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Grand Rapids — A once-celebrated physician for Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics admitted Tuesday that he downloaded and kept thousands of pornographic images and videos of children, then tried to destroy the files after learning he was under investigation.

It is the first time Larry Nassar, 53, has acknowledged guilt since a wide-ranging investigation was launched last year. Child pornography charges were brought against him in federal court, and sexual assault charges were filed against him in state courts.

Officials were quick to stress that the guilty plea in the federal court does not affect the first-degree criminal sexual conduct charges that Nassar faces in three state trials.

Most of the charges involve former gymnasts who accuse him of digitally penetrating them without gloves, lubricant or consent during treatments for injuries. Additionally, more than 100 women, mostly gymnasts, have filed civil lawsuits against him, also accusing him of sexual assault.

Nassar initially pleaded not guilty to three federal child pornography charges, and still maintains he is not guilty of dozens of charges he will face in the upcoming state trials.

But on Tuesday, he changed his plea in the federal case to guilty for possessing and receiving thousands of images and videos of girls younger than 12, and destruction and concealment of evidence.

In exchange, federal authorities agreed not to prosecute him on allegations of child sex abuse involving four alleged victims.

Dressed in orange prison clothing, Nassar said little during the proceeding in the western district of U.S. District Court before Magistrate Judge Ray Kent, other than to acknowledge he understood the charges, the penalties and the agreement.

“I plead guilty as stated,” Nassar said.

In December, an FBI agent testified that the child pornography was discovered after MSU began investigating a claim in August by former gymnast Rachael Denhollander that Nassar had sexually assaulted her in 2000 when she was 15. MSU terminated Nassar in mid-September and when he turned in his work computer Sept. 19, it had been wiped clean, including the operating system, according to a transcript of the agent’s testimony.

MSU executed a search warrant for Nassar’s home the following day. The child porn was found, the agent testified, on external hard drives that had been thrown away in a trash can at Nassar’s home in Holt, south of Lansing. The drives included 37,000 images and videos of young girls mostly under the age of 12, including some as young as 6.

The videos included footage from a pool with Nassar swimming with several children. Toward the end of one clip, the agent testified, Nassar is seen allegedly grabbing a hand of one girl and shoving it into the crotch of another. Another video showed Nassar with a young girl in a swimsuit, his hand on her hip and his thumb in her vaginal area, appearing to insert his thumb inside her, the agent testified.

During Tuesday’s hearing, Nassar acknowledged that he pleaded guilty in part because federal authorities agreed not to move forward on allegations involving four children referenced in the plea agreement.

That conduct allegedly includes an incident in his swimming pool during the summer 2015 involving two minor children and alleged sexual misconduct that happened during interstate or international travel between 2006 and 2012 involving two other children.

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Sean Lewis said that the underlying conduct will be taken into consideration at sentencing. A date was not set.

One of Nassar’s attorneys, Shannon Smith, said during the hearing while they acknowledge the alleged conduct can be taking into account for sentencing, Nassar contests the abuse alleged by the four children.

After the hearing, Smith and Matt Newburg, another Nassar attorney, issued a statement.

“We have been asked how the federal plea affects the state cases,” the statement reads. “Dr. Nassar’s position on the state cases has not changed and we intend to proceed to trial. The plea today was negotiated only to resolve the federal charges.”

Meanwhile, federal officials forecast a grim future for Nassar.

“With Dr. Nassar’s admissions of guilt on federal charges today, victims and the public can be assured that a day of reckoning is indeed in Dr. Nassar’s future,” acting U.S. Attorney Andrew Birge said in a statement. “No one, no matter his station is life, is above the law. Those who exploit children will be found out and they will be held accountable.”

Birge added that Nassar’s plea resolves pending charges, and specific charges with respect to four individuals referenced in the plea “in accordance with their wishes as expressed directly to us.”

“In addition, it ensures that all of Dr. Nassar’s victims, including those who are not victims of the current charges or referenced in the plea agreement, will have an opportunity for vindication through the federal sentencing process. My office will be aggressively pursuing a sentence that accounts for all of Dr. Nassar’s conduct.”

While the three child pornography charges include a prison sentence ranging from 5-60 years, Nassar agreed not to oppose an advisory sentencing range of 22-27 years, a starting point for the court to consider.

But federal authorities say U.S. District Court Judge Janet Neff, who will likely sentence Nassar in November, has the option to give him up to 60 years.

Nassar will be 54 next month.

Attorneys for dozens of alleged victims were in the courtroom and said afterward that their clients want justice.

“Our clients feel that he should be held accountable,” said Stephen Drew, a Grand Rapids-based attorney representing dozens of alleged victims.

MSU officials expressed satisfaction with Nassar’s guilty plea.

“As the plea agreement reached July 11 on the federal charges facing former MSU doctor Larry Nassar shows, his behavior was deeply disturbing and repugnant,” university spokesman Jason Cody said in a statement.

kkozlowski@detroitnews.com

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