MSU student: Strampel talked sex, sought ‘favor for a favor’
Lansing — A Michigan State University medical student testified Thursday that former medical school dean William Strampel told her about other young women who “put out” for older guys, mentioned nude photos and seemed to be seeking a “favor for a favor” when she asked for his permission to retake a failed test.
“He had all of the power,” said Leah Jackson of Strampel, the former boss of serial molester Larry Nassar, who is standing trial on charges of misconduct in office, willful neglect of duty and second-degree sexual conduct. “I was just a student who had no power. … I felt scared and threatened.”
Jackson, who was 26 at the time, is among a series of former students expected to testify against Strampel in a trial that began Thursday and could last three weeks.
After opening statements, prosecutors showed jurors a series of five images investigators found on the former dean’s work computer that show nude or semi-nude women with MSU logo piercings or clothing.
The Michigan Attorney General’s Office alleges Strampel, who served as dean of the College of Osteopathic Medicine from 1999 to 2018, allowed Nassar to see patients while the school investigated a sexual misconduct claim and did not ensure Nassar followed proper patient protocols in the wake of the probe.
MSU has paid out a half-billion dollars in claims and attorney fees to settle lawsuits from victims of Nassar, who is expected to spend the rest of his life behind bars on sexual abuse and child pornography charges.
But much of the testimony Thursday focused on separate criminal allegations that Strampel repeatedly made sexually charged comments to female students as they requested permission to retake failed tests or resolve other academic issues. One former student alleges he grabbed her on the buttock during a school event.
“Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” Assistant Attorney General Danielle Hagaman-Clark told jurors in her opening statement as Strampel looked on. “What you’re going to hear is he wielded the power and authority of his position with offensive behavior, offensive comments and with a perversion of taint.”
Defense attorney John Dakmak told jurors the case against his client “boils down to language, context and interpretations of conversations.” He argued the "clear facts of this case will show there was never even a solicitation or an offer for some quid pro quo."
The former dean had “tough” conversations with students, but “these are not 12-year-old kids," Dakmak said. "These are adults in medical school."
Jackson said she first met with Strampel in June 2017 after failing a practice exam required to take a national exam she needed to complete before continuing into her third year of medical school. The dean quickly rejected her request to retake the exam, but she stayed in the nearly hour-long meeting hoping he would change his mind, she said.
Strampel told her how his “buddies” had sexual relationships with younger women where “they do a favor and a woman does a favor,” Jackson testified. He asked how old she was and then told her “all a 26-year-old has to do is just put out for 20 minutes and then the older man falls asleep,” she said.
The conversation “blindsided” her, Jackson said. “I obviously wasn’t expecting it to go in that direction. I was scared, and there was no one else with me.”
Fighting back tears, Jackson said Strampel then started talking about naked pictures, how digital files make it harder to delete images and teased her, saying if he ever saw her in a naked photo, she’d be in “big trouble.”
“I thought he was asking for a picture, or the first attempt didn’t really work so he was trying a different method (to suggest) a favor for a favor,” Jackson testified.
Jackson left the meeting without Strampel's permission to retake the test and prepared to sit out a year before she could try again. She met with Strampel again in December, and he proposed she sign a contract that would allow her to retake the test but risk permanent removal from the medical school if she failed.
This time, she brought her dad but asked him to wait in the car.
“I think we were both very nervous,” Terry Jackson said in testimony after his daughter. “I was more concerned that I needed to keep myself under control. That I wanted to beat his (expletive).”
Leah Jackson said she never signed Strampel’s proposed contract but passed the national exam later that month. Shortly after taking the test, on or around Dec. 28, Jackson said she filed a complaint against Strampel with the MSU Office of Institutional Equity, which oversees Title IX sexual discrimination investigations.
“I spoke with a woman that worked there and gave my whole story,” said Jackson, testifying that she believes the school opened an investigation at that time.
Michigan State University did not immediately respond to a request seeking confirmation of that complaint or the status of any ensuing investigation.
But Jackson said she later talked to private attorneys and is considering a civil lawsuit because “nothing was happening with state’s investigation. It wasn’t right what happened, so we were still pursuing justice for that.”
Her father said he also called Provost Jane Youatt but eventually contacted the state Attorney General’s Office because “I didn’t really trust anyone at MSU.”
Dakmak pressed Jackson’s father on the potential lawsuit, asking him if the family is trying to “get whatever you can out of it” and suggesting it would be nice to have Leah Jackson’s college debt paid off.
“She’s missing a doctor’s salary for a year. She’s paying for an apartment for a year. All because she didn’t succumb to his wishes,” Terry Jackson said.
“Even though she couldn’t pass the prerequisite courses to get where she needed to be, it’s all my client’s fault?” Dakmak asked.
Under cross-examination, Leah Jackson confirmed Strampel had never followed up with her after their June meeting asking for pictures, to “go away” with her for a weekend or for other sexual favors.
“Remember this: Each one of these women was granted the relief they requested from the dean,” said Dakmak in his opening remarks, referencing Jackson and other students. “Each one will testify that nothing further happened.”
Terry Jackson testified his daughter did not initially tell her parents about the sexual comments Strampel made in the initial June meeting. But he and his wife became concerned that summer because Leah Jackson had lost confidence and would rarely come out of her room.
“She seemed like she was in a coma,” he recalled.
After Leah Jackson told her parents about the incident, her father said she initially asked him not to get involved for fear of angering Strampel while he still controlled her academic future.
“I wanted the whole entire world to know that you can’t stop at Nassar, you’ve got to go deeper and deeper (at Michigan State)," Terry Jackson said.
His eventual call to the Attorney General's Office prompted the search warrant that allowed investigators to search Strampel’s work computer and find several nude images of young women, each featuring an MSU logo but none showing any faces.
One of the images, which a forensic expert said had been opened as an email attachment, showed a young woman nude from the waist down with an MSU Spartans logo attached to a belly button piercing. In another, what appeared to be the same logo was attached to a nipple piercing.
Three other images, including one with a woman wearing MSU panties and another with an open MSU cardigan sweater, were found in Strampel’s “recycle bin,” said Brian Laity, a digital forensics examiner for the Attorney General’s Office.
Laity was unable to determine how many times the images were viewed but said forensic evidence indicates they were created between 2012 and 2017.
In his opening remarks, Dakmak told jurors it is not clear if the women in the photos were students and argued the images “deeply embedded” on Strampel’s computer mean little without context.
“What bearing does this have on anything other than shock value?” he said. “Shock value doesn’t mean conviction. Doesn’t mean crime.”