Larry Nassar and a career filled with ‘silenced' voices

EAST LANSING, MICH. - Larry Nassar stood on the floor of the Georgia Dome near the end of the Atlanta Olympics and watched as the vaunted "Magnificent Seven" received the first team gold medal in the history of U.S. women's gymnastics.

He wore a red, white and blue polo shirt, similar to the one he can be seen wearing in the famous photograph taken that day of gymnast Kerri Strug being helped off the vault podium with an injured ankle.

The 33-year-old team doctor stood at the bottom of the steps with an outstretched hand.

It was 1996.

Less than a year later, Nassar joined Michigan State University's clinical staff and began building a 20-year career as a nationally known and respected sports physician. MSU touted him as its Olympic doctor and used him as a recruiting lure for its gymnastics team.

Yet paralleling his public success was a string of sexual assault allegations, most hidden from the public, that raise the question: Did MSU staff, local police and gymnastic officials miss – or ignore – warnings?

Related: Olympic medalist Aly Raisman: I was abused by USA Gymnastics doctor

Between 1997 and 2015 at least seven women or girls say they raised concerns about Nassar's actions to coaches, trainers, police or university officials. He was investigated twice by police but never charged, and at least once in an internal MSU inquiry that cleared him.

The State Journal used court documents, university records and interviews with dozens of people connected with civil and criminal cases against Nassar to tell the stories of those who spoke up and what happened after they did.

To date, Nassar faces 28 criminal charges and seven lawsuits involving sexual assault claims from at least 95 women and girls, many who say the abuse happened at MSU. Four say Nassar abused them before MSU hired him, including one who says it happened in 1992. Since September, MSU has opened and closed five Title IX inquiries related to Nassar; all found he violated the university’s relationship violence and sexual misconduct policy.

Nassar, through his attorneys, has denied any wrongdoing and said he was performing legitimate medical procedures.

MSU declined to provide a comment on the specifics of the cases outlined in this report. In an April letter to the MSU community, University President Lou Anna Simon said, "While determined sexual predators and pedophiles … are very difficult to detect and stop, we at MSU will do all we can not only to safeguard our patients but also to continue to protect youth who come to our campus in all capacities."

For 20 years, MSU and Nassar proudly linked themselves to each other. Now they're forever linked in a scandal that is 8 months old but far from over.

‘A productive relationship’

MSU hired Nassar in 1997 as an assistant professor with clinical duties. He ranked third among the finalists.

A memo from the search committee supporting its decision praised Nassar's experience working with world-class athletes, his "exceptional" clinical skills and his publication record. The committee added that he was "respected nationally and internationally in the field of Sports Medicine."

The offer letter said the university looked forward to "a productive relationship."

Nassar's prominence in the local gymnastics community continued to grow after joining MSU. He worked at Twistars gymnastics club in Dimondale and started a non-profit to create gymnastics opportunities for children with special needs.

His rise on the national level was even more noticeable as he became a longtime team physician for USA Gymnastics, treating American gymnasts at three more Olympic Games and four World Championships.

Over the years, performance reviews show his MSU supervisors praised this work.

‘She silenced me that night’

Larissa Boyce became a gymnast at age 5.

"It was fun," she told reporters in March at her attorneys’ office. "I loved it. I loved being able to push myself. … You're doing things that your mind is telling your body you can’t do."

She knew Nassar because she was a member of the Spartan Youth Gymnastics Program. Nassar had been involved in that program before MSU hired him.

Boyce was 16 years old when she says Nassar first digitally penetrated her vagina during a medical appointment in 1997 for treatment of back pain at his MSU office. She said that didn’t seem normal to her, but she trusted the doctor.

The first time wasn’t the last.

Sometimes during treatments he made grunting noises or had her disrobe from the waist down, Boyce recounted in a federal lawsuit she filed against Nassar and MSU earlier this year. She added that there were times when he appeared to be sexually aroused. Once, he asked about her sex life.

Nassar sometimes treated Boyce at Jenison Field House, home of MSU's gymnastics team. She said the first time Nassar sexually assaulted her there, he asked other trainers to leave the room.

"I remember them looking at each other thinking that was strange," she told reporters. "They still went out (of the room). … I think that was one of the first times I felt like it was really a sexual thing he was doing."

In late 1997 or mid-1998, according to her lawsuit, Boyce told Kathie Klages what Nassar did.

Klages was MSU’s gymnastics coach and coached Spartan Youth Gymnastics. After she told Klages, Boyce says the coach asked other youth gymnasts about their experiences with Nassar.

According to court documents filed in connection with the federal lawsuit, another teenage girl told Klages in that meeting that Nassar had digitally penetrated her as well. 

"Klages told (her) that there is no reason to bring up Nassar’s conduct," the documents say.

In the lawsuit, Boyce says Klages warned that filing a complaint could lead to "serious consequences" not only for Nassar but for Boyce. Soon after, Boyce quit gymnastics without telling her parents or police what had happened.

"After I had talked to Kathy, I felt like I had a dirty mind," Boyce said. "I felt like something was wrong with me. And she silenced me that night. I didn’t want to talk to anybody else about it after that."

Klages resigned as MSU’s coach in February, a day after being suspended. Her "passionate defense" of Nassar during a team meeting in September left MSU gymnasts "confused about who they could or should speak with about the situation," Athletic Director Mark Hollis wrote in a letter to the longtime coach.

Klages is named as a defendant in the federal lawsuit against MSU and Nassar. She has not yet filed a response to the lawsuit. Her attorney, Steve Stapleton, did not return a message seeking comment for this report. 

This appears to be the first effort to tell someone with authority about Nassar. At least 11 women have now come forward to say Nassar had sexually abused them by 1997. It would be another 19 years until his arrest.

‘We’re going to be fine’

It was November 2016, two months after the first news story about allegations against Nassar, when Tiffany Lopez walked into her living room.

The TV was on, but the volume was muted. She saw Nassar’s face on the screen.

"I froze," she said. "Time stopped for me."

Standing in her California home, Lopez called for her husband, who rushed to her side. Her traumatic time in East Lansing had resurfaced.

Lopez was an accomplished softball player who was recruited to play at MSU and enrolled in 1998.

While training that fall, she injured her lower back and was referred to Nassar for treatment, according to a lawsuit filed in December in California.

In her lawsuit, Lopez says Nassar sexually assaulted her more than 10 times, which first included him touching her vagina. Later, growing bolder, she says he penetrated her vagina with his ungloved hand.

Lopez said she told three MSU trainers in separate conversations.

The first trainer brushed off her concerns, saying Nassar would never do anything inappropriate.

But a second trainer seemed concerned, so Lopez approached the third, who outranked the previous two.

The third trainer, whom Lopez and her attorneys declined to identify, told Lopez she was getting the best medical care possible and that Nassar performed such procedures regularly.

The trainer told Lopez she could report Nassar, but suggested that doing so would add stress to Lopez and her family, who already were coping with the recent death of her mother.

That’s when Lopez gave up.

She saw Nassar once more, but broke down crying during the appointment and never went back.

"I feel like my 18- and 19-year-old self, she wasn’t strong enough," Lopez said in a January interview.

Lopez left MSU in 2000, the same year Nassar attended his third Olympic games, this time in Sydney, Australia, as a doctor for the U.S. gymnastics team. Jaime Dantzscher, a member of that bronze medal team, now says Nassar sexually assaulted her during medical examinations at those Olympics.

"For the young ladies who went through this with Dr. Nassar, I am so very sorry," Lopez said. "If there’s anything I can do to take the guilt off of them, I just want them to know that we’re going to be fine."

This appears to be the second effort to tell someone with authority about Nassar. At least 30 women have now come forward to say Nassar had sexually abused them by 2000. It would be another 16 years until his arrest.

A police investigation

The Meridian Township Police Department was the first to open a criminal investigation of Nassar.

It was in 2004, after a teenage girl saw Nassar for treatment for back pain, according to a lawsuit, and he touched her vagina. He did so for several minutes, without telling her in advance. Nassar also grabbed her breast for several minutes and asked her to get dressed while he was still in the room, according to the lawsuit filed earlier this year.

She told her parents, who contacted police.

At that time, the case escaped public notice. Now the case has been reopened, making police and prosecutors reluctant to discuss many details.

In 2004, the case was assigned to one of Meridian’s four investigators, said Police Chief David Hall, who was then the acting chief.

Hall said the department had no specialized unit for sexual assault or crimes against children, although the investigator did have experience with such cases. He would not identify the investigator or say if the individual is still with the department.

John Manly, a California attorney who represents this woman along with dozens more, says the investigator assigned in 2004 did little.

The investigator met with Nassar and the teenage girl’s parents at the doctor’s MSU office, Manly said. He added that during the meeting Nassar explained that what he did was medically appropriate.

That's apparently where the investigation ended. It wasn't sent to prosecutors and Hall said he didn't want to speculate about why.

He declined to say whether he believes the investigation was handled properly, or whether there's been an internal investigation to determine that.

About the same time, another girl told her parents she had been abused by Nassar. Police now allege his years-long sexual abuse of that girl, who was not a patient, came to a close in or around 2004. The girl, now in her 20s, told her parents soon after. They didn’t believe her.

She testified in February during a preliminary hearing that on several occasions in his basement, Nassar penetrated her vagina with his fingers, exposed his erect penis to her while masturbating and rubbed his exposed penis against her feet.

Her parents met with Nassar and a psychologist who worked for MSU but saw patients as part of a private practice. No one contacted police, she testified.

The woman went to police late last year, she said, after seeing a news article about sexual assault allegations against Nassar.

These appear to be the third and fourth efforts to tell someone with authority about Nassar. At least 45 women have now come forward to say Nassar had sexually abused them by 2004. It would be another 12 years until his arrest.

A second police investigation

For the next decade, Nassar's standing at MSU and in the gymnastics world continued to rise.

He traveled to Beijing, China, in 2008 with the U.S. women's gymnastics team that took the silver medal and produced five individual medals. He traveled with the 2012 team for the London games.

Also in 2012, he received the Alumnus of the Year Award from MSU’s College of Osteopathic Medicine for his "stellar standard of care for both elite athletes and weekend warriors, for his service to Michigan State University and his community and for exemplifying the best practices of the osteopathic profession."

And he had become a recruiting tool for MSU’s gymnastics program.

In a 2014 email to a prospect, then-gymnastics coach Klages listed several key points about MSU. Among them was the team doctor.

"We have Larry Nassar!" Klages wrote. "Enough said about that!"

Yet, at the time, Nassar faced a new allegation that had sparked two sexual assault investigations, one by the university’s police department and one by its Title IX office. Both were in response to a woman's report that Nassar sexually assaulted her during a medical appointment.

Unlike the 2004 police investigation, this one went to Ingham County prosecutors, who declined to issue charges. Earlier this year, MSU Police Chief Jim Dunlap said prosecutors did so after determining that what Nassar did could have been a medical procedure.

The Title IX investigation, which relied on the opinions of four medical experts who worked for MSU and had close ties to Nassar, cleared him of any policy violations. The Title IX investigator wrote that the woman likely didn’t understand the "nuanced difference" between an osteopathic manipulative medical procedure and sexual assault.

A year later, USA Gymnastics contacted the FBI's office in Indianapolis with suspicions about Nassar. The sport's national governing body said it had been alerted five weeks earlier about an athlete’s concerns, but did an internal investigation before telling the FBI.

These appear to be the fifth and sixth efforts to tell someone with authority about Nassar. At least 95 women and girls have now come forward to say Nassar had sexually abused them by 2015. It would be another year until his arrest.

Public allegations

The athletes’ warnings about Nassar, along with the police and Title IX investigations, might still be hidden from the public were it not for Jaime Dantzscher and Rachael Denhollander.

The former gymnasts told their stories last September in a report by the Indianapolis Star.

That story spurred others to come forward, either contacting police or joining lawsuits. First, it was a handful, then dozens. Now the number could reach more than 100.

For Denhollander, the results of speaking out in 2016 contrast with an earlier effort that didn't succeed.

Years after she says she was abused, Denhollander coached gymnastics in Kalamazoo. She said in testimony that she told another coach about what Nassar did to her in an effort to prevent that coach from referring a young gymnast to Nassar for treatment.

That would make the seventh instance of a woman speaking out against Nassar before 2016. As with the others, it was not successful. The fellow coach referred the young athlete to Nassar anyway.

Now, Denhollander is the most vocal and visible face among those who say Nassar sexually abused them. She told her story to MSU’s police department and Title IX office last year, saying Nassar sexually assaulted her five times in 2000, when she was 15.

After Denhollander's report, Nassar was removed from clinical duties and university police opened a criminal investigation.

The day Denhollander filed her complaint with MSU's Title IX office, Nassar emailed his boss because he had "been thinking about" ways to help him keep his job. He was considering no longer doing osteopathic manipulative medicine "as a result of all that has happened." And Nassar offered to speak with university attorneys "if that would improve the situation."

MSU fired him 19 days later, when about a dozen women and girls had come forward to report abuse. That same day, police and federal agents executed a search warrant for his Holt property.

Trash collection was late, so when an officer walked to the curb near the end of the search, Nassar's trash was still there.

On top was an external hard drive, and police found three more in a grocery bag inside the trash, FBI agent Rod Charles testified last year.

One of the hard drives contained about 37,000 images and videos of child pornography, including videos that show Nassar sexually assaulting young girls at a swimming pool, Charles told Federal Magistrate Judge Ray Kent in a Grand Rapids courtroom.

At the end of the 51-minute hearing, Kent ordered the former Olympic doctor held without bond on federal child pornography charges.

"Dr. Nassar, I know you disagree with my decision here this afternoon, but do you understand what happened in court?" Kent said.

"I don't understand why," Nassar said before his attorney grabbed his arm. "Yes."

Nassar returned to court last month, this time in Mason. It was the first of four days of hearings that will determine if a state case against Nassar — which includes 22 sexual assault charges related to his role as a doctor — can proceed to circuit court.

Denhollander was the first witness. She walked into the crowded courtroom to tell her story one more time as Nassar sat nearby wearing a striped, two-tone gray Ingham County jail jumpsuit.

He rarely looked at her during her hours-long testimony, instead writing notes on a yellow legal pad and sometimes conferring quietly with his attorney. His left hand was still handcuffed to a thick restraining belt.

Denhollander, sitting 10 feet from Nassar and wearing a dark blue blazer, was asked why she didn’t report him years earlier.

"I knew that I wouldn't be believed," she said. "His movements were very rehearsed. It was something he did regularly. I was not his first victim. … There was no way that other victims hadn't said something and been silenced. I was very confident of that."

Here’s a timeline of Nassar’s decades-long career and the allegations against him. This will continue to be updated.

Here's a map of key people and connections in the Nassar cases. This will continue to be updated.

Here's the State Journal and IndyStar's full coverage of the Nassar and the allegations against him.

Make it easy to keep up to date with more stories like this. Download the WZZM 13 app now.

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© 2017, Lansing State Journal


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