Ali Lapetina for HuffPost

The Women Who Built The Case That Brought Down Larry Nassar

Angela Povilaitis and Andrea Munford didn't just want justice for survivors. They wanted to help them heal.

This article is part of “One Year Later: Larry Nassar And The Women Who Made Us Listen,” a seven-part series that commemorates the seven days women stood in a Lansing, Michigan, courtroom last year and faced their abuser, former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University trainer Larry Nassar. “One Year Later” was produced by reporter Alanna Vagianos. Read more installments: One | Two | Three | Four | Five| Six

The first time Andrea Munford saw Angela Povilaitis was in a training video. Povilaitis, a prosecutor for the state, was presenting best practices for investigating complex cases of sexual assault.

The next time she’d see Povilaitis ― this time in person ― was October 2016. Munford, a detective sergeant at the Michigan State University Police Department, was fielding dozens of calls from young women who said Dr. Lawrence Nassar, a former USA Gymnastics physician, had repeatedly sexually abused them when they were children. Munford and her team asked the Michigan attorney general’s office, where Povilaitis was a prosecutor, to pursue action.

Povilaitis and Munford were fast comrades. For the next 18 months, the two women built a case that involved hundreds of accusers and a sophisticated approach to prosecuting large-scale charges of assault. A year ago, the two women watched from a courtroom in Lansing, Michigan, as 169 voices, in agonizing harmony, offered a chorus of “me too” that reverberated across the nation.

But first, they believed.

An ‘Almost Miraculous’ Pairing

If ever there were two people ready to take down a serial abuser against whom more than 100 reports of abuse had been made years after the fact, Angela Povilaitis and Andrea Munford were them.

Povilaitis spent 12 years as a prosecutor in Michigan’s Wayne County before joining the state attorney general’s office, where she led a statewide sexual assault project devoted to complex, multivictim cases as an assistant AG. By the time she took on the Nassar case, she had more than 16 years of experience prosecuting delayed-disclosure sexual assault cases with multiple victims.

Meanwhile, Munford had begun building out a special victims unit within the MSU police department in 2014. A graduate of the university, she’d joined the department in 1997. Munford had developed and implemented a specific, compassion-based approach to cases involving sexual abuse when Rachael Denhollander ― the first victim to publicly accuse Nassar ― contacted the bureau prepared to make a complaint in August 2016.

Kyle Stephens(CenterL) and other people react as former Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar list
Kyle Stephens(CenterL) and other people react as former Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar listens to impact statements during the sentencing phase in Ingham County Circuit Court on January 24, 2018 in Lansing, Michigan. More than 100 women and girls accuse Nassar of a pattern of serial abuse dating back two decades, including the Olympic gold-medal winners Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas and McKayla Maroney -- who have lashed out at top sporting officials for failing to stop him. / AFP PHOTO / JEFF KOWALSKY (Photo credit should read JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP/Getty Images)

Denhollander went public with her story, and The Indianapolis Star published her account. Recognizing details from their own experiences with Nassar, additional survivors contacted MSU police to report their assaults. 

Munford and her team asked the state attorney general’s office to pursue prosecution in October. When she and Povilaitis met for the first time, each immediately recognized the other as unusually suited for the undertaking. 

“It was a very serendipitous moment when we realized that both of our approaches were similar,” Povilaitis told HuffPost.

Povilaitis and Munford both had years of experience practicing a victim-centered, trauma-informed approach. The approach leads with compassion rather than skepticism, using strategies to avoid re-traumatizing survivors while guiding them through the legal process. These are best practices in the field, though often inconsistently applied.

“It really was almost miraculous that we were able to come together and have the background to handle that case successfully,” Povilaitis said.

The AG’s office took the case. Munford and Povilaitis got to work, flying to Chicago to interview Kyle Stephens.

Nassar had previously claimed that gymnasts had mistaken medical treatment for sexual abuse ― a defense his supporters frequently invoked. But Stephens wasn’t a gymnast. She was the daughter of family friends, whom Nassar sexually assaulted in his basement when she was 6 years old. He continued to abuse her for six years.

In late November, Munford arrested Nassar for Stephens’ sexual assault. In her view, that day was one of the most meaningful of the investigation.

“It showed people: It doesn’t matter who he is, we are going to take these reports of sexual abuse seriously,” she said. “We’re going to hold offenders accountable no matter who they are.”

Seven Days, 169 Stories

Over the course of 18 months, Munford and Povilaitis built a case that relied on nine survivors’ testimonies and that eventually resulted in a plea agreement. But Munford and Povilaitis didn’t just want justice for the survivors. They wanted to help them heal.

“As the prosecution and police, we build relationships with these victims,” Povilaitis said. It was “essential” to the assistant attorney general that every single accuser, or their family, had an opportunity to make a statement.

She fashioned the plea agreement after a previous case involving a Catholic priest who’d abused more than a dozen teenage boys. The survivors were older then; many had moved forward with their lives. But Povilaitis saw how vital it was for them to confront their abuser after the power balance had finally shifted, and was determined to secure the same option for the Nassar survivors.

Nassar agreed to plead guilty to seven counts of sexual assault of minors and to attend a sentencing trial where survivors would be permitted to share victim impact statements.

Angela Povilaitis, lead prosecutor on the Larry Nassar Case poses for a portrait at the Ingham Circuit Court in Lansing, Mich
Angela Povilaitis, lead prosecutor on the Larry Nassar Case poses for a portrait at the Ingham Circuit Court in Lansing, Michigan.

Beginning on Jan. 16, 2018, 169 women and family members confronted the disgraced physician with achingly similar accounts of how his abuse poisoned their young lives and haunted them into adulthood. The growing “army of survivors” spoke for seven days.

“There were so many horrific stories and tragedies of the pain that this caused,” Povilaitis said. “It stayed with us. It stays with me.”

Stephens was the first to give a statement ― a deliberate arrangement by Povilaitis. 

“I wanted the world to know that she was a non-medical, non-gymnast survivor,” she said. “She has so much grace and strength and perseverance. I think that moment will always stay with me.” The hearing was the first time Stephens had identified herself publicly.

As Povilaitis and Munford reflect on the year since the sentencing of the criminal they helped to expose, that seven-day stretch is front of mind. The sentencing was “such a moment in history, that survivors could come forward and tell their stories and know that they were supported,” Munford said.

“Not by everybody, but they had each other. They had Angie and me.”

‘We Could Feel That Something Larger Was Happening’

The January hearing was freighted with meaning, gripping a nation in the midst of a public reckoning with sexual assault. Media outlets had poured in to cover the initial trial in spring 2017, but it wasn’t until January, after Nassar pleaded guilty and several months into the burgeoning Me Too movement, when Munford and Povilaitis began to comprehend the case’s true magnitude. 

“During the sentencing hearing, we could feel that momentum,” Munford said. “More and more people that we knew personally reaching out, saying, ‘Oh, my God, we’re watching these victim statements. It’s unbelievable what you guys did.’”

Andrea Munford, lead investigator on the Larry Nassar case at the Ingham Circuit Court in Lansing, Michigan.
Andrea Munford, lead investigator on the Larry Nassar case at the Ingham Circuit Court in Lansing, Michigan.

The two women heard from more victims “who wanted to come forward ― to shed their anonymity and speak” after the hearing began, Povilaitis said.

“We could feel that something larger was happening,” she said. “We were ripe in this societal moment for victims to be heard.”

Another Hearing 

Nine months after Nassar was sentenced, another woman publicly accusing a powerful man of misconduct would ask to be believed. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that then-Circuit Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh, along with a friend, had sexually assaulted her when the two were in high school.

Munford and Povilaitis were hopeful that the Nassar case, and other high-profile convictions, might shape the public dialogue surrounding the Kavanaugh hearing. It seemed that more and more people were coming to regard the idea of the “falsely accused man” ― in real life a strikingly rare phenomenon ― with the skepticism it warranted.

“It did feel like initially, people were applying what they learned from [the Nassar] investigation to that situation,” Munford said. But instead of focusing on whether the allegation should disqualify Kavanaugh from serving on the highest court in the land, “everyone wanted to focus on her motive and what she could be getting out of this for coming forward.”

When people around Munford expressed skepticism about Ford’s account, she asked them to consider Nassar’s victims.

“I have people ask me, ‘What do you think about this?’ And I think, well, did you believe all the survivors from the Nassar case? ‘Well of course,’ they tell me.”

“Why do you assume Dr. Blasey Ford is lying?” she asks them. “And they say, ‘Well, I never thought about it that way.’”

Povilaitis called the events surrounding the hearing “incredibly disheartening.”

“What the Kavanaugh hearing in my opinion showed is that there are still areas of our society where a victim can come forward, gains nothing, risks much, loses much, continues to lose much, and it has little effect on the outcome of whatever proceeding that is,” she said. 

Still ‘So Many People Who Just Don’t Get It’

It’s been a year since the sentencing hearing that brought some justice to more than 500 known accusers. That’s still less time than Munford and Povilaitis spent working on the case itself. The investigation continues to affect them deeply ― as much personally as professionally.

“It took a toll on our whole team,” Povilaitis said. “You have to be empathetic and compassionate in order to work with survivors and to be there with them and to support them and be their strength. I don’t know how it wouldn’t affect someone.” 

Munford agreed. “There’s a certain level of vicarious trauma” that comes with interviewing so many victims of childhood sexual abuse, she said. “And there’s also frustration because there are so many people who just don’t get it.”   

Last week, the interim president of Michigan State University ― the school that employed Nassar and failed to meaningfully protect patients from him ― resigned after stating that those who survived Nassar’s abuse were “enjoying” their moment in the “spotlight.” And though the criminal investigation ended in February, the full extent of USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University’s role in allowing the abuse to continue is still coming to light. 

“I feel so bad for the survivors who constantly, whether they choose to engage in social media or not, are exposed to ― what it seems like every day, and often insensitively ― his picture,” Povilaitis said. 

“I don’t think we’re done with the impact it’s had on us.”

Munford, today a lieutenant in the MSU Police Department, has started leading a training program meant to educate law enforcement in the victim-centered, trauma-informed approach that proved vital in earning the Nassar conviction. Denhollander named her third daughter after her. 

Povilaitis is now a staff attorney with the Michigan Domestic and Sexual Violence Treatment and Prevention Board.

The two acknowledge a measure of serendipity in how prepared they were to prosecute a criminal like Nassar. But they wish their approach were regarded as the norm, rather than as something remarkable.

“We did what our training, what our experience taught us to do. We knew that we were doing things the right way. I’m glad to see that people are understanding now that this is the best practice to handle these cases,” Munford said. “But at the same time, I wish people would be applying them already. We didn’t realize that it would be so shocking for everybody that this is the way to do it.”

“One Year Later: Larry Nassar And The Women Who Made Us Listen” is a seven-part series that commemorates the seven days women stood in Judge Rosemarie Aquilina’s Lansing, Michigan, courtroom last January and read powerful victim impact statements to former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State trainer Larry Nassar. Their words made history, forcing the country to finally listen and confront the abuse Nassar perpetrated. This series highlights the people who helped take Nassar down, as well as those he hurt for so long.