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'Believed': A New Podcast Explores The Larry Nassar Case


We're going to take a look now at a disturbing and confounding case of sexual assaults. More than 150 women and girls came forward in court this year and said they were sexually abused by one man. And that abuse went on for decades.


Larry Nassar was the top doctor for the U.S. women's Olympic gymnastics team. He also worked for Michigan State University. This past January, Nassar was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison. Today we're going to take a look at what is really the central mystery of this case. How did Nassar get away with it for so long?

KING: Two reporters at Michigan Radio have been digging into this question in a new podcast that's called Believed. I talked to the hosts, Kate Wells and Lindsey Smith. And before we start, we should warn listeners this conversation includes some graphic language describing sexual assault.

Well, hello to you both.

LINDSEY SMITH, BYLINE: Hi. Thanks for having us.


KING: I know that when you guys set out, one of your goals was to dig more deeply into the failures that allowed Nassar to abuse women and girls for as long as he did. What did you find?

WELLS: This is Kate. So one of the things that we found is that guys like Larry Nassar are really good at winning your trust. And you can hear some of that actually happening in a police tape. He was taped during two different police interviews. They're two years apart for both two different complaints by the Michigan State University Police. And in the first one, you can hear him talking to this detective about this complaint that's come in against him.


LARRY NASSAR: Totally taken by surprise, but at the same time, I feel like crap that someone would feel that I was doing something inappropriate to them.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Which is good to hear. You know, it's good to hear that you feel bad that she feels that way.

NASSAR: Well, yeah, because I feel like this little deviant. You know what I mean? And that's not right. And that's not - if I did something wrong, do you know how quickly that would spread like wildfire across every doubt? (Unintelligible).


NASSAR: This is my 27th year with the team, you know what I mean?

KING: I mean, this is fascinating. He is being interrogated by a police officer who's telling him, it's good to hear that you feel bad. What does that tell you?

WELLS: Well, I mean, what really this shows you is how good Larry Nassar is at manipulating other people and how overwhelming on an individual level that can feel. You know, what is more likely in this situation, that one young woman, as far as this detective is aware, has misunderstood a valid medical technique or, you know, this Olympic doctor who's been doing this for so long and who so many people love, and he's the best at this, that he abused one girl? I mean, it's just hard on a human level to not get sucked into this kind of manipulation.

SMITH: This is Lindsey. He does this over and over. I mean, we've given you one example, Noel. But he does this in a multitude of ways over this 2 1/2-hour-long interview. And he also layers in, I teach this. I lecture on this. Any sort of doubt you might have had about his techniques and his legitimacy, he's really doing everything he can to build that up.

WELLS: This is Kate again. He gets cleared to go back to work after that. They put him back into the clinic. And we know that at least 70 women and girls say that they were abused after that 2014 case and when he returned to treating patients.

KING: Seventy.

WELLS: Yeah.

KING: Eventually, another interrogation - and this interrogation leads to his arrest. I know you have some tape of that, but tell me about it as well.

SMITH: So this is an interrogation from 2016. Another accuser has come forward. This time, her name is Rachael Denhollander. And she also comes forward publicly in a newspaper article in The Indianapolis Star. And she also decides to call police about a case of abuse that had happened to her 15 years prior. And this call goes to a different detective at MSU Police. It's Detective Andrea Munford, and she definitely takes a different approach.


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

NASSAR: No. See, that one's a - 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: (Unintelligible) penetrated her, OK? Again, this was some time ago. What you're describing to me is very different than how she's describing her experience.


MUNFORD: All right.

KING: What is the important difference in this interrogation? Why does this interrogation lead to an arrest where the other one did not?

WELLS: I mean, to put it probably too simply, Detective Munford comes in believing Rachael. She also has the benefit of knowing that this is the second complaint. And Rachael has brought a lot of evidence with her that this abuse happened - journal entries, medical records.

And so Andrea believes Rachael. And she's able to go into this interview and put the pressure on Nassar. It's not about, well, why did it take so long for this woman to come forward? - or maybe she was confused. It's very much, Nassar needs to be able to answer very simple questions. And you start to hear that he can't. He just starts to fall apart.


NASSAR: If there was arousal, it's - I mean, like, it would be because of - whatever. I don't know. But I'm not trying to...

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

NASSAR: Well...

MUNFORD: I don't know.

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

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

NASSAR: You know, but - you know what I mean? I'm just saying that, you know, you...

WELLS: And when we interviewed this detective, Andrea Munford, one of the things she talks about looking back at this interview is that she, herself, was kind of unsure why Nassar would have so much trouble answering such a simple question like, why would you have an erection during a medical appointment?

MUNFORD: 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.

KING: He doesn't have an explanation. So you guys in your digging, you learned that it does make a big difference if police, if parents start by believing the victim or at the very least, hearing the victim out.

WELLS: Yeah. Well, I mean, fundamentally, this is how guys like this operate is they know that you don't want to believe that somebody you love and trust and who seems like just this great guy could be hurting somebody. As humans, we're not good at thinking that can happen to the people that we work with or who are family.

But the reality is that guys like Larry Nassar don't operate in a vacuum. It takes a lot of people to be manipulated and to fail these women and girls for so long.

KING: Kate Wells and Lindsey Smith are hosts of the new podcast Believed from Michigan Radio and NPR. Thank you both so much.

WELLS: Thanks, Noel.

SMITH: Thanks, Noel. Thanks for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF POPPY ACKROYD'S "STEMS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist and co-host of the Michigan Radio and NPR podcast Believed. The series was widely ranked among the best of the year, drawing millions of downloads and numerous awards. She and co-host Lindsey Smith received the prestigious Livingston Award for Young Journalists. Judges described their work as "a haunting and multifaceted account of U.S.A. Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar’s belated arrest and an intimate look at how an army of women – a detective, a prosecutor and survivors – brought down the serial sex offender."