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Lansing — Publicly confronting Larry Nassar in court was a pivotal moment in Helena Weick’s healing process, and Attorney General Bill Schuette gave her that chance, her mother said Tuesday. 

Lee and Mark Weick of Midland, Helena’s parents, praise Schuette in two television ads his gubernatorial campaign will begin to air Wednesday. They said the Republican candidate whose office prosecuted Nassar gave “a voice to the voiceless” by requiring victim impact statements as part of a plea deal with the serial molester.

It's at least the second time this year the Nassar scandal at Michigan State University has been used in a statewide political campaign ad. The new spots tout one of the attorney general's highest-profile cases as polls show Schuette trailing Democrat Gretchen Whitmer in the governor's race. 

Helena Weick was 12 years old when Nassar sexually assaulted her under the guise of treatment for back pain at the MSU's SportsMedicine clinic. In January, after coming to grips with her abuse, Weick opted against staying anonymous in court and told Nassar “this is not my shame anymore, it's yours.”

The public impact statement, one of more than 200 from Nassar victims in two counties over nine days, was a “hinge point” for her daughter’s recovery, Lee Weick told The Detroit News in a joint interview with Schuette. She noted her “shy” and soft-spoken daughter had discussed her assault with few people beyond immediate family.

“I think it has changed the tone of how people approach sexual assault, and the survivors of sexual assault, because so many people listened and watched that sentencing hearing and heard all those statements,” Weick said. “Even for me, it was very powerful.”

Schuette, whose office prosecuted Nassar for sexual assault in Ingham and Eaton County, said he insisted that victims be allowed to deliver impact statements as part of a plea deal with Nassar, who is expected to spend the rest of his life behind bars on the state convictions and earlier federal child pornography charges.

“They didn’t want a public discussion about this,” Schuette said of Nassar and his attorneys. “He wanted to plead guilty, and I said ‘Fine, but every survivor who wants to make a victim impact statement in open court or in a written statement had to have that opportunity.'”

His office expected 50 victims might speak at sentencing, Schuette said. Helena Weick was one of 204.

Campaign dynamics

Schuette’s new Nassar-themed ads come one week after a Detroit News poll showing the attorney general down nearly 14 percentage points to Whitmer, the former state Senate minority leader. The survey had a margin of error of four points.

The ads — a minute-long version and a 30-second spot — are expected to air on broadcast stations across the state and aim to boost favorability ratings for Schuette, a well-known public figure who is relatively unpopular after holding political office for the better part of three decades.

Of the 88 percent of poll respondents who said they knew Schuette’s name, 41 percent said they held an unfavorable opinion of the Midland Republican, 26 percent had a favorable opinion and 21 percent had no opinion.

Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, who lost to Schuette in the GOP primary, ran ads in June that featured two Nassar victims. Two other victims backed former U.S. Attorney Pat Miles in the Democratic convention race for attorney general, which he lost to nominee Dana Nessel. 

Whitmer was interim Ingham County prosecutor in 2016 when Nassar victims first started coming forward. She helped secure search warrants that led to federal child pornography charges but did not take the lead on the sexual assault cases, which her office said MSU police took to Schuette because they originated in multiple counties, an account Chief Jim Dunlap has disputed.

The Schuette campaign took heat earlier this month for running an attack ad that featured a 2013 photo of Whitmer taken on the same day she revealed in a state Senate speech that she had been raped two decades earlier as a student at MSU. Schuette’s campaign said it pulled the state Senate photo from an unrelated news story it had been used in.

Lee Weick said Tuesday that she and her husband are not typically political but agreed to do the Schuette campaign ad with the blessing of their daughter, who is now 19 and attending college out of state. They first met Bill and Cynthia Schuette about 21 years ago when they had children in the same preschool class in Midland and recently “reconnected” because of the Nassar case.

The prosecution was not a slam dunk, Weick said, noting Nassar was an internationally respected physician with allies in powerful institutions like MSU and USA Gymnastics.

“I’ve really been impressed with the quality of people that Bill Schuette surrounds himself with, has chosen to work with, and the way he leads those people,” she said. “They could not, as an entire team from Bill on down, have been more tenacious, bold and excellent and at the same time compassionate, and I think it’s a difficult balance to have both of those pieces.”

Nassar abuse

Nassar was a high-profile figure in the gymnastics community as a doctor for both MSU and USA Gymnastics. Three of Helena’s sisters had previously seen Nassar for various issues, and the family kept his phone number on a sticky note in their kitchen cabinet along with other important contacts.

When Rachael Denhollander and other Nassar victims first began to publicly accuse the doctor in 2016, Lee Weick thought there was no chance he’d molested any of her daughters because she and her husband had always accompanied them during medical visits.

But in early 2017 she read a newspaper article about a father who later realized Nassar had molested his child, without his knowledge, in front of him.

“And it just made me sick,” Weick recalled. “My heart just fell into my stomach because it hadn’t occurred to me that it could happen to my daughters because I was in the room.”

Nassar gave Helena baggy shorts to wear during the medical exam, which obscured his actions, and stood in a position that partially blocked her mother’s view. He told her that to treat her daughter’s back pain, he would have to put his hands near her butt, but “I’m assuming lower back, not internally,” Lee said.

“At one point, she did have a look on her face and seemed uncomfortable. I started towards her and asked her, ‘Honey, are you okay?’ and the appointment ended very quickly after that.”

Four years later, Helena told her mother what had happened. Lee Weick contacted the attorney general’s office and talked directly with Angie Povilaitis, the lead state prosecutor on the case. She was referred to MSU Police and  Lt. Andrea Mumford, who led the criminal investigation.

Over the ensuing months, Schuette’s office reached out the Helena and the Weick family to provide updates and invitations to meetings. As the sentencing hearings approached, two victim advocates were assigned to work with victims and answer any questions they may have had.

“We haven’t been involved in politics, but we feel strongly that when someone takes on a responsibility and is a public servant and does their job well... that needs to be appreciated and supported,” Lee Weick said. "That’s what Bill Schuette did."

joosting@detroitnews.com

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