By Kate Wells
How to Catch Larry Nassar
The first time Andrea Munford and Angela Povilaitis met, they were each trying to convince the other to take on the Larry Nassar case. They just didn’t know it.
Munford was the Michigan State University Police detective (she’s now a lieutenant and Commander of the Investigative Division) who took Rachael Denhollander’s initial police report in August of 2016. She was the one who interviewed Larry Nassar soon after, grilling him about why he had an erection during a medical exam – the interview where his story started to fall apart.
When the Indianapolis Star first published Denhollander’s allegations against Nassar in September 2016, Munford and her team were inundated with calls from additional victims. Within a couple weeks, she’d received more than a dozen new reports. It was quickly turning into an all-consuming case.
And Munford knew from speaking with these women and girls, they wanted to be heard.
So she needed to find the right kind of prosecutor to take this case. Somebody who could convince a jury this beloved Olympic doctor’s charm, expertise, and elaborate medical explanations were just a mask.
“I didn’t want anyone to assume that the survivors would be satisfied with him just being charged with something [like child pornography] and sent away,” Munford says. “I knew them.They wanted to testify, they wanted to tell their story. They want people to know what he is and what he had done, and that just coming up with some type of plea agreement would not satisfy what they wanted and why they reported.”
Angela Povilaitis loves that kind of case. As a prosecutor in metro Detroit, she spent more than a decade putting child abusers and rapists in prison. When she moved up to the Michigan Attorney General’s staff, she led a statewide effort to crack cold case sexual assaults – cases where rape kits had been lost or abandoned, or where local police departments didn’t have the resources to solve them.
So when Munford’s boss, Michigan State University Police Chief Jim Dunlap, set up a meeting with the Michigan Attorney General’s office in the fall of 2016 to talk about the Nassar case, Munford quickly realized: she wanted Povilaitis on the job.
"Can we high-five now?"
“The more we talked, and she started to talk about doing victim-centered investigations, it was almost like she was going to [try to] talk us into doing that,” Munford says. “And so it was just this immediate connection. Because we knew that we were focused in the same direction.
“I remember at one point [much later on in the case], we had over 100 cases by then, and [Povilaitis] saying ‘We’re going to charge them all!’ And I’m like, okay, how are we going to do that? And we didn’t care, because we wanted to make sure that no matter what happened in this case, that all of these amazing, brave girls and women would get to the outcome that they wanted… I’ve never met a prosecutor like her before.”
Povilaitis, for her part, went into that very first meeting with MSU Police hoping to convince them her office could be entrusted with the Nassar case. And she also wanted to bring investigators up to speed with her approach to assault cases.
Povilaitis says she was impressed with Munford, too. “It’s really refreshing, right, that a detective would start by believing the victim. And I think it’s kind of just assumed in every other crime. I mean, that’s one of the most frustrating parts, right? If you’re robbed, if you’re carjacked, no one’s going to question whether or not you’re honest when you come to the police department to report that crime, right?
“It’s only sexual assault that there is sometimes, unfortunately, even within the police department, this skepticism of like, why is this person saying this happened? There must be something more to the story. They’re not telling me everything.”
But as she listened to Munford lay out her view of the investigation, and walk through the steps she’d taken so far, Povilaitis realized she wouldn’t have to do any convincing.
By the end of that first meeting, Munford remembers asking, “Can we high five now?”
Andrea Munford and Andgela Povalaitis in 2018. Credit: Emma Winowiecki, Michigan Radio
Locking Nassar into his story
Munford and Povilaitis were officially a team.
And they needed to start strategizing. “What was [Nassar’s] defense going to be to these medical cases?” Povilaitis remembers asking.
At this point in 2016, Nassar’s first attorney had initially denied Denhollander’s claims that Nassar digitally penetrated her during treatment, saying “his client never used a procedure that involved penetration.” But as more patients came forward with claims that they, too, had been penetrated, Nassar’s new defense team pivoted. Yes, they said, he did use penetration, but it was part of a legitimate technique.
That’s when Povilaitis realized they had a tremendous advantage. Thanks to Munford’s interview with Nassar, they already him on tape, saying unequivocally that he did not, and would not, digitally penetrate patients as part of any medical treatment.
For Povilaitis, that was gold.
“At the end of the day, that’s one of the biggest takeaways from that interview. We have him locked in,” she says. “And, you know, I tell the detectives this in all [cases] whether it’s a rape case or this kind of situation: if you got a defendant who is willing to talk, maybe you don’t get a confession, maybe not get an admission, but you lock them into their story.
“And then at trial it’s that much harder for them to pivot, right? So the most amazing thing about that interview is… Andrea was completely in control.”
Next, Povilaitis began methodically corroborating the victims’ stories.
“Whether it’s an adult sexual assault or child sexual assault… the disclosure is always really important. Like, who do they tell first in the whole world? What do they tell, why did they tell, right?”
Take Kyle Stephens’ case. Stephens’ parents were friends with the Nassars. Larry Nassar abused her in his basement starting when Stephens was six years old. “We’re looking at it so many years later,” Povilaitis says. “How can we take what she’s told us, and potentially micro-corroborate to bolster it?
“So I know in her case in particular, it was important, I think, to find out who the first person she told was. To interview that person, to see what they remember talking about, you know, if there were other people that she’d told in the interim.”
But Munford was already on it.
“She had already done everything that I would have said to do,” Povilaitis says.
Kyle Stephens remembers making her first report to then-Detective Munford. After reading Rachael Denhollander’s story, Stephens called up a family friend, an attorney in Lansing, and asked her to reach out to the MSU Police on her behalf.
“She was so easy to talk to,” Stephens says. “And she didn’t feel like I was talking to a police officer. I mean, she was asking questions that were very clearly investigative, but she made me feel comfortable and she reacted just enough. You don’t want to like, not react at all and make someone feel like it’s a stark, cold investigative conversation. But at the same time you don’t want to be like, ‘Oh my God’ and make me feel like I’m the most f—ed up person you’ve ever seen in your life.”
During that first call, Stephens told Munford details about her abuse that, up until then, she hadn’t even told her boyfriend.
“Immediately I felt believed with her,” Stephens says.
The relationships Munford built with survivors were invaluable, Povilaitis says. It allowed the prosecution to quickly build a trail of evidence supporting survivors’ stories.
“I anticipate the defense is going to be one [in which] they’re attacking her: that [Kyle’s] not credible, that she’s somehow making this up for whatever reason,” Povilaitis says.
“So one of the things that Andrea had done, is she had already walked through that with Kyle. She had already interviewed many of those people in her life that were part of the disclosure. She had already attempted to get counseling records where we know Kyle had disclosed [to a therapist.] Which was important to show, that this wasn’t just something [where] Kyle was jumping on a bandwagon because of the media attention.”
“Let’s do it.”
Handling the complaints involving Nassar’s patients was going to take time. Police and prosecutors would need to line up medical experts who could debunk Nassar’s claims about legitimate treatment, and convince a judge to sign off on an arrest warrant.
But Munford and Povilaitis didn’t have that kind of time. At that point, Larry Nassar had been fired from his job at MSU and allowed to retire from USA Gymnastics, but he still could have been treating patients in his home or at local gyms.
“We knew he could potentially have access to more children, that he had children of his own,” Povilaitis says. “We did not want to delay charging him until we had all of our ducks in a row. It was going to take us some time to get a full grasp of the medical aspect of the case, to identify experts. To make sure that when we pull the trigger, these are good cases and they’re going to be on solid foundation.”
But Kyle Stephens’ report had nothing to do with medical techniques. She was never Nassar’s patient. And the abuse she experienced happened in his home – a fact that would eventually help police get a search warrant and find the child pornography.
But if the prosecution was going to charge Nassar on Stephens’ charges first, Povilaitis and Munford needed to make sure she was up for being the only victim in a criminal prosecution (at least until they could charge Larry with the medical cases.)
“We knew this was going to be a long road,” Povilaitis says. “We wanted her to trust us … and also for me to kind of have a critical eye, and evaluate her as a witness.”
So they flew to Chicago to meet with Stephens.
“And for the first hour or two we just kinda got to know each other,” Povilaitis says. “Just like we were on a blind date with friends or something. And I was just incredibly impressed with her… And you know, with her dad’s death, that was was still pretty fresh at the time that we met her… She literally just kind of pulled herself and built this life together, and had her friends and her boyfriend and everything in Chicago.
“I think that was all relevant to [the case, too.] It went right to her credibility, right? Why in the world, if you haven’t thought about this for 12, 13 years and you have this great life away from East Lansing, you’ve moved on as best you can…[why] would you ever just call in to the police to be part of that?”
Povilaitis fully expected Nassar’s defense team to say Stephens was lying, especially since she had, under pressure from her parents, recanted her story when she was 12 or 13 years old.
“I also think one of the important things for prosecutors to do … is to kind of follow that logic, right?” Povilaitis says. “It’s easy to say somebody’s lying, but what do they gain by it? Do they have a personal bias or a reason?”
That’s when those additional corroborations are crucial, she says. Hearing from the people survivors have previously disclosed to, the details and evidence that back up their recollections, can make or break a case. Povilaitis says in court, she’ll walk a jury through that accusation logically.
“If this person really lied, then you got to go back and you have to believe that she lied to her friend that she told when she was 12,” Povilaitis says. “And then she lied to her parents. And then she lied to her counselor. And then she lied to all those other counselors. And then she lied to Andrea Munford. And I think you’d have to be kind of a diabolical, you know, a sociopath to do that.”
Stephens could handle the pressure, Munford and Povilaitis agreed. It wouldn’t be easy, but she’d be strong enough to take the stand. To be cross-examined. To have the most private details of her traumatic experiences be made public.
And Stephens was game. She didn’t fully realize what it all meant at the time, she says. But when Munford and Povilaitis told her they wanted to press her charges first, she agreed.
“As long as I could be anonymous, I was like, ‘Okay, let’s do it.’”
Sometimes, you need a little Christmas music
For the next year and half, most of Munford and Povilaitis’ waking hours were spent working this case. Munford was newly married. But the honeymoon would have to wait.
“Twelve hours would have been a light day [at work during this time,”] she says.
“But there were days where I would take so many reports [from survivors coming forward to report their abuse] throughout the week, that I would spend my entire weekends at the kitchen table typing, typing, typing, you know? And my son would come out and say, ‘Mom, it’s Sunday night, will you just please go to bed?’ And I’m like, ‘I’m almost done. I’m almost done.’”
Meanwhile, Munford was trying to get inside Nassar’s head. She’d listen to his jail calls.
“It’s more of an investigative technique,” she says. “Obviously we can’t listen to the ones with his counsel. So we’re very mindful of that, but things that he may disclose to family members could have been helpful. And listening to him manipulate everybody.”
Nassar sounded “happy go lucky” on the phone, she says. “He would always be really cocky about, you know, he hadn’t done anything wrong. And after the preliminary [hearing where victims testified against him] he talked about each of the girls that testified. And he would talk about like other inmates asking for his autograph, because it was such a public case. And he would just laugh and brag about it…
“Sometimes those calls got really hard to listen to, which is why I started listening to Christmas music in like early October of 2017. Because of just hearing his voice all the time, like I needed something happy to flush it.”
Will we ever understand why Nassar did what he did?
Munford says on those phone calls, Nassar manipulated some of his family members into believing that he was “a poor doctor, doing the right thing, [who] gets accused of all this.”
“He really saw himself as the victim in all of this,” Munford says. “I think he still does.”
So why then, did he plead guilty?
Munford shrugs. Thinks for a moment.
“I think … maybe he understood that he didn’t have a legitimate defense, and what else was he going to do?” she sighs.
“But there’s a part of me that still thinks in his mind he thinks he was…” she trails off. “[That] what he did was okay. Because he felt like he was always taking care of these girls, these athletes, you know. Making the Olympic girls who they were.”
Does that bother her?
“I would love to hear his explanation of it,” she allows. “And if anything has happened to him in his life.”
Like, has he been abused?
“Yeah. Exposed to something, or abused. Or that’s just who he was born as. I want to understand.”
But Povilaitis thinks trying to understand Nassar’s true motivations is a fool’s errand.
“I just don’t know you’re going to answer it, right? I also don’t trust him to be honest. Like, I don’t have any interest in ever, you know, if the opportunity presented itself to, like, ask him 100 questions. I’d want Andrea to do it,” she says, smiling.
Do we just keep seeing these cases repeat?
Larry Nassar is not unique. He is not the last charming, successful, beloved man who’ll use the trust of others, to abuse them. Already, similar cases of serial abuse (a gynecologist at University of Southern California, a basketball coach in Iowa) have been in the news since the Nassar sentencing wrapped up.
Poviliatis says: Yes, there will be the “next Larry Nassar” case.
“It’s a realist view. They’re out there. He and the USC doctor and Earl Bradley [a Delaware pediatrician believed to have victimized more than 1,200 children] aren’t the only three people in America doing this,” Povilaitis says.
“I personally hope next week it’s not just USC. [That] there’s another place where hundreds of survivors feel supported enough to come forward and report it to the authorities, and to try to effectuate change. ”
Both Munford and Povilaitis (who’s taken on a new role as a staff attorney with the Michigan Domestic and Sexual Violence Treatment and Prevention Board) want to teach other police departments and prosecutors to better support victims of sexual abuse. The more of these cases there are, the more likely survivors will be to come forward.
“So that they don’t feel like they’re not going to be believed,” Munford says. “I mean, that’s what we want out there. That’s part of why we want to train [others] is so that that happens. That ripple effect keeps going. Because our fear is the sentencing hearing is over, the litigation, at least for MSU, is done. If we stop talking about it, people go back into their old mindset of, ‘It’s not going to happen to me. This isn’t my problem.’ And we don’t want people to go back to that.”