How Larry Nassar Got Caught Larry Nassar's world starts to fall apart in the summer of 2016, thanks to three things: a tough Michigan detective, a team of journalists in Indiana, and a homeschooling mom from Kentucky. In this episode, you'll hear Larry's facade collapse - on tape.
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How He Got Caught

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How He Got Caught

How He Got Caught

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KATE WELLS, HOST:

Hey, this is Kate. If you are just starting with this episode, stop and go back to Episode 1. Things will make a lot more sense. Also, we just need to give you the same warning you've heard in other episodes. We use adult language, and we're going to be talking about sexual assaults in detail.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LINDSEY SMITH, HOST:

For Larry Nassar, the beginning of the end comes in the summer of 2016.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDREA MUNFORD: Thanks for coming in so quick, too.

SMITH: For the second time in two years, he's sitting in that windowless interview room inside Michigan State University's police department.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MUNFORD: I'm Andrea Munford.

LARRY NASSAR: Hi. Nice to meet you. Larry Nassar.

WELLS: This time, however, he is being questioned by a 5-foot-1 campus detective named Andrea Munford. And she's asking Larry a question, one that should have a very simple answer. Do you ever get aroused during medical exams?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NASSAR: Do I get aroused during the exams?

MUNFORD: Yeah. Do you ever get an erection or...

NASSAR: Obviously, you don't. You know what I mean? So...

MUNFORD: Is there a reason that you would during an exam?

NASSAR: I shouldn't be getting an erection during an exam.

MUNFORD: Right. Well, this is why I'm talking about this...

NASSAR: Yeah.

MUNFORD: ...Because this young girl and her mother both observed this on more than one occasion during treatment.

NASSAR: That I would get aroused during an exam?

MUNFORD: A visibly erect penis - not exposed, but through your clothes.

NASSAR: I - I can't explain that because that shouldn't - when I'm working, I'm working.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WELLS: Up until right now, Larry has been able to talk his way out of trouble every single time.

SMITH: But now, in this interview, we hear Larry's facade fall apart. I'm Lindsey Smith.

WELLS: And I'm Kate Wells. You're listening to BELIEVED.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WELLS: There are three things that set off the fall of Dr. Larry Nassar - that police detective you just heard...

SMITH: ...A team of journalists in Indiana...

WELLS: ...And a homeschooling mom from Kentucky.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I want that one.

RACHAEL DENHOLLANDER: Hold on to your spoon because that's what you'll get to taste...

SMITH: That mom is Rachael Denhollander. She's also a lawyer, a devout Christian and a self-described homemade chocolate frosting addict.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Please. Please. Please.

R. DENHOLLANDER: Everybody will get some dessert. I promise.

WELLS: All three of Rachael's kids, Jonathan, Annaliese and Ellianna, get a plastic baby spoon to taste test. They're crowded around the kitchen table at home in Louisville, Ky.

SMITH: I've made cakes with my two girls. I envy Rachael's patience.

If you've seen coverage of the Larry Nassar case, Rachael's face is probably a familiar one.

WELLS: She's got brown hair down to her waist, the long, slim build of a ballet dancer, even though we are visiting her when she is very pregnant with her fourth child. Last time Rachael was pregnant, she stocked the deep freezer with enough meals for a year. What I'm saying is, this woman knows how to prepare. You will see that come in handy later.

SMITH: Rachael's husband is Jacob Denhollander. His Twitter profile lists him as president of Rachael's fan club and a Christian. He is also a long-suffering Calgary Flames hockey fan and a Ph.D. student in theology.

R. DENHOLLANDER: He's always - pretty much always the first one to say I'm sorry when we've been crabby with each other. It's true. There are a lot of things...

JACOB DENHOLLANDER: Yeah, OK. But let's also - let's also keep in mind here what would happen and what does happen when I try to argue?

R. DENHOLLANDER: I win (laughter).

J. DENHOLLANDER: (Laughter) I always say, you're never going to win an argument with an attorney. And you're never going to win an argument with your wife. So I'm doubly disadvantaged. But actually, that's one of the things I actually really appreciate about Rachael, is that she uses her powers for good.

SMITH: Jacob has seen Rachael, for years now, using her powers for good.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: Back in the summer of 2016, Rachael's in this very same kitchen when an article on Facebook catches her eye.

R. DENHOLLANDER: I don't think I'll ever forget seeing that article come through.

WELLS: It's this big investigation in the Indianapolis Star. It says USA Gymnastics has been covering up complaints of sexual abuse against coaches - coaches who were able to move from gym to gym abusing kids.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Good morning. The paper is reporting that on multiple occasions USA Gymnastics compiled complaints of coaches accused of sexual misconduct.

GAYLE KING: Warnings of suspected misconduct by member coaches were ignored.

JUDY WOODRUFF: ...Files on more than 50 coaches around the country, claims that had long sat in drawers at its office in Indianapolis.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: Rachael has been waiting for this moment for 16 years because Rachael was also abused - not by a coach. It happened back when she was a high school gymnast in the year 2000.

WELLS: She loved gymnastics, even though she will be the first to tell you she wasn't that great. What's funny is that now, with all the media attention on the Nassar case, a lot of people just assume that Rachael is an Olympic gymnast.

R. DENHOLLANDER: I'm still getting that on occasion. I got dubbed a gold medalist recently. No. No. I got some kind of joint award with Jordyn Wieber down in Florida that I'm supposed to be - and they're like, do you have an action shot of you doing gymnastics that we can put up when we put up Jordyn's? No, I don't. Have you ever seen a crappy level 5 gymnast? We are not putting any action shots of me doing gymnastics up next to an Olympian (laughter). No.

SMITH: Even though she was never going to be a star, Rachael put her whole heart into gymnastics.

WELLS: By age 15, all that constant pounding from practice had damaged Rachael's wrists and back. The local sports docs in Kalamazoo, Mich., where she grew up, they couldn't seem to help her pain.

SMITH: So Rachael is thrilled when her mom nabs an appointment with Larry Nassar. He helped all the best gymnasts. Their first appointment, right after Rachael's 15th birthday, starts off great. Larry's warm, friendly. He spots issues other doctors missed.

WELLS: Before we go on, we just want to say what happens to Rachael at these appointments is, unfortunately, a familiar story if you've listened to earlier episodes. So for this next part, we are just going to tell you what you need to know to understand the choices Rachael will make.

SMITH: In that exam room, Larry has Rachael stand. He kneels down behind her, puts one hand up on her hips and starts pulling. His other hand slides up her leg, inside her shorts, in her underwear. And without warning, at this first appointment, Larry puts two bare fingers in her vagina. It felt confident, rehearsed, like something he'd done a million times.

WELLS: Rachael thinks there's no way this famous doctor is doing something wrong.

R. DENHOLLANDER: You know, for me, being at that age, it was - there was almost an element of - there definitely was an element of, why would you even think that? There's no way he'd be attracted to a 15-year-old. Why would he be sexually aroused with a 15-year-old? You know, you're sexualizing things. You must have a dirty mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WELLS: Over the next year or so, Rachael says Larry develops a pattern. He'd have her lie face down on the massage table, drape her body with a sheet. He'd stand between that exam table and the chair where Rachael's mom would sit. Larry would block her mom's view. That's important. Then Larry would abuse Rachael for 30, 40 minutes at a time.

SMITH: In her gut, Rachael feels something's not right. But then she thinks, my mom's here.

WELLS: But what Rachael doesn't realize is her mom can't see what Larry's doing. She can't see Larry's hand inside her daughter's shorts. When Larry gets an erection during an appointment, her mom freezes. And Rachael does, too.

R. DENHOLLANDER: You know, just - just disbelief. I must be seeing it wrong. There must be an explanation. I must be mistaken. Nobody wants to stare at a guy's pants (laughter), you know, and try to figure out if they're actually seeing what they think they're seeing. And that's - that's a really common dynamic that I know now that abusers rely on. They rely on that shock.

SMITH: At another appointment, Larry reaches into her bra and massages her breast. This time, Rachael can clearly see an erection. She closes her eyes. More than anything, Rachael wants it all to go away, to not be real.

WELLS: After that, Rachael lies to Larry - tells him her back doesn't hurt anymore. She stops making new appointments. Finally, she works up the courage to tell her mom she was abused.

R. DENHOLLANDER: I had no idea - neither of us had any idea - of how bad the abuse was because we both thought it was still normal pelvic floor therapy and that it was just some of the other stuff that was abusive. But we talked at that time, how would we - how would we get someone to even believe a story like this?

WELLS: Rachael and her mom pray about what to do - go to the police, the local paper? But Rachael doesn't think anybody will believe her. She is a mediocre gymnast. Larry's an Olympic doctor. Even at 17, Rachael says she knows how that situation would go. So her mom sits Rachael down and says...

R. DENHOLLANDER: You cannot bury this. This will destroy you. So I'm going to help you deal with this. I'm moving your bedroom to the basement, so you can have privacy. Here's a journal. I'm going to help you learn how to journal. And she just helped me walk through the healing process but gave me the space to do it.

WELLS: Rachael takes her mom's advice. And Rachael does what she always does. She goes to work.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: She starts researching intravaginal techniques. She talks to specialists. She pulls her medical records from her appointments with Dr. Nassar. She says there's nothing in them about penetration.

WELLS: Slowly, over the next 16 years, Rachael builds her own case file. She's got her journal entries as a teen, opinions from pelvic floor experts, notes from her therapist. And Rachael waits. She figures it may be too late for her. But if there is ever a chance to speak up, to be believed, she'll take it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WELLS: That's coming up after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: Rachael's chance to speak up, it comes on that summer morning in 2016. Rachael's cleaning her kitchen with her three kids running around. She sees the big investigation in the Indianapolis Star, sees how USA Gymnastics had allowed coaches to sexually abuse kids.

R. DENHOLLANDER: I opened it up, and I read it. And my first thought was, I was right. They've been burying stuff the whole time. There's nothing I could have done. I was right.

WELLS: But it's also an opportunity.

SMITH: Larry's not a coach, but he is a big name in USA Gymnastics.

R. DENHOLLANDER: And then my second thought was, this is it. If it's ever going to happen, this is it. It's going to happen now.

SMITH: At the bottom of that Indy Star article, there's an email address - a tip line.

WELLS: So at 10:32 in the morning, on that 80-degree August day, Rachael sends an email.

MARK ALESIA: (Reading) To whom it may concern, I recently read the article...

WELLS: The guy who gets her email is an Indy Star reporter named Mark Alesia. He remembers getting into the office early that morning. He wanted to get a jump on any tips coming in now that the story was out. We talked to Mark on Skype. I asked him to read Rachael's email to me.

ALESIA: (Reading) I have seen little hope that any light would be shed by coming forward, so I have remained quiet. If there is a possibility that is changing, I will come forward as publicly as necessary.

WELLS: Mark reaches out to Rachael, tells her, hey, I would love to talk with you. We can talk off the record and decide later what you're OK with publishing.

ALESIA: And she got back to me and said, I'm willing to do anything you need. I want this to end. And if it ever will, it will now, when people are watching and maybe more willing to believe.

SMITH: Then Mark gets a second tip about Larry.

(SOUNDBITE OF VOICEMAIL)

JESSICA HOWARD: Hi, Mr. Alesia. My name is Jessica Howard.

SMITH: It's a voicemail from a national champion gymnast. Jessica has given us permission to use it.

(SOUNDBITE OF VOICEMAIL)

HOWARD: I have some information for you. And I am very nervous about talking to you about it, but I think it would help bring justice to a lot of the people who have been affected by USA Gymnastics and their policies. My cell phone number...

SMITH: Then the paper gets a third tip about Larry. A former Olympian is planning to file a lawsuit against him. We know now that woman is Jamie Dantzscher. She was on the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team in 2000. She says Larry abused her as early as the mid-1990s.

WELLS: So by the end of August, 2016, Indy Star has three different women, from three different parts of the country, all with similar stories about the same doctor.

ALESIA: To me, that's when - that was the moment when I thought, oh, my God. We might really be on to something.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WELLS: Mark lets Rachael know, hey, you're not the only one. We're getting more tips about Larry.

SMITH: But Rachael is different. She's the only woman willing to use her name on the record - Rachael Denhollander. For the very first time, she's talking about the intimate details of her abuse to her husband Jacob, this reporter Mark - really, to the whole world.

R. DENHOLLANDER: Honestly, I hadn't even verbalized the details to Jacob. When he sat and listened to my Indy Star interview, that was the first time he heard, really, anything. He just didn't know because I hadn't been able to verbalize it up to that point. So Mark is actually the very first person who heard any level of detail. My mom didn't know a lot of it. And it just - you know, it makes you relive it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: After talking to Mark at the paper, Rachael finds out it's not too late for her to call the police. This is before Indy Star publishes its story about Larry. She calls a non-emergency number in East Lansing, Mich. Eventually, she gets routed to police at Michigan State University. Rachael knows Larry still works at MSU. She worries police there will know him and protect him.

WELLS: Lucky for Rachael, Detective Andrea Munford gets her call.

MUNFORD: I was just like, wow. You know, it broke my heart that she had been carrying this around for 16 years and just now felt OK reporting.

WELLS: The thing you need to know about Detective Munford is that she's got a motto. Start by believing. I know that sounds like a cliche, but Munford made it her mission to teach other police officers how trauma works and how to treat survivors in a way that doesn't accidentally re-traumatize them.

She's been trained in the theory that sometimes trauma can damage a rape victim's memory. They might act in ways you wouldn't expect, like laughing during an interview or, in Rachael's case, they may not feel like they can even report their assault for 16 years.

SMITH: On the phone, Detective Munford asks Rachael, may I have this doctor's name? Dr. Larry Nassar, Rachael says. Munford stops, realizes, didn't we get a complaint about this guy before? She finishes her conversation with Rachael, goes across the hall to Val O'Brien's office, stands in her doorway. If you don't remember, O'Brien is the MSU detective you heard in the last episode. She's the one who handled Amanda Thomashow's sexual assault complaint against Larry in 2014.

WELLS: Yeah, O'Brien tells Detective Munford. Yeah, you're right. That is the same guy.

MUNFORD: And so it was like, here we go. Like, what's going to come forward? And, you know, what are the chances of two complaints against that doctor?

WELLS: Munford says O'Brien warns her, this guy will talk your ear off. But this time, police know this is not an isolated complaint. And this time, there were two people in the room who saw Larry with an erection - both Rachael and her mom. Detective Andrea Munford asks Larry to come into the station.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NASSAR: I'm sorry.

MUNFORD: I'm Andrea Munford.

NASSAR: Hi. Nice to meet you. Larry Nassar.

SMITH: In the police interview, Larry looks like he's come straight from work - khaki pants, tan leather shoes, black polo shirt. We got this tape through a public records request.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MUNFORD: I know you talked to Val O'Brien, one of my colleagues, a couple years ago.

NASSAR: Yeah, a while back. Right, right.

WELLS: And at first, so much of this video looks like the last time Larry was here in 2014 - the cramped, windowless interview room, video camera up on the ceiling. But this time, Detective Munford is the one asking the questions. She is a master of stillness. Somehow, she can make just the act of listening feel intimidating.

SMITH: At first, she doesn't tell Larry why he's here, just lets it seem like a casual check-in. She lets Larry blabber on and on about his medical techniques.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NASSAR: So, you know, the sacrotuberous ligament - it runs from the pubic symphysis, the falciform process - it runs - it's like the pelvic floor, OK?

MUNFORD: OK.

NASSAR: If you want to understand this stuff. So you're really coming in...

SMITH: Larry's comfortable. He's run this spiel before. Detective Munford lets him be comfortable. Then she says...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MUNFORD: We did have another complaint.

NASSAR: Really?

MUNFORD: Yeah. And it's a patient from a while ago...

NASSAR: OK.

MUNFORD: But - and she does describe some things that sound to me like they're out of the norm...

NASSAR: OK.

MUNFORD: ...From your typical treatment.

NASSAR: OK.

MUNFORD: This would've been...

SMITH: The audio drops out here, where MSU redacted it to protect personal privacy. But we know Detective Munford tells Larry about Rachael.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MUNFORD: You know, this was a long time ago. So I don't know how many of your patients that you remember from back then.

NASSAR: Right.

SMITH: Larry shakes his head. Doesn't ring a bell.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NASSAR: Yeah. No. I - I don't remember.

WELLS: She saw you several times, Munford tells him. She says you penetrated her at every appointment and you never wore gloves.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MUNFORD: No, I'm just describing it. Your fingers are vaginally penetrating her...

NASSAR: What?

MUNFORD: ...And then your thumb anally penetrated her.

NASSAR: No.

MUNFORD: So I don't see where that falls in line with that technique.

NASSAR: Right. And I don't see how that would be accurate.

MUNFORD: More than once, on more than one treatment.

NASSAR: I - I - I'm just working the floor, you know what I mean? But I would not be - how would I be putting my thumb and - and - and - and fingers, you know, like that? That's - that would not be correct, you know what I mean? I - I - I'm - I am...

MUNFORD: Now, if there's some type of treatment where...

WELLS: Notice what Detective Munford is doing here. She is nailing Larry down on specifics. Now she has got him on the record denying that he penetrates patients.

SMITH: And she is not buying Larry's story.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MUNFORD: The words that she used were, he anally penetrated me with his thumb.

NASSAR: No. See, that - that wouldn't have been - see, I would never do that for the coccyx. I would use my - if I'm going inside, I'm using this. If I'm penetrating, it's not penetrating. It's pushing off to the side.

MUNFORD: Well, it penetrated her, OK? What you're describing to me is very different than how she's describing her experience.

NASSAR: OK.

MUNFORD: All right?

NASSAR: OK.

MUNFORD: That - your explanation of what you were doing to her or to her mother... And so you can see kind of the consistencies from what happened a couple years ago.

NASSAR: Well, no. But - OK. OK. But, I mean - OK. I'm...

SMITH: Larry's sweating. He wipes his forehead. His right leg starts bouncing. We played back some of this police video for Detective Munford. We wanted her to walk us through what she was thinking during that interview.

MUNFORD: I think he was getting concerned. He was just - his composure was really faltering. And I just kept going.

WELLS: Let's go back to why you would have an erection, Detective Munford says. And again, in that police interview room, Larry doesn't have a straight answer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NASSAR: You know, I'm not purposefully trying to get arousal from doing any treatment. I mean, come on. You know, I mean, I'm not purposely trying to gain some type of sexual gratification out of doing that. That's not - that's not what I'm doing, OK? That's - that - you know, if there was arousal...

SMITH: Larry is on the edge of his seat. He stutters, closes his eyes. When he struggles to get the words out of his mouth, he's got this tick where he leans forward, tilts his head down.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NASSAR: You know, if there was arousal, it's - it's - you know what I mean? Like, it would be because of whatever. I don't know. But I'm not trying to...

MUNFORD: What do you mean, whatever? I don't know.

NASSAR: Well - well...

MUNFORD: I don't know.

NASSAR: Well, when you're a guy, sometimes you get an erection, you know what I mean? But I don't - it's - that's what I'm...

MUNFORD: You get an erection when you're aroused.

NASSAR: Yeah, but you know - you know what I mean? Like, I'm just saying that, you know, you - you - you - I'm not trying to - how do you say this? I'm - if I had an erection - I don't understand. Why would I have an erection from doing the treatment, you know what I mean, from what I'm doing? OK. And that's rather embarrassing, you know what I mean? It'd be rather embarrassing.

WELLS: Notice what Larry does not say here. He does not say, I didn't have an erection. Nope. Instead, Detective Munford remembers him telling her, I shouldn't have an erection.

MUNFORD: That's not an answer. (Laughter). I shouldn't. But did you? Well, I shouldn't. I was thinking, should I ask questions a different way, give him the opportunity to answer? And then I thought, that was his answer. He doesn't have one. He doesn't have an explanation.

SMITH: At the end of their interview, Andrea tells Larry, we're looking into this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MUNFORD: And so, like last time, there will be an investigation.

NASSAR: Right.

MUNFORD: OK?

NASSAR: OK.

MUNFORD: All right, I'm going to go grab a card. I'll be right back.

NASSAR: OK.

SMITH: Detective Munford leaves the room to grab her business card. Larry sits alone in the interview room for several long, silent minutes. He sighs, puts his head down and sits completely still as he waits.

WELLS: While MSU Police investigate, the Indianapolis Star publishes its first story about Larry Nassar - Rachael's story. It comes out September, 12, 2016. It is a bombshell.

SMITH: But remember; to so many people, Larry is still the good guy.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, my goodness, I'm shocked. I actually went to Great Lakes Gymnastics, and he took really good care of me. That's really sad.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I can't believe this, Larry. I'm so sorry to hear this. You know, whatever I can do to help, let me know, you know?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I'm sure that Dr. Nassar is totally overwhelmed with what - how this is going to affect him.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: The fuck? You know, no way would Larry Nassar ever do this. There's no way.

SMITH: For a lot of other people, though, Rachael's story sparks an unsettling wave of realization. Hundreds of Larry's patients and their parents begin to see for the very first time Larry might not be the guy they thought they knew. That's next time on BELIEVED.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: This week's show was reported by me, Lindsey Smith, and Kate Wells, 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. Additional music by Ramtin Arablouei.

WELLS: Special thanks to Emma Winowiecki, Jodi Westrick, Rebecca Williams, Vince Duffy, Amy Tardif, Len Niehoff, Nisa Khan, Hannah Rubenstein, Lara Moehlman. And the folks at NPR, Mark Memmott, Ashley Messenger, Camille Smiley and N'Jeri Eaton.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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