“We have Larry Nassar!” Klages wrote, referring to the longtime physician for USA Gymnastics’ women’s team — renowned for his ability to keep Olympic gymnasts healthy — who taught at Michigan State’s medical school and treated Spartan gymnasts.
“Enough said about that!” Klages added, closing with a smiley face emoji.
Three years later, Nassar sits at the center of a sex abuse scandal that has rocked USA Gymnastics, the organization that selects and trains Team USA gymnasts. More than 100 women have filed criminal complaints accusing Nassar of assaulting them, often under the guise of pain therapy, by slipping his hand under their clothes and penetrating, probing and fondling without warning, gloves or explanation. Nassar, a 53-year-old father of three who also faces charges of sexually abusing a family friend and possession of child pornography, has denied all the claims and maintains his innocence.
Last month, USA Gymnastics CEO Steve Penny resigned under pressure , and U.S. senators excoriated USA Gymnastics leadership for waiting five weeks to alert law enforcement after first hearing allegations involving Nassar in 2015.
Since the first Nassar accuser went public last September, however, evidence has emerged suggesting Michigan State officials missed far more potential warning signs than did officials at USA Gymnastics. Michigan State employed Nassar and funded his volunteer work for USA Gymnastics, and the majority of his alleged victims encountered him in connection with his work for the school. In lawsuits, victims have alleged making verbal complaints about Nassar to Michigan State officials as far back as the late 1990s. In 2014, both Michigan State police and the university’s Title IX office cleared Nassar of wrongdoing after an assault complaint.
This story is based on a review of hundreds of pages of records and emails released by the university in response to Freedom of Information Act requests. Many of the emails, particularly those involving the 2014 investigation, were heavily redacted by Michigan State, which cited exemptions to open records law for active criminal investigations.
The emails that escaped redactions show Nassar’s colleagues and superiors offering him support even after news started to circulate last year that another alleged victim had come forward. The university’s public relations staff counseled Nassar on how to handle a reporter’s questions about accusations of abuse, while a dean appeared to fail to grasp the seriousness of the situation, advising a colleague that Nassar would only miss work for “a short time” while authorities investigated.
Most frustrating to alleged victims and their attorneys, the emails, together with information released by USA Gymnastics, show rising suspicions about Nassar at Michigan State and at the Olympic sports organization, but without a phone call or an email between the organizations that could have brought intervention sooner.
In 2014, Michigan State investigated Nassar and didn’t tell USA Gymnastics. In 2015, USA Gymnastics cut ties with Nassar and reported him to the FBI but didn’t tell Michigan State. And neither organization informed the high school and local gyms where Nassar continued to treat children until last fall.
“For years, all this guy was doing was molesting little girls. And he did it everywhere,” said John Manly, a California attorney representing more than 80 victims. “It’s staggering.”
Nassar’s attorney declined to comment, as did a Michigan State spokesman.
In a board of trustees meeting this month, Michigan State President Lou Anna Simon said several internal reviews are underway to determine “how something so abhorrent happened here and went on for so long.”
Simon reiterated previous apologies to Nassar’s accusers, but she also left open the possibility that nothing more could have been done.
“I have been told it is virtually impossible to stop a determined sexual predator and pedophile, that they will go to incomprehensible lengths to keep what they do in the shadows,” she told trustees.
While Nassar’s public persona and reputation were built on his association with America’s Olympic gymnasts, his position at USA Gymnastics was actually as a volunteer, his work funded by Michigan State.
Hired by the university in 1997, Nassar split his time between teaching, research, and “public service/outreach,” which included his work with USA Gymnastics, according to his personnel file.
On campus, Nassar served as team physician for Spartans gymnasts and also worked in Michigan State’s sports medicine clinic, where he treated athletes from all sports, both university students and children from the region who sought his expertise.
In lawsuits, two gymnasts have said they complained about Nassar to Klages in 1997, but the coach dismissed the complaints as a “misunderstanding.” Through her attorney, Klages has denied this claim. In a separate lawsuit, a softball player said she complained to Michigan State trainers after Nassar touched her improperly in the early 2000s, but the trainers told her Nassar touched her as part of legitimate medical treatment.
In 2004, Nassar was questioned by police from Meridian Township, near Michigan State’s main campus in East Lansing, during an investigation that did not produce criminal charges. The investigation has been re-opened, and Meridian Township officials have declined to release any information about the case.
The 2012 London Olympics — Nassar’s fourth Summer Games as USA Gymnastics’ team physician — cemented his reputation as one of the best doctors in sports medicine focused on gymnasts. Two members of America’s gold medal-winning team — McKayla Maroney and Jordyn Wieber — publicly credited Nassar with helping them compete through injuries.
Two years later, a recent Michigan State graduate filed complaints against Nassar with university police and the school’s Title IX office, which investigates gender discrimination claims, including those alleging sex crimes.
Michigan State has declined to release records connected to this incident. The police investigation did not produce a criminal charge, and the Title IX investigation cleared Nassar.
In December, the Lansing State Journal, which obtained a copy of the Title IX report, reported that the incident stemmed from a woman who visited Nassar for hip pain and alleged that he cupped her buttocks, massaged her breast and vaginal area, and was clearly aroused. Michigan State's Title IX office concluded the woman misinterpreted medical treatment.
As he was under investigation, Nassar pleaded his innocence in emails to his boss, William Strampel, dean of Michigan State’s college of osteopathic medicine. (Strampel declined a request to comment for this story.)
In an email, Nassar shared videos of him treating a young gymnast that he said he sent to “the Romanian National Team therapist to treat their top Romanian Gymnast as she was preparing for the 2013 European Championships. . . . I am hopeful these videos openly and plainly show what I do.”
A few weeks later, Nassar informed his boss he intended to start treating patients at the sports clinic as the investigation continued. Strampel approved, but insisted “please have someone in the room with you at all times until the report is finished.” Nassar arranged for some athletic training students to shadow him.
By late July, the Title IX office had finished the report and shared its findings with Nassar.
“I am nauseated when I read her account of what occurred,” Nassar wrote Strampel on July 30, 2014. “Her interpretations of my mannerisms and actions makes me feel horrible . . . I am truly sorry . . . I am emotionally drained and exhausted. Its impact will forever affect me.”
Later that day, Strampel replied, listing conditions Nassar had agreed to abide by as a result of the apparent “misinterpretation” of his treatment. Strampel forbid Nassar from performing this type of treatment again unless someone else was in the room and insisted that Nassar change the procedure to ensure “little to no skin to skin contact.”
“I am happy this has resolved to some extend (sic) and I am happy to have you back in full practice,” Strampel wrote.
Last Sept. 1, Nassar sent an email to Strampel. The subject: “Earning My Keep.”
The day before, Nassar and Strampel had met to discuss another woman who had come forward alleging Nassar had assaulted her. The complaint bore striking similarities to the 2014 case.
This woman, Rachael Denhollander, claimed Nassar had repeatedly penetrated her with his fingers and massaged her breasts in 2000, when she was a 15-year-old gymnast from nearby Kalamazoo who had sought Nassar’s help for pain in her back and wrists.
In the email, Nassar told his boss he’d been thinking about things he could do to “help earn my keep,” including teaching more classes. Strampel did not reply.
On Sept. 6, Tim Evans, a reporter with the Indianapolis Star, emailed Nassar. Denhollander had talked to the Star, and Evans had some “important and delicate questions.” Nassar forwarded the email to Strampel.
“Good luck,” Strampel replied. “I am on your side.”
On Sept. 12, the Star published a story detailing Denhollander’s claims and those of an Olympic medalist who was given anonymity.
Strampel and other university administrators emailed the story to each other.
“I expect that this will be all over the paper tomorrow . . . Cherry on the Cake of my day!!!” Strampel wrote June Pierce Youatt, executive vice president for academic affairs.
On Sept. 15, Nassar wrote Strampel to tell him he had been inundated with messages of support from other doctors, gymnasts, and coaches.
“I am trying to make sure I take advantage of this time before the ‘Me Toos’ come out . . . and the second media blitz occurs . . . Thank you for your support,” Nassar wrote.
The next day, in partially redacted emails between the two, Strampel’s tone shifted.
“There seems to be more people who have come forward. Also there is a report of an investigation back in 2004, that I did not hear about,” Strampel wrote. “Things are moving outside of my control.”
A few hours later, a letter with Strampel’s signature arrived in Nassar’s inbox. Michigan State was firing him.
Two more women had come forward alleging Nassar assaulted them, after the 2014 investigation. In an interview with police, Nassar acknowledged he hadn’t been following the rules he agreed to in 2014, such as wearing gloves and not touching a patient in a sensitive area unless someone else was in the room.
Two days later, Nassar replied.
“I am so sorry that this situation has been so public in the media casting such a shadow over myself and MSU. I understand your position and appreciate all the support you have given me. My heart is breaking but I will stay strong in my Faith and with the support of my family and my friends I will overcome this,” he wrote on Sept. 18.
In November, Michigan authorities arrested Nassar on charges of sexually abusing a child. In December, federal authorities added child pornography charges. An FBI agent testified to finding more than 37,000 images and videos, including video from a Go Pro camera that showed Nassar molesting girls in a pool. Multiple criminal investigations continue.
Two Michigan State employees have left the university in connection to Nassar. Klages, the gymnastics coach, retired in February, the day after the university suspended her for a “passionate defense” she made of Nassar in a meeting with gymnasts. A colleague of Nassar’s, Brooke Lemmen, resigned in January, after receiving an accusatory letter from Strampel, the dean.
In the letter, Strampel accused Lemmen of knowing that USA Gymnastics had investigated Nassar in 2015, but not telling anyone at the school. If Michigan State officials had known about the USA Gymnastics investigation in 2015, Strampel wrote, the university might have acted sooner.
Two weeks later, Strampel received a stern reply from Lemmen’s lawyer.
Lemmen didn’t know USA Gymnastics’ investigation of Nassar involved potentially criminal conduct, her lawyer wrote; she only knew Olympic officials were reviewing the type of treatment he provided.
Besides, her lawyer wrote, Lemmen was “far from the only” Michigan State official who knew about the 2015 USA Gymnastics investigation of Nassar.
In an email last week in response to questions, Lemmen’s lawyer, Aaron Kemp, said he could not identify the others.
“Part of ongoing MSU investigation,” he wrote.