What MSU knew: 14 were warned of Nassar abuse
Reports of sexual misconduct by Dr. Larry Nassar reached at least 14 Michigan State University representatives in the two decades before his arrest, with no fewer than eight women reporting his actions, a Detroit News investigation has found.
Among those notified was MSU President Lou Anna Simon, who was informed in 2014 that a Title IX complaint and a police report had been filed against an unnamed physician, she told The News on Wednesday.
“I was informed that a sports medicine doctor was under investigation,” said Simon, who made the brief comments after appearing in court Wednesday to observe a sentencing hearing for Nassar. “I told people to play it straight up, and I did not receive a copy of the report. That’s the truth.”
Among the others who were aware of alleged abuse were athletic trainers, assistant coaches, a university police detective and an official who is now MSU’s assistant general counsel, according to university records and accounts of victims who spoke to The News.
Collectively, the accounts show MSU missed multiple opportunities over two decades to stop Nassar, a graduate of its osteopathic medical school who became a renowned doctor but went on to molest scores of girls and women under the guise of treating them for pain.
Nassar, 54, pleaded guilty to assaulting nine girls in Ingham County but faces more than 150 civil suits that also involve MSU and others. Already sentenced to 60 years in prison for child pornography in federal court, Nassar will be in Ingham County Circuit Court on Thursday for the third day of his sentencing hearing for seven counts of criminal sexual conduct.
Asked about the women who said they tried to alert MSU to Nassar’s misconduct, Simon declined to comment.
“Those issues are points of dispute and part of civil litigation and I am not going to comment on,” she said. “What I can tell you is what I knew, straight up. My standard response is to tell people to play things straight up and I did not receive a copy of the report.”
During a break in the Larry Nassar sentencing, where 101 of his victims are making statements, Michigan State University President Lou Anna Simon was confronted by one woman who is speaking out. Sarah Rahal / The Detroit News
Nassar’s case has drawn comparisons to that of Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant football coach who was found guilty in 2012 of molesting boys on campus. Three university officials, including president Graham Spanier, were sentenced to prison for failing to report Sandusky to authorities.
Former gymnast Rachael Denhollander, who in September 2016 became the first to publicly accuse Nassar of molesting her, says MSU officials should be held accountable for Nassar’s crimes.
“A monster was stopped last year, after decades of being allowed to prey on women and little girls, and he wasn’t stopped by a single person who could have, and should have stopped him at least 20 years ago,” Denhollander told The News last week. “He was stopped by the victims, who had to fight through being silenced, being threatened, being mocked, by the officials at MSU who they appealed to for help.
“And now the very people who should have been protecting us all along ... have thumbed their nose at any semblance of accountability.”
Two candidates for statewide office have called for Simon’s resignation, despite claims that the university’s legal defense team found no evidence that anyone other than Nassar knew of his criminal conduct.
In a response to a request for information from Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, former federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, who led an internal MSU inquiry into the Nassar case, wrote: “While many in the community today wish that they had identified Nassar as a predator, we believe the evidence in this case will show that no one else at MSU knew that Nassar engaged in criminal behavior.”
Six women with ties to the university, however, each told The News that they complained to at least one person at MSU when they believed Nassar’s conduct crossed from medical to sexual, and a seventh woman outlined her report to MSU during sentencing. The eighth woman complained to the Meridian Township Police.
Andrea Bitely, a spokeswoman for Schuette, declined to comment on whether his office is investigating who knew what at MSU.
MSU spokesman Jason Cody said the school responded vigorously once Nassar’s crimes came to light in 2016. He said campus police took 135 reports of criminal sexual conduct and executed a search warrant that contributed to Nassar’s convictions. MSU also established a $10 million counseling fund last month.
He said it was “not appropriate” to compare the Nassar case with that of Penn State, where leaders discussed “and illegally ignored” allegations against Sandusky.
“We want to reiterate again that we are truly sorry for the abuse Nassar’s victims suffered, the pain it caused and the pain it continues to cause,” he said. “As the president said at the December board meeting, this situation also reinforces the importance of taking a hard look at ourselves and learning from what happened — because it should never happen again.”
When the complaints began
Nassar was a respected osteopathic sports doctor at MSU and USA Gymnastics who treated some of the nation’s most prominent Olympic athletes. Coaches and others referred competitors to him for pain relief that many understood to involve osteopathic manipulation near the breasts and vagina.
But Nassar admitted to sexually assaulting young women during treatment by touching their breasts or buttocks or inserting his fingers inside them for his own gratification without gloves or lubricant.
Some victims testified he assaulted them while their parents were present while others said he showed signs of sexual arousal during exams.
One of the more than 150 civil lawsuits filed against Nassar, MSU and others alleges his earliest known assault was in 1992 as he was earning his osteopathic medical degree at MSU.
The victim, who is not named in court records, said Nassar assaulted her when she was 12 to 14. He asked her to his apartment for a study on manipulation treatments and paid her with a full body massage, during which he digitally penetrated her vaginally and anally, according to filings in the suit.
That victim did not alert anyone at MSU, according to her attorney, Okemos-based Mick Grewal.
When a similar thing happened to her, Larissa Boyce did.
Boyce — the first person who is believed to have told someone at MSU about Nassar — reported him in 1997, almost 20 years before he was fired and prosecuted.
A 16-year-old high school student in Williamston, east of Lansing, Boyce began seeing Nassar after hurting her back in a youth gymnastics program at MSU.
Nassar put his fingers inside Boyce during weekly visits with him at his university office, and in a room near where the gymnasts practiced at Jenison Field House.
After a long appointment with Nassar at Jenison, a coach asked Boyce what was happening during that time. Boyce told the coach, who insisted that Boyce tell MSU’s then-head gymnastics coach, Kathie Klages.
Boyce doesn’t remember the name of the female coach who approached her. But she still remembers the green carpet in Klages’ office and telling her Nassar had been “fingering” her during visits.
“She just couldn’t believe that was happening,” said Boyce, now 37. “She said I must be misunderstanding what was going on.”
Klages, who was MSU women’s gymnastics coach for 27 seasons, brought several of Boyce’s fellow youth program gymnasts into her office and asked them if Nassar did the same to them.
One of them said he had. That woman, who spoke to The News on condition of anonymity, was 14 then, and remembers knowing before the meeting they would be talking about Nassar.
“I remember feeling — finally a female would be an advocate for me, and tell my dad and my mom and I won’t have to tell them about this awkward thing,” said the woman, now 35, who has filed a civil lawsuit against Nassar and MSU. “Finally we’re going to get help, something will change and we won’t have to go back to him. But that wasn’t the case. Instead, I felt very shamed.”
Boyce also felt intimidated and humiliated, and remembers what Klages said about filing a report.
“She said, ‘I can file this, but there are going to be serious consequences for you and Nassar,’” Boyce said. “I said I didn’t want to get anyone in trouble.”
Klages, who retired in February after victims came forward through lawsuits, declined to be interviewed regarding the incident or whether she told anyone else about the girls’ complaints. The response came through her attorney, Steven Stapleton of Grand Rapids.
Klages didn’t tell Boyce’s parents, but she did tell Nassar, Boyce said.
“Had I known she was such good friends with him, I would not have said anything,” Boyce said.
‘New way of treating’
Two years later, runner Christie Achenbach sounded an alarm when she told her coach about Nassar’s conduct in 1999.
Achenbach, a track and cross country athlete, had hurt her right hamstring and seen 15 other medical specialists before MSU athletic center staff referred her to Nassar.
During her appointment, Nassar told her that he was going to do something different for her pain, she said in an interview.
“He said his new way of treating people was going internally and manipulating the pelvic floor in order to help with any problem a female might have,” said Achenbach, then 21. “He said he had to go in, but he didn’t tell me that the way he was going to go in was not using lubricant like a doctor would. He just kept rubbing back and forth — that’s when I knew something was going on ... Then he put his fingers up inside me.”
Immediately afterward, Achenbach called her parents. She then said she called her coach, Kelli Bert, and told her that Nassar had rubbed her and inserted his fingers inside her, Achenbach said in an interview.
“He’s an Olympic doctor and he should know what he is doing,” Achenbach, now 40, said Bert told her.
Bert, who worked for MSU for one year as an assistant coach, told The News she doesn’t remember Achenbach complaining about Nassar. She also said she didn’t know Nassar was an Olympic doctor.
“I don’t recall any of that,” said Bert. “If he had done something sexual, I believe I would have reported that immediately.”
Bert said she learned of Nassar’s assaults from media reports and said no one told her that he was “doing something disgusting like that.”
Crying, Bert said she was upset that someone had to go through that.
“If someone had said something about being assaulted, I would never brush it aside,” she said. “To me, that is every woman’s nightmare.”
‘No way, that’s not right’
In 2000, another victim spoke up, this time to an athletic trainer. Tiffany Thomas Lopez had moved to East Lansing from southern California to play softball for the Spartans.
Soon after, Thomas Lopez developed low back pain and she was referred to Nassar, who told her he would manipulate the pelvic floor area.
During the early treatments, Nassar briefly would slip his thumb inside her. But in later visits, he put his fingers inside her and moved them around, sometimes for 15 minutes, she said. She started to question it to her trainers and often made up excuses not to go.
While away at a softball tournament, Thomas Lopez was in the hotel room of her team trainer, Lianna Hadden, who was working with her because she was in so much pain. Thomas Lopez demonstrated to the trainer what Nassar would do to her to relieve her pain.
“She gasped,” said Thomas Lopez, now 37. “She said, ‘No way, that’s not right.’”
Hadden, who remains an MSU athletic trainer working with the volleyball team, declined to comment to The News.
Thomas Lopez said Hadden told her she needed to tell Destiny Teachnor-Hauk, an athletic trainer at MSU.
Thomas Lopez recalls talking to Teachnor-Hauk after the tournament while sitting on the bleachers in MSU’s Jenison Field House.
“I was told if I felt extremely uncomfortable then of course we could pursue something but I was assured this was actual medical treatment,” said Thomas Lopez. “If I decided to pursue something, it was going to cast a burden over my family. She said it was going cause a lot of heartache, it was going to cause a lot of trauma and why would I want drag him through this?”
During testimony Tuesday at Nassar’s sentencing, a second woman — Jennifer Rood Bedford — testified that about two years after Thomas Lopez, she told Hadden that Nassar had made her uncomfortable.
“I was so scared of revealing what I thought were shameful details that I didn’t give her much to go on,” Rood Bedford said. “In the end, she wanted me to understand that filing a report, it would involve an investigation, making an accusation against Nassar and statement that I felt that what Nassar did was unprofessional or criminally wrong.”
Rood Bedford said she couldn’t say that with certainty.
For Thomas Lopez, who learned of Rood Bedford’s testimony from a reporter, it was a second betrayal.
Fourteen years after Thomas Lopez said she told Teachnor-Hauk about Nassar, Teachnor-Hauk was interviewed during a Title IX investigation into Nassar’s conduct headed by Kristine Moore, then assistant director of the Institutional Equity Office for Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives.
“Ms. Teachnor-Hauk states that she has never had a complaint about Dr. Nassar in 17 years and has no concern about him crossing the line between medically appropriate and inappropriate,” the report says.
Three years later, according to a March 2017 police report, Teachnor-Hauk told two MSU police officers and an FBI agent she “never had an athlete tell her that Nassar made them uncomfortable.”
Thomas Lopez was audibly distraught after being told by a reporter of Teachnor-Hauk’s statements in the Title IX and police reports.
She began sobbing. “That is not my truth,” Thomas Lopez said. “My life has been turned upside down because she decided not to tell my truth.”
Teachnor-Hauk did not respond to requests for comment for this story. She remains an athletic trainer in charge of MSU women’s gymnastics and supervises training for the varsity and novice rowing teams, as well as the Jenison training room.
Family friend an accuser
Nassar’s victims were not limited to his work as a physician. A family friend of Nassar testified last year that she told MSU clinical psychologist Dr. Gary Stollak about the doctor’s abuse in the mid-2000s.
Kyle Stephens, the first to publicly testify against Nassar last year, said he began molesting her in 1998 by exposing himself in the basement of his home. She was 6.
Over six years, Nassar touched himself in front of her, massaged her feet against his groin and inserted his fingers inside her, Stephens testified in a preliminary examination for Nassar in an Ingham County district court.
She repeated her testimony at Nassar’s sentencing hearing Tuesday.
After Stephens told her parents in 2004, when she was in the sixth grade, they took her to see Stollak, Stephens said in an interview.
Stollak suggested her parents meet with him and Nassar. During the meeting, Nassar denied using her feet to stimulate himself, and her parents believed him, said Stephens, who did not attend.
Nassar came to her house that day and told her that if anything like that ever happened to her, she needed to tell someone.
“Larry is a very sick man who is very devoted to putting himself in a position to feed his pedophilia,” said Stephens, now 25. “I wasn’t anything but an object or a catalyst to make that happen.”
Reached at his home, Stollak, who retired in 2010, repeated to The News what he testified in court last year.
“I had a stroke in 2016 and I said with my right hand raised, I have no memories of any encounters with any of the people related to the case,” said Stollak.
Stephens said Stollak didn’t try hard enough to find out what Nassar did and should have reported her allegations against the doctor to authorities.
“Dr. Stollak did a pretty pathetic job of trying to uncover the truth,” she said. “There should have been mandatory reporting. He was in a profession where he should have done that.”
A 1975 Michigan law requires certain professionals to report suspicions of child abuse to Children’s Protective Services including school administrators, teachers, psychologists and law enforcement officers.
‘Police ... just took his word’
Brianne Randall-Gay went to local police in spring 2004 after leaving her second visit with Nassar for back pain. He had touched her bare breast and put his hand between her legs, she said.
Randall-Gay, then a 16-year-old soccer and tennis player, told friends at her high school in Haslett, near Lansing, about the visit. Then she went home and told her mother. That evening, Randall-Gay went to the Meridian Township Police Department, where officers sent her to Sparrow Hospital for a rape kit.
A few weeks later, police asked Randall-Gay and her parents to meet with Nassar.
Randall-Gay didn’t want to go, so her parents went without her. Afterward, they told her Nassar and the police said what she experienced was a legitimate treatment.
Randall-Gay’s father is deceased and her mother couldn’t be reached for comment.
“Larry said it was a misunderstanding because I was not a gymnast and not as comfortable with my body and that was where the misunderstanding was,” said Randall-Gay, now 30. “The police ... just took his word.”
Randall-Gay, who publicly revealed her identity during Nassar’s sentencing hearing and in an interview with The Detroit News, said she did not know if Meridian Township police contacted MSU about her complaint.
Assistant Police Chief Ken Plaga said the department did not alert Michigan State University and never forwarded her report to the Ingham County prosecutor. He declined to elaborate.
Plaga said the department is withholding the release of Randall-Gay’s police report, which The News requested, at the direction of the Attorney General’s office until sentencing of Nassar is finished.
Randall-Gay said she wishes police had told officials at MSU. She believes someone at MSU should be held accountable for Nassar’s actions.
“It’s really hard to see an institution that I look up to not take ownership for its mistakes of allowing a predator to continue to abuse for so long,” Randall-Gay said. “They should be ashamed.”
Complaints reach Simon
A decade later, another woman took a step to alert MSU about Nassar in a report that came to the attention of MSU’s president.
In April 2014, MSU alum Amanda Thomashow told Dr. Jeff Kovan, of the MSU Sports Medicine Clinic, about possible sexual misconduct while on a March 24 visit to Nassar’s office for treatment of hip pain.
Kovan reported the incident to the Office for Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives, then the office that investigated sexual misconduct complaints under Title IX laws that bar discrimination on the basis of sex. The accuser also reported the abuse to the MSU police department in May 2014.
Kovan declined a request for comment through Laura Probyn, a spokeswoman for the MSU College of Osteopathic Medicine.
Notice of both complaints reached Simon. The MSU president declined to be interviewed for this story, although she briefly answered questions Wednesday in a break during Nassar’s sentencing hearing indicating she knew very little about the investigation.
Moore, the office’s assistant director and now MSU’s assistant general counsel, investigated for the university.
Thomashow — who had kept her identity concealed until this week — told the investigator Nassar worked on her shoulder and massaged her breast “like your boyfriend would while you were making out with him,” according to the report.
She tried to stop him, but Nassar continued, massaging her over the top of her clothes and then moving his hands underneath her sweat pants.
“He began to massage her with three fingers in a circular motion in her vaginal area,” according to the Title IX report. “She states that he was extremely close to inserting a finger into her.”
The report includes interviews with the victim’s mother and three of her friends, plus Nassar and three MSU medical manipulation specialists — Dr. Brooke Lemmen, Dr. Lisa DeStefano and Dr. Jennifer Gilmore — plus Teachnor-Hauk, the MSU athletic trainer. All told investigators that Nassar’s behavior was medically appropriate, according to the report.
All three doctors also said they don’t do skin-to-skin contact, even though it makes it easier to feel for soft tissue changes.
“She does it over clothes because, as a woman, she is sensitive to the fact that skin-to-skin contact may be uncomfortable for some,” according to the report’s summary of the interview with DeStefano, chairwoman and associate professor in the Department of Osteopathic Manipulative Medicine.
The Title IX complaint concluded that Nassar’s conduct was not of a sexual nature.
There is not a consistent level at which MSU administrators are alerted of the disposition of Title IX complaints, Cody told The News.
“It all depends on the circumstances involved in each specific case,” he said in an email. “There is no blanket answer.”
Cody said Simon did not receive additional information about the inquiry or its outcome.
“As there was no finding of a policy violation, there was no further briefing,” he said. “There typically wouldn’t be.”
Probyn said DeStefano and Gilmore, an assistant professor, declined to comment.
Lemmen resigned in January 2017 after being threatened with termination, MSU documents show. According to the records, Nassar had told Lemmen USA Gymnastics was investigating him, but she told no one. She removed several boxes of confidential treatment records at Nassar’s request after allegations emerged about him but returned the records before giving them to Nassar, the MSU documents show.
Aaron Kemp, an attorney for Lemmen, said she would not comment.
Moore notified Nassar’s boss, Dr. William Strampel, dean of the College of Osteopathic Medicine, about the complaint. At Strampel’s direction, Nassar agreed to have another person in the room when treating patients and to limit skin-to-skin contact, according to emails obtained by The News.
Strampel recently stepped down from his position and is on medical leave. He did not respond to requests for comment.
A year after the complaint, MSU police forwarded the report to the Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office, which declined to file charges against Nassar. The prosecutor at the time, Stuart Dunnings III, could not be reached for comment.
MSU Detective Kelly Johnson spoke with Nassar in December 2015 and told him the prosecutor was not pressing charges, but reminded him to have a chaperone in the room and to explain his procedures, according to an MSU police report.
That same report showed that after July 2014, when Nassar was cleared in the Title IX investigation, at least 12 assaults occurred. Thomashow, who filed the complaint, said she suspects the number is far higher.
“It makes me sad my word wasn’t enough to protect them,” Thomashow told The News. “I am really frustrated that MSU did not stop him when I gave them information. It’s time for MSU to be held accountable for what happened. They need to admit they were wrong.”