LANSING, Mich. — They came seeking help, he saw them as prey. They came seeking treatment, he treated them as objects. They considered him a man of stature, of medicine, of talent, yet a friend he instructed them to simply call “Larry” not Dr. Nassar.
He used all of that to attack them, abuse them, use them.
So here on this cold Wednesday morning, on the eve of Thanksgiving, they came for a reckoning, came to see Larry Nassar, the USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University doctor they once trusted, pleaded guilty to seven counts of first degree criminal sexual conduct. It is, sadly, sickeningly, but a small fraction of the 125 women who have contacted state police alleging the same. There are untold more after that.
The 54-year-old will be sentenced in January, up to 40 years for each count, although Judge Rosemarie E. Aquilina didn’t rule out more. There’s still a separate plea deal set for next week in Grand Rapids, plus sentencing next month for up to 27 years on federal child pornography charges. It’s all a formality, an important one, at this point. He’s gone for good.
What the victims and their families got to see was Nassar look weak and feeble, dressed in ratty orange prison garb, no longer cloaked in Team USA red white and blue, no longer gilded by Spartan green and white. They got to hear him admit his crimes and accept his inevitable fate.
Yet they also had to listen to a statement of apology, if it can be deemed that, as pathetic as the man who gave it.
“I think this is important for what I’ve done today to help move a community forward and away from the hurting,” Nassar said at one point, seemingly propping up his role in avoiding the need for a trial. “For all those involved, I am so horribly sorry that this was a match that turned into a forest fire, out of control … I want healing. I have no animosity toward anyone.”
His words rang out across a packed Courtroom 5, filled with young women, former gymnasts, former patients, forever victims. Twenty-somethings, thirty-somethings, teens. They came surrounded by moms and dads, sisters and husbands. They hugged and held hands and dabbed tears. Some wanted to sit as close as possible to him, confront him with stares and sneers that he couldn’t miss. Some sought out a far corner of the courtroom, still uncomfortable to be in his presence.
Each represented both power and pain, all these girls in this unwanted sisterhood, coming out in force, so formidable together.
And then to hear this, that ole Larry deserves some credit for doing his part in the healing process? That he felt bad for all those involved? They weren’t involved, Larry Nassar involved them without consent. That this was just some forest fire he couldn’t contain?
That, of all things, this pedophile wasn’t angry with them.
“You hold no animosity to the victims? You did this to them, they didn’t do this to you,” said Jennifer Jones. “He doesn’t understand.”
Jones was there with her daughter, Madeliene, now 18, known as Victim B in the plea deal. Madeliene was 11 years old, in March of 2011, a recreational gymnast at a club outside Detroit when she was referred to Nassar for treatment of an injury. Instead, Nassar engaged in “sexual penetration with his finger into the genital opening.” She was a patient for two months, little more than a confused tween thrown into the lion’s den.
“Children are told, ‘If you are abused, tell a trusted adult,'” said Madeliene, now a freshman at Boston College, where she hopes to lead an advocacy and education campaign on the subject. “What do you do if the trusted adult is the one abusing you?”
Beyond the physical assaults, the mental and emotional ones are the wrecking ball Nassar delivered this community – from the small clubs of mid-Michigan, through Michigan State athletics and onto the highest reaches of USA Gymnastics, with gold medal icons such as Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman and McKayla Maroney saying they, too, were victims. His treatments for injuries were actually sexual assaults, often so cunning the victims weren’t even sure what was happening.
An abuse of kids. An abuse of trust. An abuse of decency.
And then that was his statement?
“I felt it was another manipulation tactic, ‘I’m doing this for you guys,’ ” said Larissa Boyce of Nassar’s speech. “But he doesn’t get to decide when we get to heal. We decide that.”
Boyce is a former Michigan State gymnast who in 1997 said she raised concerns about Nassar to her coach. Nothing was done, allowing Nassar’s reign of terror to continue for nearly two decades. The regret and frustration toward those who ignored warning signs continue to churn.
In 2014, MSU conducted a Title IX investigation and wrote a specific policy that barred Nassar from treating underage patients alone, requiring he wear gloves and other points. Yet no one told either the workers in his own office or patients or their parents. It was a penalty without purpose.
“No one followed up,” defense attorney Micks Grewal said.
The victim count soared.
“They didn’t listen,” Jennifer Jones said. “There were many people who came forward through the years and if anybody had listened to them … ”
So far Michigan State’s actions and inactions have avoided significant criminal investigation. An internal investigation has taken place, which have caused civil defense attorneys to scoff and call for true independence. Proper authorities haven’t jumped on the case, though.
This runs contrary to when the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office prosecuted not just former football Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky for molesting 10 boys, but university administrators who were made aware of concerns. Three of them, including the school president, were eventually convicted.
Michigan attorney general Bill Schuette, a candidate for governor, has not followed that path yet, though, causing some victims to want the FBI to take over so accountability can finally come.
“This behavior was known,” Boyce, the former MSU gymnast, said, “and Michigan State needs to be transparent.”
A measure of transparency at least came here Wednesday. Nassar’s statement aside, there was a measure of relief, victims said. He pleaded guilty. He said he did it. He could lash out but at least justice was progressing. And Nassar by no means ran the show.
Seven times Judge Aquilina made Nassar stand and, displaying the signs of dramatic jail house weight loss, wearing stubble and thin, rimless glasses, answer for his crimes.
“Count 1 … How do you plead?”
“Guilty, your honor.”
“Count 2 … How do you plead””
“Count 3 … How do you plead?”
On and on it went, in a mostly silent courtroom. There were pointed follow up questions.
“It was not for any medical purpose,” Aquilina noted of the penetrations. ” … It was for your own purpose.”
“Yes,” he said, sighing at his own pitiful self.
Aquilina said any victim who wished to come forward on Wednesday could. None were prepared to do so. She said Jan. 12 would be set aside for sentencing and she would allow every last one of Nassar’s victims, not just those mentioned in the guilty counts, to address Nassar by almost any means necessary. They can speak directly to him from inside court, provide a written statement or do it by video conference from afar. They can even prerecord their own statements and send them in. If they don’t want their names used, they can submit comment in anonymity, using just a single initial.
“We’ll take all day,” Aquilina said before clearing her court calendar for Jan. 16 and perhaps beyond if needed.
The judge sounded as unimpressed by Nassar as everyone else. This wasn’t a day for the defendant, it was for all these women, she reminded, all those former patients turned powerful force crowded into the benches on the other side of the bar, here because they felt they had to be.
“The showing here today,” Aquilina said. “I am very proud of them for being here and finding those voices to come here and show you they aren’t victims anymore.”
Then she began scolding Nassar in a way unusual for a plea hearing, blasting him for playing off the currency his medical degrees and high-status job titles to become everyone’s worst nightmare.
“You used that trust in the most vile way, to abuse children,” Aquilina said. ” …You violated your oath to do no harm, to do harm … It may take them a lifetime of healing while you spend your lifetime behind bars thinking about what you did to take away their childhood.”
Soon Larry Nassar was hauled out of the place, sent back to jail to await sentencing.
His next few months will be full of days like these, rooms filled with the kids he was supposed to care for, judges blasting him from the bench, and, perhaps, even Larry Nassar trying one last manipulative trick, one last attack before getting into some dark hell hole of prison.
The women won’t back down, though. Not now. He can try, but his days of authority are done. That was then. This is different.
What would you say to him if you could, Madeliene Jones, his one-time 11-year-old patient, was asked.
“I don’t think he’s worthy of anything I have to say to him,” she said.
Soon Madeliene walked out the door also, to go live the rest of her life.
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