NEW YORK — For more than a year, an FBI inquiry into allegations that Lawrence G. Nassar, a respected sports doctor, had molested three elite teenage gymnasts followed a plodding pace as it moved back and forth among agents in three cities. The accumulating information included instructional videos of the doctor’s unusual treatment methods, showing his ungloved hands working about the private areas of girls lying facedown on tables.
But as the inquiry moved with little evident urgency, a cost was being paid. The New York Times has identified at least 40 girls and women who say Nassar molested them between July 2015, when he first fell under FBI scrutiny, and September 2016, when he was exposed by an Indianapolis Star investigation. Some are among the youngest of the now-convicted predator’s many accusers — 265, and counting.
The three alleged victims then at the center of the FBI’s inquiry were world-class athletes; two were Olympic gold medalists. Nearly a year passed before agents interviewed two of the young women.
The silence at times drove the victims and their families to distraction, including Gina Nichols, the mother of the gymnast initially known as “Athlete A”: Maggie Nichols, who was not contacted by the FBI for nearly 11 months after the information she provided sparked the federal inquiry.
“I never got a phone call from the police or the FBI” during that time, Gina Nichols, a registered nurse, said. “Not one person. Not one. Not one. Not one.”
The FBI declined to answer detailed questions about the speed and nature of its investigation or to provide an official who might put the case in context. Instead, it issued a 112-word statement asserting that the sexual exploitation of children “is an especially heinous crime” and that “the safety and well-being of our youth is a top priority for the FBI.”
The statement also said the many allegations against Nassar “transcended jurisdictions” — an apparent suggestion that internal efforts to coordinate among its bureaus and with other law enforcement agencies partly explained the inquiry’s slow tempo.
The agency left unaddressed the oft-repeated claim by USA Gymnastics officials that after initially presenting the sexual assault allegations to the FBI in July 2015, they came away with the impression that federal agents had advised them not to discuss the case with anyone. The ensuing silence had dire consequences, as the many girls and young women still seeing Nassar received no warning.
Among them was Emma Ann Miller.
By the summer of 2015, Emma Ann, the only child of a single mother, was both a competitive dancer and just another Michigan kid immersed in the joys and dramas of middle school life. She got braces, with baby blue rubber bands that matched her eyes. She began receiving Snapchat attention from boys.
And once a month, she went to Suite 420 in a six-story office building close to Michigan State University in East Lansing, where her solicitous doctor, who encouraged everyone to just call him Larry, molested her.
According to her lawyer, Emma Ann had about a dozen sessions with Nassar between the summers of 2015 and 2016. The pain of the procedures increased, and her self-confidence plummeted.
“Whenever he asked if my lower back hurt, he would always find a way to touch me down there,” she said, explaining that Nassar would say that her pelvis was in need of adjustment. “Whether or not I said my back hurt, he would always find a way to, to ...”
The young girl paused.
“I think I’ve blocked out a lot of what he did to me,” she said finally.
. . .
Only three years ago, Nassar was a popular doctor among the athletes he treated for USA Gymnastics, known for being goofy but maybe a bit too attentive. His treatments, which gymnastics officials believed were at the cutting edge, were also in demand at Michigan State, where he worked, as well as at his alma mater, Holt High School, and at a gymnastics academy called Twistars.
Issues had cropped up: a parent raising concerns about his behavior at Twistars; a female athlete or two at Michigan State complaining to no avail about inappropriate exams. In 2014, a university investigation of another complaint cleared Nassar of misconduct, but he was now required to have a third person present when treatment involved sensitive areas of the body — and to wear gloves.
Still, the doctor was trusted enough to conduct his procedures — including one called “intravaginal adjustment” — without supervision when treating the country’s best gymnasts at the Karolyi ranch, the exclusive and secluded national team training camp, about 60 miles north of Houston. Gymnasts of international caliber, like Nichols, of suburban Minneapolis, would spend a week each month at the ranch, under the exacting supervision of the revered coach Martha Karolyi.
But at the ranch in late spring of 2015, Nichols’ personal coach, Sarah Jantzi, overheard the 17-year-old girl talking with another elite gymnast, Aly Raisman, about Nassar’s invasive and inappropriate techniques. The alarming information was quickly shared with the girls’ parents and, by June 17, with officials at USA Gymnastics.
Gina Nichols, Maggie’s mother, recalled telling Steve Penny, then the president of USA Gymnastics, that the police had to be called immediately. But he insisted that she not tell anyone, she said. The organization would take care of alerting law enforcement.
Weeks of silence passed, Gina Nichols said, interrupted occasionally by admonitions from Penny to keep quiet about the matter — although the US Olympic Committee has said USA Gymnastics reported one of its physicians had been accused of abusing athletes “and was in the process of contacting the appropriate law enforcement authorities.”
USA Gymnastics eventually retained what it called “an experienced female investigator” — a specialist in workplace harassment. After completing her interviews, the investigator recommended Friday, July 24, that Nassar be reported to law enforcement.
Nichols and Raisman competed the next day at the US Classic in Chicago. Gina Nichols said she saw Penny at the event, and he told her: We’re working on this. Keep it quiet.
On Monday, July 27, gymnastics officials contacted the FBI in Indianapolis, where USA Gymnastics has its headquarters. The next day, its chairman, Paul Parilla, and its president, Penny, met with FBI agents who, they later said, assured them they had come to the right place. Forty-one days had passed since USA Gymnastics first received the report of the sexual abuse of one of its charges.
At this moment, FBI agents in Indianapolis were also immersed in the child-exploitation case of Jared Fogle, the longtime pitchman on Subway television ads. Fogle was arrested that summer on federal charges of sexual exploitation of a child and distribution of child pornography, and he was later sentenced to nearly 16 years in prison.
The gymnastics officials provided the agents with contact information for three gymnasts: Nichols, Raisman and someone emerging as the central complainant: McKayla Maroney, then 19, a retired Olympic gold medalist who by the summer of 2015 had become a minor celebrity, struggling in public to find her next purpose in life — a struggle she has since indicated was related to serious emotional issues stemming from the abuse.
They also turned over copies of videos of Nassar demonstrating his technique as he chatted clinically about pulled hamstrings, buttocks and trigger points. Reporters for The New York Times have seen the videos, which show him kneading the legs of girls before his ungloved hands begin to work under a towel, between the girls’ legs.
“It’s not a fun place to dig,” Nassar says to the camera.
“Do the hand-shaky thing,” he adds later, demonstrating how he shakes his hand vigorously when it is deep between a girl’s legs.
W. Jay Abbott, who at the time was the special agent in charge of the FBI bureau in Indianapolis, said Thursday that while he did not watch the videos, he vividly remembered the reactions of colleagues who had.
“I will never forget sitting around the table and thinking, What?” said Abbott, who retired in January. “And the reaction of my special agents who were very well versed in this was one of disgust. That is why we worked it with such urgency."
He added: “At the time, it was being portrayed as a legitimate medical procedure. But to the layman, like ourselves, we were — ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.'”
The next day, USA Gymnastics quietly, even surreptitiously, relieved Nassar of any further assignments. It later issued a statement saying: “USA Gymnastics understood from its meeting with the FBI that it should not take any action nor communicate anything that might interfere with the FBI’s investigation.”
All the while, Nassar continued his uncommon treatment techniques on young patients.
. . .
Emma Ann Miller remembers the summer of 2015 as her “best summer ever.”
She competed in a dance competition in Las Vegas, where she performed to a song from “Legally Blonde,” and won a trophy that was 2 1/2 feet tall — about half her height. She spent time at a sleep-away Bible camp, where she went kayaking, horseback riding and zip-lining, and had water balloon fights.
“We T.P.'ed the boys’ cabin down the hill and had a Silly String fight with two of the other girls’ cabins,” Emma Ann said with a laugh. “Someone threw a frog into one of the girls’ cabins. It was so much fun.”
But then there were those monthly visits to the office of Nassar — doctor to “all of these super-high-up Olympians” — who had treated her mother for years for injuries related to a car accident. Given that Emma Ann had known him her entire life, he was almost like family, an intimacy reflected in the half-dozen photographs of her that he displayed in his treatment room.
Nassar first molested her when she was 10, she recalled. She remembered the pants she was wearing — black leggings with white flowers, from Aéropostale. She was having back and neck issues, and he had her remove the leggings and put on loose shorts. In a medical supply room that doubled as a treatment room, he began exploring “down there.”
“He was like, ‘Is this OK?’ and I was like, ‘I don’t know,'” she said. “And he was like, ‘Just hang in there.’ I didn’t know how it felt. I just knew that it hurt.”
In the summer of 2015, the treatments hurt even more. She had tried wearing three pairs of underpants or especially tight shorts — anything to keep Nassar’s fingers from probing her. Now that she was older, she began lying that she was having her period.
At some point, Emma Ann told her mother that she preferred not to be alone with Nassar. That did not end it. She said he continued to abuse her while positioning himself so that her mother couldn’t see what he was doing. He would grope the girl beneath a white towel meant to convey propriety, all the while chatting with her mother, a kindergarten teacher.
. . .
“I knew that he had helped my mom, so I had to persuade myself into thinking that he also helped me,” Emma Ann said. “But I wasn’t really sure.”
Emma Ann now knows that she was not alone. The growing number of other girls who say they were being molested between the summers of 2015 and 2016 includes Alexis Alvarado, 19, who began seeing Nassar in 2010 for a stress fracture in her back. He began that treatment by massaging her legs, but then his hands crept up until, she said, his fingers were inside her. She was 12.
“I didn’t realize what he was doing was wrong,” Alvarado said. But she explained that he “thought everything could be fixed through the butt.” That is why her gymnastics teammates in Lansing, Michigan, called him the “butt doctor.”
The monthly appointments continued through the summer of 2015 and into the next year. So did her shame, and dread.
The same was true for Hannah Morrow, of Naperville, Illinois, who will turn 18 Tuesday. Several times a year, starting when she was 11 or 12, she took the four-hour car ride to see Nassar, looping around the bottom coast of Lake Michigan. At some point, she started listening to playlists she compiled to help keep her mind off what was about to be done to her.
She’d try to get hooked on a new song to sing in her head, over and over. Her favorite, “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” by Panic! At the Disco, included the line: “It’s much better to face these kinds of things with a sense of poise and rationality.”
As with Emma Ann Miller, Hannah also began wearing tighter pants and underwear that covered more of her buttocks, in the unrealized hope that it would dissuade him. She struggled to reconcile his outsize reputation with what he was doing.
“If all of those Olympians loved him, there’s nothing wrong,” Hannah remembered thinking. “Even though I feel weird with what he’s doing, I guess I shouldn’t. I’d make excuses: He doesn’t realize he’s too close to my butt or that he brushed over my boobs.”
. . .
In late July or early August, FBI agents asked Maroney to travel to Indianapolis from her home in California to discuss the allegation, according to her lawyer, John Manly, but she declined. It is unclear why an agent did not travel to see her in person. As a result, the first substantive interview of an alleged victim in a child-molestation case was conducted by telephone.
Meanwhile, Nichols and Raisman continued their gymnastics pursuits — both competed at the P&G Championships in Indianapolis — but they still had received no word from any law enforcement official about the allegations now lodged with the FBI.
Some of the delay appears to have been related to questions concerning federal-versus-state jurisdiction, as well as jurisdiction within the FBI itself. Although the Indianapolis bureau had received the information, the alleged sexual abuse by Nassar had taken place in Texas, at the Karolyi ranch, and in Michigan, where he lived and worked. And Maroney lived in California.
According to Abbott, his agents in Indianapolis did not have the case for long. “When we consulted with the US attorney, we knew right away that we would not have venue,” he said. “It was never really our case.”
Abbott said his agents conducted some interviews, but he declined to say with whom. He also said written reports were sent within weeks to FBI offices in Michigan and Los Angeles.
The retired agent emphasized how the sensitivities and difficulties of child-exploitation cases can contribute to the length of investigations. “You are dealing with victims who sometimes don’t want to be interviewed,” he said. “It is extremely delicate. And you also have the parents of minors who are sometimes not comfortable with interviews.”
Asked why federal law enforcement officials did not notify people — other gymnasts, parents, coaches — that a potential child molester was in their midst, Abbott said, “That’s where things can get tricky.”
“There is a duty to warn those who might be harmed in the future,” he said. “But everyone is still trying to ascertain whether a crime has been committed. And everybody has rights here” — a reference to both the alleged victims and the person being accused.
The Nassar case might have been further complicated, he said, by the fact that “there was a vigorous debate going on about whether this was a legitimate medical procedure.”
USA Gymnastics officials said that around this time they were told that pertinent interviews had been completed and that the case had been transferred to another jurisdiction. Indeed, on Sept. 12, Maroney was directed by USA Gymnastics to contact the FBI East Lansing office.
According to Manly, the retired gymnast’s mother, Erin Maroney, “called repeatedly,” but received no follow-up response.
Two weeks later, on Sept. 27, Nassar announced on Facebook that he was retiring from the women’s national team staff, notwithstanding a note he had posted in late June saying he would remain with the team through the summer of 2016.
He did not elaborate.
In April 2016, Raisman shared a gold medal with the national team at the Pacific Rim Championships in Seattle, while Nichols damaged a knee during training, underwent surgery and was out for several weeks — a reminder of the physical toll of the sport. Meanwhile, neither she nor her parents heard anything about the federal investigation that USA Gymnastics had instructed them to remain silent about.
The Raisman family was similarly frustrated. According to a person close to the family, Raisman and her mother, Lynn, repeatedly reached out to Penny to find out about the status of the federal investigation, only to be told that an FBI agent would be getting in touch with them.
Finally, the absence of information about the federal investigation — and the increasing concern of the victims and their families — prompted Penny and Parilla, the USA Gymnastics officials, to visit the FBI’s Los Angeles bureau in early May. Parilla lives in Southern California, as does Maroney, and Penny stopped in Los Angeles while returning from an overseas trip.
“As time passed, concern about a perceived lack of development prompted Board Chair Paul Parilla and CEO Steve Penny to report the matter a second time to a different FBI office,” USA Gymnastics said in a statement to The Times on Friday.
Through a lawyer and a spokeswoman, Parilla and Penny declined to be interviewed for this article.
The visit appears to have jump-started the federal investigation into Nassar. Agents asked for more information, including a list of the members of the national women’s gymnastics team. And May 17, the FBI finally interviewed Maroney in person.
It had been 294 days since the FBI was first notified of accusations against Nassar.
A few weeks later, on June 13, Gina Nichols received an email from Michael Hess, an FBI agent then based in Los Angeles. “I am looking into a complaint that was filed involving alleged misconduct by an individual associated with USA Gymnastics,” he wrote. “When you have a moment, please give me a call at the below numbers.”
It was a stressful time: Her daughter was preparing for the Olympic trials. But several days later, the gymnast went to a suburban Minneapolis building, not far from her home, to meet Hess, who had flown in from Los Angeles.
In addition, a person close to the Raisman family said the FBI also contacted Raisman in the summer of 2016. While Manly — who represents Raisman, Nichols and Maroney — applauded the diligence of Hess, he expressed amazement that so little had been done for so long.
“Given who these women were, all competing for their country, and given that these assaults had occurred in different states and countries, there was an obvious need to have a multilayered, multijurisdictional investigation,” Manly said.
Gina Nichols, who had been instructed by USA Gymnastics not to talk about the matter, recalled that while venting in a subsequent telephone conversation with Hess, the agent told her: You can talk to anybody you want.
. . .
That August, in Rio de Janeiro, Raisman had an Olympics for the ages, demonstrating poise and leadership as she won six medals, including gold. But Nichols, returning from her knee injury, was ultimately not invited to join the Olympic team — even as an alternate.
Meanwhile, Emma Ann Miller continued to keep her treatment appointments with Nassar. But the abuse had worsened, and she no longer felt like the bubbly teenager she had been only a year before. She stopped taking selfies because she felt ugly and fat. She’d cry if she received an A-minus on a paper or test, thinking it was evidence of her stupidity.
“I didn’t even want to order a drink at Starbucks because I was so scared I’d mess it up,” Emma Ann said.
Her mother, Leslie Miller, struggles now with her rage. “Look at what he did to my happy girl,” Miller said, in tears. “Look at all the people who could’ve stopped him earlier. My goal is to find every single one of them in the haystack — expose them all, so this will never happen again.”
. . .
It was only a matter of time.
On Sept. 12, 2016, The Indianapolis Star published an in-depth investigation detailing allegations that Nassar had repeatedly molested two gymnasts when they were young. One woman had filed a criminal complaint with the police in Michigan. The other, initially described only as an Olympic medalist, had filed a lawsuit against the doctor and USA Gymnastics in California. Neither was involved in the FBI inquiry.
Suddenly, the Nassar case took on urgency. As other girls and women began calling the Michigan State University Police to file complaints, their numbers eventually growing into the dozens, their abuser did what he could to mask his behavior, including throwing hard drives containing more than 37,000 images and videos of child pornography into the trash for pickup in the morning.
But trash pickup in his neighborhood was late that day, allowing a police officer to find the horrifying material while executing a search warrant on behalf of the university police.
By the close of 2016, Nassar was in custody. By the close of 2017, he had been convicted of myriad state charges, as well as federal child pornography charges, based in large part on that state search warrant. Given that he has been sentenced to nearly 2 centuries in prison, Nassar will likely die there.
In recent weeks, a communal catharsis has played out, as dozens and dozens of empowered victims or their proxies have confronted the doctor at sentencing hearings. The angry but resolute words of Aly Raisman and McKayla Maroney and Maggie Nichols have echoed in the courtrooms of Michigan.
So, too, have the words of the lesser-known accusers, those girls and young women who report they were abused in the year after allegations were first presented to the FBI in Indianapolis: the likes of Alexis Alvarado and Hannah Morrow — and Emma Ann Miller, who in November turned 15.