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Former Olympic coach John Geddert was charged with human trafficking. Here’s why

Before killing himself Thursday, John Geddert was charged with 20 counts of human trafficking, defined as “forced labor” of a minor or that resulted in injury

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Head coach John Geddert, left, greets U.S. gymnast Jordyn Wieber during the Artistic Gymnastics women’s qualification at the 2012 Summer Olympics, on July 29, 2012, in London. Geddert, the former head coach of the 2012 women’s U.S. gymnastic Olympic gold medal team, took his own life Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021, after being charged with two-dozen felonies in Michigan.

Gregory Bull, Associated Press

John Geddert, the former head coach of the 2012 women’s U.S. gymnastic Olympic gold medal team, died by suicide Thursday after being charged with two-dozen felonies in Michigan — most of which involved human trafficking.

Of the 24 counts — which, if convicted, could have imprisoned Geddert for life plus several hundred years — 20 related to human trafficking, as defined in the charge as “forced labor” of a minor or that resulted in injury.

Those charges referred to the treatment of 19 athletes (two charges about one athlete) between 2008 and 2018 and that each of the athletes were minors who’d been injured, the Lansing State Journal reported.

“The human trafficking charges took aim at coaching tactics that were long considered tough but appropriate, but are increasingly seen as inappropriate — or, in this case, potentially criminal,” according to The Wall Street Journal. “The issue is particularly resonant in elite sports in which athletes train intensely as children, as well as the large youth sports industry.”

The trafficking charges were part of a new legal strategy by Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel to “stop coaches and other people in power in gymnastics from abusing young athletes who might be too intimidated or frightened to speak out,” The New York Times reported.

Human trafficking doesn’t only refer to sexual exploitation, but any kind of coerced labor, the Times added.

“It is alleged that John Geddert used force, fraud and coercion against the young athletes that came to him for gymnastics training for financial benefit to him,” Nassel said in press conference before the coach’s death.

The Michigan attorney general said that athletes working with Geddert went through excessive physical training, were required to perform when injured and some athletes had attempted suicide and had suffered from eating disorders, reported the Lansing State Journal.

Geddert coached the 2012 U.S. national gymnastic team — including the women’s “Fierce Five,” who won a gold medal at the London Olympics that year, according to ESPN. Each of those women has said that former sports doctor Larry Nassar had abused them, ESPN reported.

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Michigan State Police and other members of law enforcement are seen Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021, at a rest area on eastbound Interstate 96 near Grand Ledge, Mich. John Geddert, a former U.S. Olympics gymnastics coach with ties to disgraced sports doctor Larry Nassar, took his own life Thursday, hours after being charged with turning his Michigan gym into a hub of human trafficking by coercing girls to train and then abusing them. Geddert’s body was found at the rest area, according to state police.

Matthew Dae Smith, Lansing State Journal via AP

The former Olympic coach had previously “owned and coached at Twistars gymnastics club” outside of Lansing, “where hundreds of women and girls say convicted sex offender Larry Nassar sexually abused them,” the Lansing State Journal reported

Nassar — who’d also been a sports doctor for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University — was convicted in 2018 of “abusing girls and women,” molesting young gymnasts and for child pornography, NPR reported. Michigan State’s main campus is in Lansing.

Those charges and convictions — which could put the doctor behind bars for essentially the rest of his life — also led to the resignation of Michigan State’s president, the university’s athletic director and the entire USA Gymnastic board, according to NPR.

Geddert had previously “been accused to turning a blind eye to Nassar’s sexual assault of female gymnasts” and was one of the doctor’s “closest allies,” reported The Wall Street Journal. In 2018, he was suspended by USA. Gymnastics over abuse accusations, according to The New York Times.

Michigan State Police said the body of 63-year-old Geddert was discovered at an Interstate 96 rest area in Clinton County — north of Lansing, the Lansing State Journal reported.

“My office has been notified that the body of John Geddert was found late this afternoon after taking his own life. This is a tragic end to a tragic story for everyone involved,” Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said in a statement after the coach’s suicide was announced.

“We had no indication that Geddert intended to flee or hurt himself or others. We had been in contact with his attorney and were assured of his cooperation,” said Michigan attorney general spokeswoman Kelly Rossman-McKinney, ESPN reported.

In a press release, Nessel listed the 24 charges with their penalties, had the coach been convicted:

  • Fourteen counts of human trafficking, forced labor causing injury, a 15-year felony. 
  • Six counts of human trafficking of a minor for forced labor, a 20-year felony.
  • One count of continuing criminal enterprise, a 20-year felony. 
  • One count of first-degree criminal sexual conduct, a life offense felony. 
  • One count of second-degree criminal sexual conduct, a 15-year felony.
  • One count of lying to a peace officer during a violent crime investigation, a four-year felony.