By Christy Strawser
(WWJ) Investigative reporter Tim Evans from the Indianapolis Star remembers the first time he saw the name Larry Nassar, back before it meant anything to the outside world.
Ahead of the days when Nassar’s face was crumpled in self-pity in a courtroom ringed with accusers and cameras, he was just a doctor. Correct that. He was a good doctor, by many accounts, with a wall full of plaques and awards for his work as team doctor with USA Gymnastics and at Michigan State University.
But the email — the one that brought Nassar into Evans’ orbit — told a different story, a dark tale of abuse and vulnerable young girls. The email was from Rachel Denhollander, who was a 15-year-old Kalamazoo homeschooler and gymnast in 2000 when her mother took her to Nassar for treatment.
He told her she needed a readjustment, and suddenly penetrated her with two fingers. He did it again at follow-up appointments. She eventually told her mother, who kept the information to herself, figuring it was her word against that of an esteemed doctor.
Nassar continued practicing for years, molesting more and more young girls under the guise of medical treatment. Nassar’s molestation was allegedly reported to Michigan State University at last four times over the years — and died there.
He stayed under the radar as he used his job to become what a judge later called the most prolific serial child sex abuser in history.
In 2016, after months of research, Evans published an in-depth account of USA Gymnastics allegedly mishandling sex abuse allegations. That’s where Denhollander comes in with an email telling the reporter her tale. She was willing to go on the record, name included.
That’s the beginning of the end for Larry Nassar, who was sentenced yesterday to up to 175 years in jail for systematic rape and abuse in a case that was marked by speeches from 156 victims and took down the presidency of MSU’s Lou Anna Simon.
“I’m not surprised that the president resigned or retired or whatever the formal term is,” Evans said. “They probably bungled their initial response, it was probably poor crisis management.”
He added MSU seemed to have more culpability than anyone else because they were made aware and ignored or downplayed complaints.
They allegedly disregarded evidence that Evans, along with Indy colleagues Mark Alesia, Marisa Kwiatkowski — and with follow-up help from Matt Mencarini at Lansing State Journal — used to broke the story that became Nassar’s undoing.
“The first time I heard it (Nassar’s name) was August 4, 2016 when Rachel Denhollander reached out,” Evans said, adding his team had investigated more than 100 coaches accused and convicted of molesting children for their initial gymnastic abuse story, but Nassar’s name came out of the blue.
Denhollander told them she continued to struggle with the knowledge that if it happened to her, it must have happened to others. “Rachel was willing to put her name on it from the get-go. She was ready to suffer the consequences. In my mind, she was one of the heroes of this thing. She’s not a real public person, she’s a stay at home mom, she lives modestly.”
Evan’s team got two other emails naming Nassar as an abuser and seeming to show it had happened to more young women.
The stories shared a theme.
“He didn’t wear gloves when he was penetrating them,” Evans said. They were there for a medical treatment and suddenly the doctor who was supposed to be checking sore muscles and tendons was penetrating them.
Evans researched whether there was such a thing as this procedure — and there was. But it was extremely rare and didn’t match Nassar’s treatment. “This was troubling,” Evans said.
They reached out to Michigan State, which was initially helpful and open. They had investigated Nassar, too, Evans said, and found nothing after they deferred to his knowledge as a doctor. “He told them it was legitimate treatment,” Evans said, and apparently he was believed.
The Indy team didn’t believe it. They reached out Nassar, who agreed to an interview.
Not long into the conversation, Evans said he know something was up with the good doctor.
“His body language made me feel like he had something to hide,” Evans recalled. “He was very confident when he was controlling the narrative. When I would push him on something, he would stammer.” Evans said Nassar is a socially awkward guy in person, but he could project confidence until you pushed his comfort level.
Evans couldn’t write a story based on his body language. The team kept digging, making sure the first three accusers weren’t concocting an effort to smear Nassar. Eventually satisfied with what they had uncovered, they published the first story Sept. 12, 2016.
Within two weeks of publishing the story, 16 more women had come forward.
“We watched the online police log at Michigan State,” Evans said. “Women were coming forward daily.” He said they had checked the log for weeks and months prior — nothing — and suddenly sex assault complaints were coming in every day.
By the time all was said and done, more than 150 women spoke against Nassar in a series of moving, heart-wrenching moments.
Evans thinks their tales are “just the tip of the iceberg,” saying he believes there are victims who have not — or at least not yet — come forward.
What’s next for the team that took down Nassar? A documentary is brewing and they’re continuing to look into the culture at USA Gymnastics that seemed to allow systematic abuse.
But Evans will tell you it’s not about the journalists who broke the story, it’s about the victims.
“Much more important is the face we gave a voice to a bunch of women who didn’t have one before,” he said.