Last week, the Justice Department’s Inspector General released a scathing report detailing just how badly the FBI botched the major child abuse case involving Larry Nassar, former doctor for the USA Gymnastics national team and Michigan State University accused of abusing dozens of young patients in his care across several states.
The report says the FBI’s Indianapolis Field Office did not respond to the claims against Nassar “with the utmost seriousness and urgency that the allegations deserved and required, made numerous and fundamental errors when they did respond to them, and failed to notify state or local authorities of the allegations or take other steps to mitigate the ongoing threat posed by Nassar.”
Among other failings, the report states that the office did not document their initial meeting with USA Gymnastics, which approached the bureau in July 2015, to report multiple gymnasts’ allegations of sexual assault by Nassar. They did not properly document a thumb drive provided by the athletic organization that contained videos and a PowerPoint presentation by Nassar in which he described his treatment practices, and used the word “WhoHaa” to describe “female anatomy,” according to the report. The office interviewed only one of the three athletes USA Gymnastics made available to them, and failed to document that interview. The office debated whether the evidence warranted a federal case, but failed to alert local law enforcement or to transfer the case to another jurisdiction, despite saying they had.
According to Jane Turner, a 25-year FBI agent-turned-whistleblower who reported the mishandling of crimes against children on American Indian reservations in North Dakota, the FBI’s failures in the Nassar case are, unfortunately, not unique. Turner believes the breakdown comes from a lack of training in handling these kinds of cases, a lack of oversight when things do get handled badly, and a lack of interest on the part of a majority white and male staff who, according to Turner, would rather be working more glamorous assignments. “They don’t give a shit about kids or young people,” she says. “They’re just not that proficient in sex abuse. They can do the pornography, that kind of thing, but for really getting into it….It’s not high on their list of give-a-shits.”
Nassar is now serving what amounts to life in prison for Michigan State sexual abuse charges and a federal child pornography indictment. Because of the Indianapolis Field Office’s delays, however, the Inspector General’s report said that Nassar was able to abuse an estimated 70 more young athletes between July 2015 and August 2016, when the Michigan State University Police Department received a separate complaint about Nassar and found child pornography at his home, for which he eventually drew the federal charge. To Turner, it’s all typical of the way the bureau operates.
Turner, who joined the bureau as an agent in 1978, believes the Nassar case and her own experience with child abuse cases are, in large part, caused by a lack of diversity among the FBI’s ranks. Eighty-three percent of the FBI’s roughly 13,000 special agents are white. They’re also around 80 percent men. “It’s a white male culture,” she says. “But most of the people who work crimes against children are women, whether they stick their hand up or are just chosen — you know: ‘Send Jane out there to handle that.’ And they’re probably very good, but there’s not that many of them.”
With a limited number of people regularly working these cases, a training gap emerges. According to Turner, your typical male FBI agent hasn’t had much training or practice in the skills needed to properly investigate crimes against children, like profiling sex offenders and interviewing children. “It’s very hard to interview a child; they take time,” she says. “I can parse out whether they’re lying or not without putting them under the glaring spotlight. Those skills are something that have to be learned and taught.” She believes standard FBI training doesn’t put enough emphasis on those skills. Agents inexperienced at interviewing children might avoid it, she says, and could be more likely to take a parent’s or a doctor’s word for what happened.
Plus, she says, this subject matter is uncomfortable and foreign to many agents. On the Nassar thumb drive, for example, according to the Inspector General’s report, the disgraced doctor explained pelvic floor manipulations, attempting to justify his crimes by disguising them as a legitimate physical therapy practice. Turner says the first thing she would have done is call a medical professional to find out what Nassar was talking about in the presentation. She thinks the agents who reviewed the thumb drive may not have bothered to figure out what they didn’t know. “They didn’t want anything to do with pelvic floors,” she says. “Hell no, these are big, manly men.”
She says the fact that they didn’t record the initial meeting on a standard FBI complaint form shows how little the agents in the Indianapolis Field Office cared about the case from the beginning. She thinks they may have made a calculated call on the quickest way to make it go away. “They’re looking at a white doctor who is a big gun, and then they’re looking at these little girls,” she says. “Who would you believe? Who would you like to go to court with right now? Who do you want to get into a long investigation [with]?”
With famous athletes like Olympic gold medalists Simone Biles and Aly Raisman accusing Nassar of abuse, the case — and the Inspector General’s report on it — gained national attention. While the Senate Judiciary Committee plans a hearing on the report’s findings, Turner says that among more marginalized communities, like indigenous people living on reservations, these botched investigations have gone overlooked.
In 1999, Turner says she found that the FBI working on an American Indian reservation had attributed a toddler’s severe rectal injuries to a car accident, trusting the child’s father’s explanation, and sending him home with his parents from the hospital. After Turner intervened and reinvestigated the case, the father submitted to a polygraph test and eventually confessed to the rape. In another case on a reservation that year, agents did not take a pedophile’s work computer into evidence because he told them he didn’t look at child porn at work. They also failed to follow up on his wife’s concerns about young boys from the reservation spending time with him in a hot tub.
Turner says she reported these failures up her chain of command but got nowhere. “I said, we cannot allow this to happen,” she says, recalling one conversation with a higher-up. “I was just doing my job as far as I saw. His response was, ‘You have your own kid to worry about.’” In 2003, after she retired, Turner partnered with the private National Whistleblower Center to release a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft detailing these claims and calling on the DOJ to have an outside entity investigate the FBI’s failure to protect children on American Indian reservations. She says she got no response.
Turner describes a culture of action-seeking male agents who got into FBI work for the “ass-kicking” that perpetuates a cycle of of neglecting child abuse cases. “The agent who was responsible for investigating those crimes at [the] reservation was putting them down as car accidents, probably because he found it uncomfortable,” she says. “He didn’t sign up to interview children. He signed up for the wham-bam, shoot-em-up type crimes.”
The ultimate barrier to change, as Turner sees, it is oversight. As long as there are no consequences, the FBI will not be motivated to change. In the Nassar case, the Indianapolis Special Agent in Charge, W. Jay Abbot, whom the report said not only lied about his office’s failures but applied to a job with the Olympic Committee during the investigation and then lied about that, retired in 2018 and has seemingly been allowed to go unpunished.
The FBI, which declined Rolling Stone’s request for comment, issued a 145-word statement following the publication of the inspector general’s report saying, in part, “This should not have happened,” and, “We will take all necessary steps to ensure that the failures of the employees outlined in the report do not happen again.”
“Nassar is a blip for them,” Turner says. “It’s a little pebble thrown in the ocean; it’s not going to make any waves. They said, ‘Hey, gee. We missed that one, sorry,’ and they’ll move on.”