twofold: Shutting down Imperial Foot Care, where this behavior has repeatedly occurred with the owner’s knowledge, and no one has faced consequences. That, and hoping at least one of the other women would come forward. If someone else was willing to go on the record, and they had the same assailant, this could be investigated again as a felony. They could get Xiang Jun Wang.
After the publication of The Star’s piece, one of the other victims reached out to O’Sullivan.
O’Sullivan is in a different type of shock today. Not that she doesn’t feel like throwing up, now that everyone knows what happened to her. But hearing from just one other person—one of the people she’s been searching for over the last two years—means she’s no longer in a vacuum.
“We have [a significant number] of Facebook friends in common,” O’Sullivan says. “This city is so small. And doing this today means that people get to see what happened. Not just to me, but to all of us. And I hope the other victims see. I hope that, even if you don’t come forward, that you know that someone fought on your behalf. You didn’t deserve this either.”
Not for nothing, but if this brings a spotlight to a broken justice system that’s tossing sex crimes and violent attacks into the same room where violations of sidewalk maintenance beekeeping permits would be heard by the same judge, that would be a win too.
O’Sullivan hopes the victims aren’t the only ones to read this. “I’ve lost a lot,” she says to her attacker, if he happens to read this.
“My life was uprooted. How do I even describe this pain? Your actions put me behind in my life. I slept in my car. I lost my job and my dog. I wish you understood that using my body as a crime scene—as your own gratification—it destroyed me. Financially. Emotionally. Physically. How could I say more? I hurt.”