LANSING, Mich. (CN) – They had much in common, arriving in admired physician Larry Nassar’s office for back, hip and hamstring injuries. They were dancers, rowers, gymnasts, volleyball players and Olympians with their lives stretching out in front of them. They wanted to be the best. They came to him because doctors and coaches said he could work miracles.
The gentle and nerdy looking doctor with neat, close-cropped dark hair, glasses and a sloping expression was entirely unremarkable to look at but he was a guru to scores of children and teens.
He was their confidant, befriending them on social media, smuggling junk food and candy to their rooms beneath the noses of unforgiving coaches, and sending them letters, gifts and memorabilia from the Olympic Games.
His warmth and easy charisma were part of a well-practiced routine designed to gain their trust. In Nassar’s examination room, at training camps, in his basement, at their homes and at the Olympic Games, he would molest girls beneath a deceptive cloud of treatment, convincing the girls under his care that his lubricated fingers were somehow part of the healing process.
On Wednesday, Ingham County Circuit Court Judge Rosemarie Aquilina put an end to a week of wrenching victim-impact statements to sentence Nassar, 54, to 40 to 175 years in state prison.
“I just signed your death warrant,” the judge said after handing down the sentence.
Before the sentence was announced, Nassar told his victims in the courtroom, some of whom sobbed loudly as he spoke, that he would “carry your words with me for the rest of my days.”
“Your words these past several days have had a significant emotional effect on myself and have shaken me to my core,” Nassar said. “What I am feeling pales in comparison to the pain and emotional trauma that you have all endured.”
Judge Aquilina said what he had done was not medical treatment, as he asserted in a letter that the judge read in open court.
“There is no medical evidence that was ever brought,” she said. “You did this for your pleasure and control.”
Nassar’s letter contrasted sharply with his prepared statement. He wrote that he had been treated unfairly in his federal child pornography case and that he was a “good doctor.” In an attack on his victims, he wrote that the same patients that had praised his treatment and returned to him time and time again were now speaking out against him.
“‘Hell hath have no fury like a woman scorned,’” the judge read to audible gasps from the courtroom.
After she had finished reading the letter, Aquilina tossed it aside like it was piece of trash. She almost dared Nassar to withdraw his plea and asked him if he was guilty.
After a long pause, Nassar replied: “I accept my plea.”
Aquilina called him “manipulative, devious” and “despicable.”
“I wouldn’t send my dogs to you, sir,” the judge added.
The sentence of 40-plus years comes after Nassar pleaded guilty to 10 counts of criminal sexual conduct last November. Two victims were under 16 when the abuse happened and another was under 13. He has been accused of sexual abuse by more than 160 women.
Judge Aquilina urged the scores of women who bravely faced Nassar to leave the traces of their trauma in the courtroom and leave behind their memories of the doctor, who for 30 years was a respected physician for elite athletes, as well as a husband and father of three children.
The sentencing hearing began Tuesday, Jan. 16 and was initially meant to last four days with victim-impact statements from 88 women. But more and more felt compelled to come forward after hearing survivors speak, bringing the final count to more than 150 women and girls.
Last year, Nassar was sentenced to 60 years on child pornography charges, so that even before Wednesday’s ruling he was likely to die in prison.
For the dozens of women who came forward to address Nassar the hearings were more than symbolic, allowing them to emerge from the shadows. Their stories were similar but each one was devastating in its own way. Careers had been destroyed, aspirations derailed, families torn apart, and in their darkest moments, some women had considered taking their own lives. The hearings gave them a voice and the hope that they could put themselves back together again.
Some felt violated but trusted Nassar and convinced themselves that his methods were helping them heal. Others lived under no illusions but found their concerns tamped down by skeptical adults, including parents, coaches, and officials.
Nassar, or the “crotch doc,” as some of his victims nicknamed him, would engage in systematic abuse over two decades while on the U.S. gymnastics team and as a faculty member of Michigan State University.
In the last week, woman after woman stepped up to the microphone and faced a man who they said had used his position as a preeminent osteopath to earn their trust. He sexually abused athletes beneath sheets and towels, touching their genitals or using his fingers to penetrate them, sometimes with family members, coaches and loved ones present.
They gave their statements through tears. Others unleashed their fury. Still others were poised and defiant.
Speaking directly to Nassar on Friday, gymnast and Olympic gold medal winner Aly Raisman told Nassar that she was no longer a victim but a survivor, recalling how Nassar had abused her at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
“Larry, you do realize now that we, this group of women you so heartlessly abused over such a long period of time, are now a force, and you are nothing,” Raisman said.
Raisman’s teammate and fellow Olympic gold medalist Jordyn Wieber revealed publicly for the first time that Nassar had abused her. She said she had accepted his abuse as treatment, and believed like many of his victims that the physician was her friend. Fellow gymnastics champions Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas and McKayla Maroney also say Nassar molested them.
“Nobody was protecting us from being taken advantage of,” Wieber said on Friday. “Nobody was ever concerned whether or not we were being sexually abused.”
Raisman said USA Gymnastics officials were conspicuous by their absence.
“Neither USA Gymnastics nor the [U.S. Olympic Committee] have reached out to express sympathy or even offer support,” Raisman said. “Not even to ask: ‘How did this happen? What do you think we can do to help?’ Why have I and others here, probably, not heard anything from the leadership at the USOC? Why has the United States Olympic Committee been silent? Why isn’t the USOC here right now?”
Raisman’s statement on Friday created ripples that developed into a tidal wave that swept far outside the confines of the Ingham County courthouse. Other survivors reacted fiercely to the inaction of Nassar’s employer Michigan State University. They assert that these pillars of U.S. sports enabled Nassar to operate for decades in the shadows, time after time dismissing girls who came forward.
This week, USA Olympics Board Chairman Paul Parilla, Vice Chairman Jay Binder and the board’s treasurer, Bitsy Kelley, all resigned.
USA Gymnastics also suspended John Geddert, Raisman and Wieber’s coach at the 2012 games. He worked closely with Nassar for two decades. Michigan State President Lou Anna Simon is facing calls for her resignation amid questions about what she knew about Nassar and when.
In addition, the NCAA has opened an investigation into Michigan State University’s handling of Nassar’s case.
Once a respected physician, Nassar was arrested in November 2016 by Michigan prosecutors and a month later faced federal child pornography charges. The complaints were the culmination of an investigation sparked after gymnast Rachael Denhollander alleged that Nassar had assaulted her when she visited him with back pain in 2000 when she was 15.
Denhollander was the last woman to walk to the podium on Wednesday morning. She spoke for about 30 minutes and urged the judge to sentence Nassar to the stiffest punishment possible.
“Larry is the most dangerous type of abuser,” Denhollder said. “One who is capable of manipulating his victims through coldly calculated grooming methodologies, presenting the most wholesome and caring external persona as a deliberate means to ensure a steady stream of young children to assault.”
During his career, Nassar came under suspicion after complaints from his patients but investigations foundered. In 2014, Amanda Thomashow had seen Nassar for treatment of a hip injury. She complained of assault to Michigan State University but a Title IX investigation went nowhere and Nassar was able to return to work after a three-month suspension.
“When Larry Nassar assaulted me and MSU covered for him, it changed the trajectory of my life,” Thomashow said.
Last year, Nassar told a federal judge that he had been “battling with this disease for a considerable period of time” and compared the issues that spawned his crimes to those of a suffering alcoholic.
As part of his plea agreement, Nassar had agreed to allow his victims to speak. Last week, Nassar wrote a six-page letter to Judge Aquilina complaining that he did not think he could endure the hearings, and complained that that judge had created a “media circus.”
Aquilina devoted almost 30 minutes of last Thursday’s proceedings to address the letter and berate Nassar.
“I have to say this isn’t worth the paper it’s written on,” the judge said. “You may find it harsh that you are here listening, but nothing is as harsh as what your victims endured for thousands of hours at your hands.”
In the courtroom, Nassar often kept his head down low, dressed in dark blue prison garb, blinking behind the glasses perched on the end of his nose or blowing into the air directly in front of him. He wiped tears from his eyes on Tuesday after another victim, 18-year-old Emily Morales, looked at him directly and asked him to say sorry.
“I believe in forgiveness Larry. You and I are human beings,” Morales said. “We make mistakes. Although you have hurt me, I want to forgive you.”
Nassar appeared to say sorry and Morales replied: “Thank you.”
Over the week of statements, Judge Aquilina acted as a therapist and cheerleader as woman after woman walked across the courtroom to make their statements, referring to them as “sister survivors” and reminding them of the importance of their statements. Time after time, the judge urged them to leave Nassar and his crimes in the courtroom.
“You are all superheroes,” Aquilina said.