(DETROIT) — A former Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics doctor accused of molesting dozens of female athletes pleaded guilty Tuesday in a separate case that was a slam-dunk for prosecutors: thousands of images of child pornography discovered in his trash.
Dr. Larry Nassar acknowledged that he dumped computer hard drives and paid $49 to have a laptop's memory wiped clean last fall to "impede and obstruct" investigators who were hearing widespread allegations from women and girls that he had sexually assaulted them.
Nassar, 53, pleaded guilty to three charges in federal court in western Michigan, each carrying up to 20 years in prison. Federal sentences for more than one crime typically run at the same time, but it's possible that U.S. District Judge Janet Neff could order separate, consecutive punishments for Nassar when he is sentenced Nov. 27.
"Victims and the public can be assured that a day of reckoning is indeed in Dr. Nassar's future," Acting U.S. Attorney Andrew Birge said after the hearing.
Nassar was a sports doctor at Michigan State who specialized in treating campus gymnasts and others from around the state. He also worked for Indianapolis-based USA Gymnastics, which trains Olympians.
His career began to collapse last summer after the Indianapolis Star reported how USA Gymnastics mishandled complaints about sexual misconduct involving the doctor and coaches. Women and girls said they felt empowered to speak up after the newspaper published its stories.
Nassar now is awaiting trial in three cases alleging that he sexually molested a total of nine girls at his campus clinic, home or a gymnastics club in the Lansing area. Eight were gymnasts who were seeking treatment for injuries. He has pleaded not guilty, and his attorney said Nassar intends to proceed to trial.
"The plea was negotiated only to resolve the federal charges," said Shannon Smith, referring to the child porn case.
Nassar also is being sued by more than 100 women or girls who have made similar claims against him.
As part of the plea deal in the child porn case, the government said it won't prosecute Nassar for two crimes: exploitation of two children at his pool in 2015 and traveling internationally between 2006 and 2013 with the intent of engaging in sexual conduct with children.
Nassar's lawyers agreed that the judge can consider both of those charges when determining his sentence.
Both sides also agreed that plea deal won't prevent the government from filing other charges down the road. John Manly, an attorney for women who are suing Nassar, said he has clients who want to testify about abuse that happened at international events, including the Olympics.
"We're going to press the Justice Department to bring those cases," Manly told The Associated Press. "It's about accountability and giving the victim justice."
Nassar's guilty plea in the child porn case won't have a practical effect on how his three assault cases unfold in state court. But David Steingold, a defense lawyer who is not involved in any of the cases, said a long federal sentence could influence a judge if Nassar is convicted.
"It may help him because his lawyers could argue, 'Geez, judge, he's already doing time with the feds,'" Steingold said. "Judges have far more discretion in state court."
The computer hard drives were discovered by the Michigan State University Police Department, which has been leading the assault investigation. The university, however, also is the target of many lawsuits claiming officials knew for years that Nassar was a risk to young athletes but didn't take action.
"His behavior was deeply disturbing and repugnant," MSU spokesman Jason Cody said.