How Larry Nassar Got Away In this episode, we take you back to 2004 - 13 years before Dr. Larry Nassar would admit in court that he sexually abused children. This incident with a teenager will show you not just what Larry was doing to so many of his patients, but how he got away with it again and again.
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How He Got Away

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How He Got Away

How He Got Away

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KATE WELLS, HOST:

Hey. It's Kate. If you haven't heard Episode 1, start there. This episode will make more sense. And just a heads-up - this episode talks about sexual assault of a teenager in detail.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LINDSEY SMITH, HOST:

It's late on a fall evening - dark. September 16, 2004 - a 17-year-old girl walks towards the bright lights of a hospital in Lansing, Mich. She's with her mom and a police officer.

BRIANNE RANDALL-GAY: I mean, I show up in the emergency room. They bring me through the main entrance. And I actually see a kid from my high school sitting there.

SMITH: This guy from her high school has a broken arm or something. And she remembers, he spots her with the police.

RANDALL-GAY: And he's just looking at me like, what is going on? And I just was terrified. I was like - oh, my gosh - everyone's going to find out. Everyone's going to think something's going on.

WELLS: Brianne Randall-Gay has just come from the police station, where she reported what Dr. Larry Nassar did to her. The police want her to go straight to the local hospital for a rape exam.

SMITH: Brianne remembers the emergency room as packed. But the police escort means Brianne skips the line, goes right back into an exam room.

WELLS: And the nurse gives her a pelvic exam and also asks a lot of very personal questions.

RANDALL-GAY: I do remember telling the nurse - saying to her, you know, what if no one believes me? What if everyone thinks I'm lying? And she said, you know, people who are lying about this don't have the details like you have, and this man's going to lose his license. And it's so weird to me now, but I remember feeling so guilty after that. I was like - I even think I told her something like, I don't want that to happen, thinking I made a mistake and feeling guilty for ever reporting him.

WELLS: In this episode, we're taking you back - 13 years before Dr. Larry Nassar would admit in court that he sexually abused children.

SMITH: This incident with Brianne in 2004, it'll show you not just what Larry was doing to so many of his patients but how he got away with it again and again. I'm Lindsey Smith.

WELLS: And I'm Kate Wells. You're listening to BELIEVED, a podcast about how Larry Nassar abused so many for so long.

SMITH: That September, Brianne was a senior at Haslett High School. Haslett is a small town just 5 miles away from Michigan State University, where Larry worked. After school, she'd hop in her little silver Dodge Neon.

RANDALL-GAY: I called it, like, the silver bullet because it was just super tiny. But it did the job for the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOXIC")

BRITNEY SPEARS: (Singing) You're toxic...

SMITH: On the way home from school, she'd rock some Britney Spears.

WELLS: At home, she'd do her homework, catch the countdown on MTV. A few days a week, she'd head to her part-time job making sandwiches at Quiznos.

SMITH: Brianne took the silver bullet to a lot of doctors' appointments, too, because Brianne has scoliosis, which means her spine is curved instead of straight. And by the time she was in high school, Brianne's battling chronic back pain. She would spend three days a week at physical therapy, the chiropractor's.

WELLS: She quit soccer and tennis. They were considering surgery.

SMITH: But then a specialist said - you know what? - try seeing a sports medicine doctor. So Brianne's mom, Ellen Speckman-Randall, asked around for a good one.

ELLEN SPECKMAN-RANDALL: And it pretty much came back, you want Nassar. Nassar's the one to see. He's the Olympic doctor. And so I thought - well, I'm probably not going to be able to get in, but let me give it a try.

WELLS: Dr. Larry Nassar is fresh off a big trip to Athens. He was with the U.S. women's gymnastics team at the Olympics there. By September 2004, Larry is back at his normal job on clinical duties at Michigan State University's sports medicine clinic. And just as a reminder, we're calling him Larry because it's important to think about him not as Nassar, the guy you saw on the news, but as Larry, the trusted, beloved, goofy doctor. Everyone called him Larry.

SMITH: Brianne was never a gymnast, but Larry sees a lot of other athletes, too.

WELLS: And they luck out. Ellen is, in fact, able to get them an appointment. And that first appointment goes great. Larry is super nice. He thinks he can help. Ellen feels like they have finally hit the jackpot. And so they schedule a second appointment.

SMITH: At her second appointment, Brianne goes by herself.

RANDALL-GAY: I think the very first thing that seemed off was him having me undress for a massage.

WELLS: Larry hands Brianne these little tearaway shorts, Velcro up the sides. Larry has Brianne lay on the exam table on her stomach.

RANDALL-GAY: I think I had a sheet over me, and he just began massaging my back.

SMITH: Larry uses his elbow to push hard on her lower back, even on her butt.

WELLS: Brianne winces in pain. Larry asks her, does this hurt? And she's like, yes, definitely.

RANDALL-GAY: He said oh, OK. Well, let me do something to release the pressure in your back. And he said, I'm going to give you a wedgie.

SMITH: Larry rips open the Velcro on one side of Brianne's shorts. Underneath, she's got on a pair of white underwear, so Larry moves the side of her underwear, exposing her butt cheek. He's not wearing gloves. He hasn't told her what he's about to do. For several minutes, his hands are just massaging her butt cheek, skin on skin.

RANDALL-GAY: I just felt uncomfortable at that point. I felt exposed.

SMITH: Brianne feels Larry's right hand drift further down, below her butt. And then he's pressing his bare fingers really hard up against her crotch.

RANDALL-GAY: I felt like he was going to try to penetrate me - because he was going in that direction - until he felt the tampon.

WELLS: Brianne is on her period.

RANDALL-GAY: At that point, he just put his fingers and kept his fingers at the entrance of my vagina.

WELLS: Brianne stays very still. She can't believe what's happening. She's silent.

RANDALL-GAY: When I said something hurt, then he would go further. You know, when he was being too rough on my back, the way he treated my discomfort with that was to put pressure on my vagina. And so I was worried that, if I said that hurt, that he would go even farther.

SMITH: She doesn't know how long this goes on. Eventually, Larry asks her again - does this hurt? Brianne lies.

RANDALL-GAY: I said no because I was terrified of what he would do to try to release the pressure again.

WELLS: Brianne lays there on her stomach, butt exposed. She's 17 years old, and she's alone with Dr. Larry Nassar. She braces herself, waits for the pain to stop. And she's trying to rationalize what Larry is doing to her. There's got to be a logical explanation.

RANDALL-GAY: And I felt like I should just let him do what he needed to do to heal me and that he was a doctor; he knew what he was doing.

WELLS: She thinks, this must be one of those things doctors do that hurts but it's good for you, like a root canal or a pap smear.

RANDALL-GAY: It's not comfortable. But in the end, it's to help you. And so I just assumed that that's what he was doing it for.

WELLS: But then Larry moves his hand from her vagina up to her neck - no gloves, she hasn't seen him wash his hands.

SMITH: Face down on the table, Brianne feels his hands on her ribs.

WELLS: His hand slides down her side. He palms her breasts.

RANDALL-GAY: And at that point, I was just very uncomfortable and just kind of froze.

WELLS: With Brianne frozen, Larry rubs and squeezes her breasts for what felt like 15 full minutes.

SMITH: Then he stops, turns away from Brianne, looks like he's taking some notes on a clipboard.

RANDALL-GAY: After he was done with his so-called procedure, he had me dress in front of him. So he stayed in the room and watched me get dressed. And I remember just trying to turn the other way to try to shield myself.

SMITH: Brianne is so disoriented, she wants to just run out of there.

WELLS: But Larry is trying to schedule weekly appointments with this teenage girl. They're talking about dates and times. And when she's finally able to leave that exam room, Larry gives her a big hug.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: After the appointment, Brianne drives to school. She's late for lunch. The cafeteria at Haslett High School is packed with teenagers. There are flyers from the homecoming dance up on the walls. Everybody's eating. Everybody's clustered around big, round tables.

RANDALL-GAY: I don't remember eating at all. I don't think I ate anything.

WELLS: The table Brianne normally sits at with her friends was full, so she grabs a chair, squeezes in. And she just unloads it, tells all of her friends about the crazy gross thing her doctor just did to her.

RANDALL-GAY: I honestly don't know what made me even say something to a group that big. I think I was just so distraught by it. I needed to tell someone. And I needed to say something because I was trying to work this out in my head.

SMITH: Brianne will never forget the look of shock on her friends' faces.

RANDALL-GAY: I remember one of them specifically said, oh, wow - I've seen him before. You know, I definitely shouldn't go back to see him, and that doesn't sound right. You should tell your mom about it.

So I actually called my mom. I left the lunch table.

SPECKMAN-RANDALL: And she said, Mom, what happened at the doctor's today was terribly wrong. I'm like, what do you mean? And she told me about, you know, how he had massaged her breasts, he had put his finger inside of her, he'd had her change her clothes while he was in the room.

RANDALL-GAY: She was pretty shocked and said - OK, when you come home from school, we're going to talk about this more.

SMITH: At home later that night, Brianne and Ellen sit down. She tells her mom everything.

RANDALL-GAY: I think I hadn't fully realized that it was wrong. I felt like it was weird. And I was like - oh, wow, my mom's taking this really seriously.

SPECKMAN-RANDALL: And I said - well, what do you want to do? What do you think we should do? And she said, I want to go to the police. I said, OK. We're going.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WELLS: They went to police that very night, then to the hospital for the rape exam that we told you about earlier. The next step is for the police to question Dr. Larry Nassar.

SMITH: It takes about two weeks for a detective named Andrew McCready to sit down with him for an interview. McCready still works for Meridian Township's police department. Meridian is where Brianne's appointment was.

WELLS: And McCready wouldn't talk to us. And there are no tapes of his interview with Larry.

SMITH: What we have is McCready's written police report from 2004. In that report Larry lays out his defense. It'll become a go-to for Larry, one he will use again.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WELLS: Larry's account of what happened at Brianne's appointment is one single paragraph. The police report starts like this. Quote, "Dr. Nassar advised me he had indeed touched Brianne Randall in the perineum, applying pressure with his fingers as he did so," unquote. Larry explains this is a legitimate medical procedure.

SMITH: At the bottom of the police report is a 25-page-long PowerPoint Larry provided - yes, a PowerPoint. It's one of several presentations Larry created for speaking engagements, lectures he gave at medical conferences and, apparently, to defend himself.

KEN PLAGA: Yeah, it is - it's one of many things I think that made - that fooled the officer.

WELLS: This is Meridian Township Police Chief Ken Plaga.

SMITH: Plaga wasn't chief back in 2004. But he has reviewed Brianne's case.

WELLS: And he says, look. Here you've got a doctor at the top of his field explaining this complex medical procedure and providing evidence.

PLAGA: I think that, you know, you bring in this PowerPoint with demonstrations of the actual procedure that are part of that PowerPoint, where you see the hands inside the groin area, similar to what was explained by the victim - by Brianne, by several of the victims. You know, this is - this is - here it is. I teach this.

WELLS: This is one of Larry's moves. Create confusion. Blur the lines between his abuse and legitimate medical techniques.

SMITH: Larry would treat patients who had injuries like a heel fracture or a shoulder sprain with his so-called pelvic manipulations. He's not even certified to treat the pelvic floor. But your average patient may not know any of this.

WELLS: Which is why we're going to take a minute here - because you need to understand what real pelvic floor treatment looks like so you can see how it is miles away from what Larry was doing to his victims.

SMITH: The pelvic floor is a group of muscles inside your pelvis. They hold your bladder and other internal organs like a sling. You use your pelvic floor to control your bladder. Treating pelvic floor dysfunction can include exercises, stretching and sometimes manual manipulation. I know people who get pelvic floor treatment. They're big fans. And that's why we had to talk to an expert to get some answers.

AMY STEIN: I've had women that didn't ever think they could get pregnant, couldn't have sexual relations with their partner - men, too.

SMITH: That's Dr. Amy Stein. She lives in New York City, has no connections to Larry Nassar.

WELLS: But unlike Larry, Dr. Stein has both a masters and a doctorate in physical therapy. She literally wrote the book on treating pelvic pain. And Dr. Stein says treating pelvic pain intravaginally or rectally, meaning putting your fingers inside of patients, can be legitimate when you're treating sexually active adults. She and the doctors at her practice do this regularly.

STEIN: A lot in the muscles you can't reach externally. Some you can. But many of them, you can't. And it is so effective to assess and treat the muscles internally.

WELLS: We showed Dr. Stein the pelvic floor presentation Larry Nassar gave police in 2004. And Dr. Stein says, yeah, a lot of what he's saying is legit. You do see a lot of pelvic issues in gymnasts.

SMITH: But there are red flags for her. Dr. Stein says when you're dealing with kids - especially minors who haven't had sex yet - it would not be typical for a physician to insert their fingers into a girl's vagina to get to those muscles.

STEIN: That is the absolute last thing we have to do because there's so much, again, that we could do without doing the internal work.

SMITH: Stein says even with adults, you'd never do these procedures without wearing gloves, without getting their consent and without explaining what you're doing ahead of time. So back to this PowerPoint Larry gave police. We've got a copy of it. And at the very end, past the diagrams showing how muscles attach to the pelvis and plenty of medical jargon I can't understand, there's a few pages of these pictures with Larry.

WELLS: In these photos, Larry is demonstrating these medical techniques on young female patients.

SMITH: And in some of these pictures, Larry's given them wedgies. In one, he's got his fingers right up near a girl's crotch. In another, he's got a full-on butt grab, with both hands. His thumbs are, like, jamming up right towards a girl's sit bones.

RANDALL-GAY: The PowerPoint is cringe-worthy. It was really difficult to see.

SMITH: Again, this is Brianne. She had not seen Larry's PowerPoint until just this year.

RANDALL-GAY: And what's, you know, made me angry is that what I told them he did is not what he presented to them in the PowerPoint. He's, like, on the side of their - you know, their shorts. He's - he's not trying to penetrate them. He's not massaging their breasts. He's doing none of that. So I feel like that PowerPoint, you know, it didn't prove anything.

SMITH: Police Chief Ken Plaga admits there are at least two ways his department messed this case up. One is even though Larry is the suspect, the detective doesn't run his explanation or his PowerPoint by any other medical expert.

PLAGA: You know, we - we could have. We could have went to a doctor and said, is this a - you know, what is your thoughts on this medical procedure?

SMITH: You could have, or you guys probably should have? Or is that clear?

PLAGA: Yeah, well, we should have. That's something that we should have done, things that could have, should have been done.

SMITH: Brianne won't say the detective who handled her case was totally incompetent.

RANDALL-GAY: Yeah, I think - I think there was a couple things. I think he was fooled. And I think he kind of was intimidated to press further. He took this PowerPoint and called it a day.

SMITH: Brianne has spoken with Detective Andrew McCready a little bit since Larry got caught.

RANDALL-GAY: He called me, and he apologized for, you know, being tricked by Nassar. And, you know, if he could go back, he would - he would do it differently, you know, saying his intentions were good. So it was good to hear his apology. That's not to say, now, that I'm not still angry, especially because at that point, I had not seen the police report yet. When I saw the police report, I felt a little different. And I have not talked to him since.

SMITH: Larry Nassar manipulated all kinds of well-intentioned people with his show of medical expertise and the prestige of his position as the Olympic doctor.

RANDALL-GAY: But, you know, I think a lot more could have been done and should have been done. But hindsight's 20/20.

SMITH: So the first way the police messed up, they didn't run Larry's medical explanation by any other expert. They just took his word for it.

WELLS: The second way police messed up, the detective never brought the case to the local prosecutor for review. If Brianne came in and made this sexual assault complaint today, Plaga says, they would do that for sure because prosecutors see cases from all over the county, not just one town. So they will know if, say, multiple people have come forward about the same sports doctor, for instance. But with Brianne's complaint, that did not happen.

SMITH: Because of Brianne's case, the Meridian Township police reviewed nearly 600 sexual assault cases they'd done over the years. They even reopened seven of them. They did not find problems with any of Detective McCready's other cases. But Brianne says she still has a lot of unanswered questions. And she wants an independent review of her case. Chief Plaga says they're working on it.

WELLS: Back to 2004. Two weeks after Brianne reports Dr. Larry Nassar, Detective McCready calls Brianne's mom, Ellen.

SPECKMAN-RANDALL: So we got the results. And they evidently did the investigation with - and talked to Nassar about it. And he gave them a PowerPoint and said, yeah, well, this is what I did, and it was necessary. And they closed the case. And Bri (ph) was so distraught.

RANDALL-GAY: I remember just feeling embarrassed, like, oh, my God. I made this report. It was a mistake, and he's going to be mad at me. My parents are going to be mad at me. The police are going to be mad at me.

WELLS: As Ellen remembers it, she tells the detective on the phone she wants a face-to-face meeting with Larry Nassar. Ellen asks her daughter, Bri, do you want to come? But Brianne is so embarrassed at this point, she doesn't want to go talk to this doctor or the police. So Ellen remembers sitting down and telling the police and Larry Nassar, look. I am not an expert. I'm not going to bicker with you about whether this is or isn't legitimate treatment.

SPECKMAN-RANDALL: But I have real problems with him having a girl come in and change her clothes in front of him and him put his fingers inside of her without telling her he's going to do that, without her permission and without a glove and without lubrication and then massaging her breast - and with nobody in the room. It's like, this is - this is so wrong. And I kept trying to get that across to them. That was - that was the point. And then they let it go.

WELLS: Ellen remembers Larry nodding his head.

SPECKMAN-RANDALL: He accepted it and was like, yeah, yeah, that's - that's probably a good idea.

WELLS: Larry does not apologize for touching her daughter. But Ellen remembers he did apologize for how the treatment made Brianne feel. And Ellen walks away from this meeting thinking maybe she had made some difference. Maybe Larry would change his practice because of Brianne's experience.

SMITH: Brianne's feelings were more complicated.

RANDALL-GAY: I think my parents believed him, absolutely. I think he was able to convince them that this was a legitimate medical procedure. And honestly, a big part of me felt like it was bullshit. And I had wished I had gone to the meeting to kind of call him out and try to get more answers - 'cause I felt like nobody asked any questions.

SMITH: Brianne wanted to do more. It's just - it felt like the wrong time. Her family was going through a lot. Brianne's dad, Tony, was dying. He had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. And her mom, Ellen, was busy taking care of him. People were bringing over home-cooked meals.

SPECKMAN-RANDALL: Our friends really kept the family going. But it was - it was chaos.

SMITH: Ellen was practically living out of hospital waiting rooms in Ann Arbor or Chicago, miles away from home. So for Brianne, pushing her parents to do more to get Larry Nassar just didn't feel right.

WELLS: Brianne's dad passed away in May of 2005, just over six months after Larry Nassar sexually assaulted her. Over the last 14 years, Brianne and her mom, Ellen, have had a lot of long, emotional conversations about the assault.

SPECKMAN-RANDALL: Something happening like this to kids is very, very harmful to the parent-child relationship because there's something there that is hurtful. And parents' job is to solve problems for kids. And this is a problem a parent can't solve. I couldn't - I couldn't make this one right.

SMITH: Ellen remembers trying to reassure her daughter, at least if anyone else makes a complaint about him, the police have your report. They'll know he's done this before. But what neither of them knew was the same year they reported Larry, in 2004, another girl did, too. This time, the problem was her own family. Her story is next on BELIEVED.

WELLS: If you want to know more about Brianne's case, you can head to michiganradio.org/believed. We've put Larry's PowerPoints and the police report there too. This week's show was reported by me, Kate Wells, and Lindsey Smith, produced by Juliet Hinely with help from Paulette Parker, edited by Sarah Hulett with help from Alison MacAdam, engineered and mixed by Bob Skon. Jennifer Guerra is the show's executive producer. Zoe Clark is our program director. Our theme music is by Paul Brill.

SMITH: Special thanks to Emma Winowiecki, Jodi Westrick, Rebecca Williams, Vince Duffy, Amy Tardif, Len Niehoff, Nisa Khan, Hannah Rubenstein, Lara Moehlman and Kyle Norris.

WELLS: And the folks at NPR, Mark Memmott, Ashley Messenger, Camille Smiley, N'Jeri Eaton and Ramtin Arablouei. You can hear new episodes of BELIEVED every Monday. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

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