How MSU doc became suspect in dozens of rapes

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Holt — In a tidy subdivision a few miles south of Michigan State University, Judy Rosebush can’t say enough good things about her neighbor, Larry Nassar.

Larry Nassar was known for his ability to heal athletes. But that sterling image stands in stark contrast with the sex allegations he faces.

Rosebush, who lived across the street from the sports physician for 17 years, saw him playing outside with his three children, and noticed how he often arrived home by 5 p.m. to watch them when his wife worked in the evenings.

In the winter, Nassar joined other residents to clear snow-covered sidewalks, and he was there for neighbors on Tiffany Lane if they had an ache or worse. Rosebush, 75, will never forget how Nassar rushed to her side when she suddenly developed a rapid heartbeat.

“He came running across the street in his bare feet with a stethoscope and told me what to do and where to go,” she said. “I really cannot say enough good about Larry because he is just a wonderful man. He will do anything in the world for anybody. We all love Larry. We really, really love Larry.”

Plenty of others felt the same. Nassar, who worked for MSU and USA Gymnastics, was renowned for his ability to heal athletes, especially gymnasts, with back, ankle and hip injuries. He worked with gymnasts at all levels, treating the most elite competitors at four Olympic Games.

During the years he was creating a life with his family and working at MSU, he became well-known, admired and trusted as he built a reputation as one of the most sought-after physicians in the gymnastics world.

Nassar also was a leader in the community, serving as the sports team doctor for Holt Public Schools and teaching Sunday school at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in East Lansing. The father of a daughter with autism, he started a foundation to introduce children with special needs to gymnastics.

But Nassar’s life began to unravel in September when a former Kalamazoo woman, Rachael Denhollander, 32, filed a police report and told the Indianapolis Star that Nassar sexually assaulted her during treatments for a gymnastics injury when she was 15. The allegation came decades after others made similar accusations that went nowhere.

But Denhollander’s accusation gained traction, opening the floodgates for dozens of other women with similar allegations and sparking one of the biggest scandals in amateur sports history. Nassar has denied the allegations, saying he was doing legitimate medical treatments.

But the women allege he sexually abused them during medical treatments when they were minors by penetrating them with his fingers without lubricant, gloves or consent — even when a parent was in the room.

The events cast a cloud over Nassar, MSU and three other institutions he was affiliated with: Gedderts’ Twistars near Lansing, USA Gymnastics in Indianapolis and Karolyi Ranch in Texas.

Now, many are questioning the man they knew and trying to reconcile that with the ugly allegations against Nassar, who turns 54 this month and could spend the rest of his life in prison.

“It’s upsetting to think you thought you knew someone — and you don’t,” said Molly Varon, a former patient of Nassar.

‘I looked up to him’

Like many of Nassar’s accusers, Varon, 27, of Bloomfield Hills went to see the famed sports physician for injuries she suffered as a teenage gymnast. Unlike them, Varon says Nassar never sexually assaulted her.

She first saw the doctor when she was 13 for treatment on her ankles and said the only procedure he ever did was pulling her legs to even out her hips.

“He was great,” she said. “I loved him. I looked up to him.”

At the time, Varon was competing for the Sports Club of West Bloomfield, a sports and fitness facility with a gymnastics center. Everyone on her gymnastics team at the club traveled to East Lansing to see Nassar for injuries, Varon said.

Varon continued to see Nassar until she was 17. Any time she had a gymnastics injury, she would ask her mom to see Nassar.

“Any time I went, he always had an answer and it always worked,” she said.

Varon also volunteered during her college years for the foundation Nassar started, Gymnastics Doctor Autism Foundation, which provided opportunities for children with special needs to compete at gymnastic meets.

“The kids loved it,” said Varon. “They loved being able to get up in front of a crowd and have people cheer for them. It was good to see them so happy, and their parents happy.”

She found out about the foundation after learning one of Nassar’s two daughters had autism.

He often posted heart-warming notes on Facebook about being a special-needs parent, Varon said. One post depicted his daughter sitting at the dinner table with the family for the first time in years, Varon said.

When the allegations about Nassar began emerging last fall, Varon said she and others in the gymnastics community didn’t believe them at first.

But as more women stepped forward and he was arrested, Varon started to believe Nassar’s treatment of her fellow gymnasts was inappropriate and feels fortunate she was not among them.

“How do you get over something like that? Someone you looked up to, doing something so horrible,” Varon said. “It would be hard to trust again.”

The foundation of a life

Nassar was a teenager at North Farmington High School when he made a pivotal decision that led him into a career working with gymnasts.

He considered running track, as he had in middle school. But his older brother, Mike Nassar, an athletic trainer in high school, convinced Larry to join him, according to a lengthy Facebook post Nassar wrote in September 2015, when he announced his retirement from the USA Gymnastics Women’s Artistic National Team staff.

Not long after, in 1978, Nassar started working with North Farmington High School’s women’s gymnastics team, earning a varsity letter by the time he graduated in 1981.

“My high school years set a strong foundation for the rest of my life,” Nassar wrote in the Facebook post, which is no longer visible on his page.

Clay Graham, who was principal at North Farmington while Nassar attended, doesn’t recall much about him, other than that he worked with a number of athletic teams, including football.

“He was just so involved in our athletic work, he never came to my attention,” said Graham. “He was one of the quiet boys.”

After finishing high school, Nassar earned a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology in 1985 at the University of Michigan, according to his MSU personnel file.

By 1986, Nassar began working with the U.S. national gymnastics team after a regarded Michigan gymnastics coach, Steve Whitlock, recommended him, according to the Facebook post.

Two years later, Nassar volunteered at the Olympic trials and started working with John Geddert at his gymnastics club, Twistars, which has locations in Dimondale and Dewitt, near Lansing.

He also began medical school at MSU but was almost kicked out after two semesters because he failed biochemistry twice, according to the Facebook post.

Nassar had to go before a panel of doctors and professors, explaining his failure was linked to being at gymnastic events the day before major exams.

“They explained to me that my priorities were mixed up,” Nassar wrote in the 2015 Facebook post. “I was spending too much time in the gymnastics gym and not enough time studying for medical school.”

Nassar convinced the dean to place him on the five-year plan to graduate instead of four years. He was recognized with many awards during his last year in medical school before earning his degree from MSU’s College of Osteopathic Medicine in 1993.

Alleged abuse in 1990s

When Nassar was still in medical school in 1992, he allegedly assaulted one of his earliest victims, according to a complaint in a federal civil lawsuit against him that includes an estimated 125 plaintiffs.

The victim, known as YMSU, alleged that Nassar assaulted her in the back room of now-closed Great Lakes Gymnastics in the Lansing area when she was 12 to 14 years old.

Nassar also asked her to go to his apartment for a study on manipulation treatments for his MSU medical degree, according to court documents.

Nassar allegedly told her he was measuring whether her muscles were more flexible when heated. He asked her to do the splits while lying on her stomach and measured the distance between her groin and the floor. He then asked her to get into a bathtub and repeated the process.

“Nassar told plaintiff he could not pay her for participating in the study but that her ‘payment’ would be a full body massage from him,” court records say. “Nassar proceeded to give plaintiff a nude full-body massage and he digitally penetrated her vaginally and anally.”

After medical school, Nassar did an internship and residency at St. Lawrence Hospital in Lansing from 1993-96.

He married Stefanie Lynn Anderson on Oct. 19, 1996, at St. John’s Catholic Church in East Lansing.

Ten months later, in August 1997, Nassar landed a job as an assistant professor at MSU in the Department of Family and Community Medicine in the College of Osteopathic Medicine, earning $100,000 annually.

“So, now I was teaching in the same medical school I was at one point kicked out of! LOL!!” Nassar wrote in his Facebook post.

Soon after he married and landed his MSU position, Nassar allegedly was preying on girls at work and in his home, according to accusers who have spoken publicly in the past 11 months.

Among them is Lansing resident Larissa Boyce, who is suing Nassar and MSU. She alleged that Nassar sexually assaulted her from September 1997 to 2000 while she was in a youth gymnastics program at MSU and sought treatment for back problems.

The Detroit News typically does not name sexual assault victims, but many, such as Boyce, came forward and allowed their names to be used.

“He used his fingers to go into intimate areas, saying it was going to relieve my back pain,” Boyce, 36, said in March at the office of her attorney. “But I trusted him. I mean, he was a doctor and treated the Olympic gymnasts, and so I thought, ‘OK, if this is going to make my back feel better so I can continue doing gymnastics, then OK.’”

Boyce also alleged that she and a teammate told Kathie Klagies, the director of the MSU youth gymnastics program, about the abuse in 1997 or 1998. But Klages, who also was women’s gymnastics coach, did not tell MSU officials.

Klages retired earlier this year amid allegations that she discouraged other gymnasts from reporting sexual assault allegations against Nassar.

Beginning in July 1998, Nassar began regularly assaulting a 6-year-old girl when she went to his house with her parents, who were family friends, according to testimony in a recent court hearing.

The alleged victim, now 25, testified Nassar exposed himself and masturbated in front of her while playing hide-and-seek in the basement with her brother. He also allegedly covered her with a blanket while watching TV, rubbed his penis with her feet and inserted his fingers into her vagina.

The alleged assaults occurred almost weekly until she was 12, she testified.

“I was confused,” the woman said during her testimony. “I didn’t know what to think of it. I had no reason to challenge it. So I just let it be what it was.”

While these alleged incidents occurred, Nassar was creating a family with his wife. Their first child, a daughter, was born in 2001, followed by another daughter in 2004 and a son in 2006.

And he was becoming more of a household name in the gymnastics world.

“Everybody knew who Larry Nassar was — he was the renowned gymnastics doctor on the women’s side,” said Jerry Stych, a former gymnastics coach who taught boys in Lansing during the years that Nassar ascended in the gymnastics world. “He was the gold standard.”

Meanwhile, Nassar allegedly was assaulting dozens of girls at his MSU office, Twistars, the Karolyi Ranch in Texas — a U.S. Olympic training site — and during the Olympic games, according to court filings and testimony.

Only a handful of the alleged victims have testified, saying Nassar spent a lot of time with them, getting to know them and their injuries.

While their procedures, which lasted anywhere from 10 to 45 minutes, were sometimes uncomfortable, many trusted he was a doctor and knew what they needed to get better.

But many of the young women who live in other states did not make it into the Michigan courtroom. Instead, their allegations are buried in reams of court filings under pseudonyms. Just a few have spoken publicly.

For instance, 2000 Olympian Jamie Dantzscher, 35, has detailed alleged abuse by Nassar at the Olympic Games in Sydney and at the Karolyi Ranch. She said he abused her many times, in her room at the ranch, in her bed under the guise of treatment.

“I trusted him,” Dantzscher said in a TV interview. “Seeing Dr. Nassar was actually something I looked forward to. He joked around with us and he would sneak us food and candy at times. It felt like he was on my side.”

At MSU, a few other females complained to another coach or a doctor about Nassar after Boyce went to Klages. Then, in 2004, one young woman went to Meridian Township police, who questioned Nassar, but charges were not sent to the prosecutor, according to published reports.

Another woman filed a Title IX complaint with MSU in 2014, alleging Nassar became sexually aroused after touching her during an exam.

According to published reports, MSU cleared him after an investigation but required him to follow protocols when treating in sensitive areas, including having another person in the room, having little to no skin contact and providing detailed explanation of the procedure.

“I am happy this has resolved,” William Strampel, dean of the College of Osteopathic Medicine, wrote in an email to Nassar in 2014, “and I am happy to have you back in full practice.”

Speaking up

But two years later, in September, the allegations against Nassar weren’t cleared. Denhollander filed a police report with MSU after reading an investigative story in the Indianapolis Star about how USA Gymnastics did not alert authorities about coaches who allegedly sexually assaulted gymnasts. She contacted the newspaper and shared her story.

Now the mother of three children, Denhollander alleged Nassar digitally penetrated her in her most private places when she was 15.

Denhollander, now a Louisville resident, stayed quiet for nearly two decades, researching the procedure Nassar did on her and looking into statute of limitations laws.

“I had gotten to the point where I knew if anything came out, I would have to speak,” said Denhollander.

She believes speaking to the newspaper helped begin deeper scrutiny into Nassar’s actions.

“Women had been speaking up, even filing police and Title IX reports, for years before, and had been silenced,” Denhollander said. “Both MSU and USAG had ignored clear warning signs and red flags for literally decades, and I was absolutely sure this was happening, simply because people in power consistently rally around abusers and silence victims.”

Days after Denhollander’s public allegations emerged in September, Nassar sent an email to two MSU officials: Suresh Mukherji, chair of the Department of Radiology, and Strampel, the dean of College of Osteopathic Medicine.

“I am so sorry that this situation has been so public in the media casting such a shadow over myself and MSU,” Nassar wrote. “I understand your position and appreciate all the support you have given me. My heart is breaking but I will stay strong in my faith and with the support of my family and friends I will overcome this.”

But on Sept. 16, Mukherji and Strampel wrote him a letter, outlining complaints from two patients that he was not following protocols required after the 2014 investigation.

“This is a serious breach, and not acceptable,” the letter said.

Four days later, MSU fired Nassar.

Denhollander is the named plaintiff in the federal civil lawsuit that now includes more than 125 women. More than 100 other women have filed complaints with MSU about Nassar.

State authorities have charged him with 22 counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct, with a trial set for Dec. 4, while federal authorities charged Nassar with possessing 37,000 images of child pornography found on external hard drives after he turned in his work computer to MSU. He pleaded guilty last month in federal court over the child pornography.

Nassar is in jail, without bond. He will be sentenced Nov. 27 in the child porn case, with a prison term ranging from 5 to 60 years.

Those who know Nassar are hesitant to speak but recognize the pain the allegations have caused.

“It’s a tragedy for everybody,” said George Fomin Jr., who was Nassar’s best man at his wedding in 1996. “All Larry asked us to do is pray for him.”