(Adds details from hearing, release of 2004 police report)
By Steve Friess
CHARLOTTE, Mich., Jan 31 (Reuters) - Jessica Thomashow was a 9-year-old gymnast who still liked playing with American Girl dolls when USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar first molested her, she said in a Michigan courtroom on Wednesday.
“You took advantage of my innocence and trust,” the 17-year-old high school student told Nassar, as he sat, eyes cast downward, in an orange prison jumpsuit. “Why? I ask myself that question all the time, especially when I am lying in bed, crying myself to sleep.”
Over and over, women and teenagers stood on Wednesday to recount similar stories of abuse: Nassar, the famous physician who treated Olympic stars, played the role of caring doctor before sexually assaulting them in his exam room under the guise of medical treatment, sometimes with their own parents present.
Nassar, 54, previously pleaded guilty to two sets of abuse charges in Michigan’s Ingham and Eaton counties. He was sentenced last week to 40 to 175 years in prison in the Ingham County case after more than 150 victims including Olympic gold medalists recounted abuse at his hands in an emotionally wrenching week-long hearing.
Michigan prosecutors said in court on Wednesday they have identified more than 265 victims in all. At least 65 victims were expected to offer statements, either written or spoken, during the Eaton County hearing, which is scheduled to last at least three days.
The case has already had major ramifications far beyond the courtroom. Dozens of victims, including international stars like the gold medalist Simone Biles, have accused officials at the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC), USA Gymnastics (USAG) and Michigan State University (MSU) - where Nassar also worked - of failing to investigate complaints stretching back decades.
The scandal’s fallout has forced top officials at MSU and USAG’s entire board of directors to step down. Congress is investigating both institutions as well as USOC, while Michigan’s attorney general is probing the school’s handling of the Nassar case.
Also on Wednesday, the police department in Meridian, Michigan, released a 2004 report confirming that it declined to pursue charges against Nassar after a 17-year-old patient accused him of touching her inappropriately during an exam.
Investigators closed the case after accepting Nassar’s explanation that his actions were part of a legitimate medical procedure to relieve pain. The report was made available at the request of The Detroit News.
“We missed it,” the town’s manager, Frank Walsh, said in a statement. “We’re not going to hide it. We were deceived.”
Town and police officials will apologize to the woman, Brianne Randall-Gay, at a news conference on Thursday. Randall-Gay could not be reached on Wednesday, but she previously told The Detroit News that she was disappointed the police “just took his word.”
Nassar faces a minimum of 25 years in prison in Eaton County, though he is already assured of spending the rest of his life in prison. He is also serving a 60-year federal prison term for a child pornography conviction.
At Wednesday’s hearing, 30 women painted a chilling portrait of a man who used his renown and status to prey upon their innocence. Nassar, they said, offered comfort and friendship in their most vulnerable moments, when they were wracked with physical pain and desperate to succeed in an often-demanding sport.
“Larry Nassar preyed on us for his own pleasure, leaving in his wake traumatized and broken girls,” Thomashow said.
Several victims who had previously been unidentified used their names for the first time, saying they had drawn strength from the scores of women who spoke at Nassar’s first sentencing.
“Without them, I would not be speaking up and be admitting for the first time to my family and friends and most importantly to myself that I am a survivor of abuse,” Chandler Lynn wrote in a statement read aloud by her mother. “I wish every day that I had the courage to speak up sooner, but all that matters is that I have now, and I’m not ashamed or scared anymore.”
Many of the women said they continued to suffer even years later, plagued by nightmares and reluctant to place any trust in others. In some cases, they held onto the fiction that the doctor’s actions were part of legitimate medical treatment until the unfolding scandal made them realize the truth.
“I used to be excited to meet new people,” said Erin Blayer, 17, a high school soccer player. “And now, quite frankly, I’m scared. You have destroyed the way I look at male role models in my life.” (Reporting by Steve Friess; Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen and Gina Cherelus; Writing by Joseph Ax; Editing by Will Dunham and Cynthia Osterman)