Ashley Nichole Walkowiak trusted Jason Abrams.
Like at least six other women, she believed Abrams when he said his massage practice was a safe space, somewhere she could work through past traumas.
But six years after she began going to him, she was sharing a victim impact statement at his sentencing hearing Wednesday that would decide the next decade and more of his life.
Back in August, Abrams entered an open no contest plea to multiple aggravated indecent assault and sexual assault charges. The charges involved the sexual assaults of seven women, located in two counties, dating as far back as 2013.
The no contest plea means Abrams will be convicted as if he is guilty; however, he never admitted guilt or took responsibility for the assaults. In fact, Walkowiak said Abrams is claiming that all seven of these women neglected to tell investigators that they consented to the sexual contact. She is clear, that wasn’t the case.
A Dauphin County judge didn’t say much to Walkowiak and the rest of the courtroom during the hearing, but ultimately sentenced him to a minimum of 11 years in prison, acknowledging around a year and a half of time he served at Dauphin County Prison before he was able to post bail.
This means Abrams will not be up for parole for at least a decade, Walkowiak said. The judge ordered the sentence for each charge to be served consecutively, meaning that while the minimum is 11 and a half years, the maximum extends to 27 years, according to online court dockets.
“We don’t see heavy sentences like that,” she said. “It was a good day in court today.”
For Walkowiak, she went to Abrams with her walls already raised. She had been drugged and assaulted as a teen, something she has never been able to get justice for.
She said she went to him on a recommendation from someone else, for the standard care a massage therapist might offer. She was stressed, held tension in her body and had headaches. During her first visit, she told him she had specific boundaries about where she wanted to be massaged.
By the second visit, he had broken those boundaries, forcing her out of her comfort zone, but said he was trying to help her heal. He said that he had also been victimized in his life, so he understood what she was going through.
“He promoted himself as a healer, a safe space,” Walkowiak said. “His was a place for restoration and healing.”
Over the next two years, she said he groomed her. Abrams offered friendship, encouraging trust, and she said that the grooming process has been the most detrimental aspect of it all.
“I took his word for it. I trusted him because he said he was a fellow survivor,” Walkowiak said.
On the day of her assault, in 2018, she was expecting a massage, which meant she was naked. As Abrams began his attack, she was thinking, what could she even do? Run out of a room without clothes?
So she didn’t do anything. She was in shock and she froze, she said.
She couldn’t do anything for nearly a year. Walkowiak works with the PA Office of Victim Advocates, and she said that was a compounding factor in her not coming forward about the assault right away.
“My expertise made me feel like I shouldn’t have been a victim of a crime like this,” Walkowiak said. There are so many reasons victims don’t report right away, whether it’s misplaced shame, anxiety or prior trauma.
It was only after news broke that Abrams had been arrested for assaulting other women that someone sent her the link and she realized that she could speak up.
In all, seven women came forward in Cumberland and Dauphin counties, and it reminded Walkowiak that a victim could be anyone.
“One of the strongest aspects in the case was that none of us knew each other,” Walkowiak said. In other cases, she said she learned that it is common for a defense attorney to use any connection between accusers to call the allegations a conspiracy and use it against them. But in this case, none of them had any contact with each other.
And yet, now all of them are dealing with the lingering effects of a crime like this, she said.
During the sentencing hearing, Walkowiak said she heard Abrams talk about how he was sober and had found religion, and his mother claimed the women had to have put themselves in the situation to be assaulted.
She said when she arrived at the courthouse with her husband, she turned a corner and he was sitting there and they made eye contact. Then she had to give her victim’s impact statement just a few feet from where he sat.
“That was the most challenging aspect of the day,” she said. “Being in close proximity to him was also incredibly difficult.”
But in the end, she said hearing Abrams’ sentence brought a sense of resolution. She called it validating that in a world where so few sexual assault cases make it to the sentencing phase she was able to get that closure.
One other victim spoke at the hearing, but it was prosecutor Jennifer Gettle who reminded the judge that one victim reported Abrams to the Department of Health for something that happened in 2013.
At the time, he was operating without a massage therapy license, and the Department of Health said he didn’t do anything wrong.
“He had an opportunity to change his behavior at the time and he didn’t,” Walkowiak said. Instead, the incidents escalated and it led to her assault years later.
She believes that by sharing her story, and other survivors sharing theirs, these things won’t have to happen to more people.
“Society has taught us that isolation fueled by a focus on our differences, is safety,” Walkowiak said. “But I believe it’s time for survivors to focus on what unites us and the common threads in all of our stories. I believe it’s important to talk about the wins, and today was definitely a win.”
But even with the successful prosecution, Walkowiak wonders if she would even be in this position had she been able to get justice for herself as a teenager after the first assault, she said.
She was only 17. Twenty years later, she said she’s still in counseling for it.
In her work with the PA Office of Victim Advocates, she has advocated for opening up the window for the statute of limitations, which she said would allow survivors all over Pennsylvania to get justice for crimes that currently nothing can be done about.
“While I am rejoicing with my fellow six women, that’s our next crusade,” Walkowiak said, saying she felt a little bitter that she was able to get justice about Abrams but not for her first attacker.
“It’s a second victimization and the justice system is victimizing myself and many other survivors by not opening that window,” Walkowiak said.
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