Rachael Denhollander: The voice that began end of Nassar

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

When Rachael Denhollander reported that Larry Nassar had sexually abused her when she was a teenage gymnast, she came armed with information that sealed Nassar’s fate.

Rachael Denhollander speaks to Larry Nassar in the court on Wednesday.

It was the fall of 2016 when Denhollander reported Nassar, then a world-renowned physician for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University, to the MSU Police Department. She also filed a Title IX report with the school.

Other girls had sounded the alarm about Nassar over the previous two decades — yet no one discovered his criminal behavior.

Denhollander arrived at MSU years after Nassar assaulted her. She was an attorney, ready for a battle with a thick folder of documents.

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Among them: her medical records, journals, the names of four pelvic floor specialists, a USA Gymnastics-certified coach she had told about Nassar’s conduct, an index of medical journal articles on legitimate pelvic floor techniques, a character letter reference and a memo that outlined how her complaint met every element of Michigan law defining first-degree criminal sexual conduct.

“I knew it was going to be a fight,” Denhollander, a former Kalamazoo resident living in Louisville, told The Detroit News. “I had to present the absolutely strongest case possible because it was a medically and legally complex case because a doctor and alleged medical treatment was involved. My biggest fear was I would file a report, he would win and would know he was unstoppable.”

Denhollander, 33, is the voice that began the end of Nassar, a serial pedophile who came close numerous times to getting caught during more than 20 years of sexually assaulting women under the guise of medical treatment.

But he deceived his MSU bosses, colleagues and the young athletes he treated, and continued to insert his fingers into the bodies of young women, mostly gymnasts, and sometimes massage their breasts.

At least eight other young women told at least 14 Michigan State representatives about his sexual misconduct in the two decades before his arrest, a Detroit News investigation found.

But it was Denhollander’s report that stopped Nassar — and opened the floodgates to nearly 200 other women coming forward in civil lawsuits filed against him. He was arrested and eventually pleaded guilty to possessing child pornography and committing first-degree criminal sexual conduct.

For seven days starting last week, 156 women and girls made statements in Ingham County Circuit Court about the impact his crimes has on their lives.

Denhollander was the last to speak. She asked Judge Rosemarie Aquilina how much a little girl was worth as she considered Nassar’s prison sentence, recommended by prosecutors between 40-125 years.

“As we were being sexually violated, even as very young children, Larry was sexually aroused by our humiliation and pain,” said Denhollander. “He asked how we felt, because he wanted to know. He enjoyed it. What was done to myself and these other women and little girls, and the fact that our sexual violation was enjoyed by Larry, matters. It demands justice.”

Aquilina gave Nassar to 40-175 years in prison, more than the prosecutor’s recommendation. Before she did, she gave Denhollander a high compliment.

“You made all of these voices matter,” Aquilina said. “You are the bravest person I have ever had in my courtroom.”

Denhollander’s story and others that followed led to calls for accountability at MSU, which has come under fire as victims have shared story after story about the devastating effects of Nassar’s abuse.

John Manly, Denhollander’s attorney, said her determination made it possible for Nassar to face justice.

“All of us know that but for her courage, none of us would be here and Larry Nassar would still be molesting kids,” Manly said.

Many agree it shouldn’t have taken what Denhollander had to do to get MSU and others to stop Nassar from hurting young women.

“People need to be taken for their word, whether they believe you or not,” said Larissa Boyce, believed to be the first victim to tell someone at MSU about Nassar, in 1997. “If someone ever has a complaint, it automatically needs to be reported and then the proper people who are trained to investigate need to investigate. Otherwise, this will happen again.”

A growing chorus

Many say it took Denhollander’s voice to bring forth the army of women who followed with similar reports to finally stop Nassar.

“It’s incredible to see how her coming forward changed the course of so many women’s lives,” said Sterling Riethman, 25, of Kalamazoo. “She didn’t know what to expect. She was convinced she was not the only person, and she was right.”

Nassar, 54, had already been given what amounts to a life sentence — 60 years — for possessing 37,000 images of child pornography.

He will be sentenced on additional sex assault charges in Eaton County on Jan. 31.

Nassar’s final sentence will come after Denhollander spent years working through her realization that she had been assaulted by the prominent sports doctor, and building a case against him.

Larry Nassar is sentenced on Wednesday by Judge Rosemarie Aquilina.

He assaulted her for about a year in 2000-01 when she sought care from him for back pain while a young gymnast in Kalamazoo.

At the time, a family friend had been getting pelvic floor treatments for an injury she sustained while giving birth. So when Nassar started to do pelvic floor work on her, she felt uncomfortable but knew it wasn’t out of the realm of proper treatment.

Then, during a subsequent appointment, he digitally penetrated her vaginally and anally. As he massaged her breast with an erection while breathing heavily, she realized he was sexually assaulting her.

But she didn’t say anything.

“I tried to rationalize it,” Denhollander said. “I didn’t know what to do.”

The experience troubled her for 16 years.

She started doing research on pelvic floor treatments and slowly disclosed bits of information to people about Nassar’s behavior.

She told her mother a year or two after he assaulted her, but only that he had touched one of her breasts.

Then Denhollander started speaking with therapists who specialized in pelvic floor work. She was still guarded, only asking about protocols and whether the treatment involved gloves and consent.

“I was still in denial,” she said.

Denhollander continued to ask questions of herself and others.

An important disclosure came in 2004 when she was working at a gymnastics facility and offered some vague details to a coach who was going to send a young girl to see Nassar.

The coach told her boyfriend, a police officer, about the conversation. He searched for police reports on Nassar but couldn’t find any.

“She was going to send my little girl to him and I couldn’t let him happen,” Denhollander said. “I felt I had to warn her, and at least try and stop her.”

That same year, Denhollander told a nurse practitioner nearly all of the details about Nassar’s behavior, which the nurse charted.

“She said, ‘I have some real serious question about whether this was legitimate,’ ” Denhollander said.

The nurse practitioner suggested that Denhollander start by filing a complaint with the state medical board. But Denhollander was hesitant. She feared an investigation would involve Nassar’s peers, was worried she couldn’t remain anonymous, and didn’t know how to get in touch with other victims.

“I didn’t want to file a report until I knew at least I could win,” Denhollander said.

She watched and waited, continued to do research and periodically checked to see if anyone else had complained about Nassar.

During that time, she went to law school, passed the bar, got married and had three children.

Checking up on complaints

Then, in the beginning of August 2016, the Indianapolis Star published an investigation showing how USA Gymnastics had failed to alert authorities about allegations of abuse by coaches.

Denhollander emailed one of the reporters and asked if they had gotten any complaints about Nassar. At the time, Denhollander was 31, and had thought the statute of limitation for her to bring her case forward had expired when she was 25. But she wanted to cooperate with any other victims if they reported being abused.

Soon after, she checked the law and found that Michigan had lifted its statute of limitations for first-degree criminal sexual conduct.

She spoke with the Indianapolis Star about her story, which was published two weeks later.

She and her family and went to East Lansing to file a police report, and a Title IX complaint with MSU.

“As soon as Rachael Denhollander reported to MSU Police, an investigation began, Nassar was pulled from clinical duties and a Title IX investigation began as well,” said Jason Cody, MSU spokesman. “It is through the courage of women such as Denhollander that Nassar was brought to justice.”

Denhollander said MSU handled her reports well. But she also has said that when the dean of the MSU Osteopathic Medical School, William Strampel, became aware of her complaint, he wished Nassar luck and took his side in emails that have since become public.

Public sentiment initially was not on Denhollander’s side. Many questioned the motives of someone bringing the accusation against such a renowned doctor.

“It’s worth remembering that it was one woman who came public first, and when she did she was ridiculed, folks rallied behind him, they tried to discredit her, they signed petition and supported him. They believed him over her because of who he was purported to be,” said Assistant Attorney General Angela Povilaitis in her closing statement before Nassar was sentenced.

It wasn’t until December 2016, when Nassar’s collection of child pornography emerged, that Denhollander’s claims were taken more seriously. Other charges followed and Nassar eventually admitted guilt.

“It has not been an easy process for these victims, especially Rachael, all alone publicly for many, many months,” Povilaitis said.

But Denhollander’s battle is not finished. Now, she and others say, it’s time to demand accountability from MSU and USAG.

“I’m very thankful for Rachael’s persistence, because look at what she started,” said Jessica Smith, a dancer who attends Ferris State Univerity and founded the Facebook page #MeTooMSU. “She was the rock that tipped the avalanche of strength and courage and all these women coming forward. She is a hero and a warrior for what she’s done.”