(CNN) — When William Forsyth retired in 2016 after decades as a county prosecutor in Michigan, the Battaglia family thanked him for not forgetting their son’s killing.
Gail Battaglia’s son, Joel, was a 23-year-old college student when he was killed during a robbery in 1990. Each year for about 25 years, she sent Forsyth a Christmas card.
In 2015, the Kent County prosecutor’s office convicted Joel’s killer, who is now serving a life sentence for the killing in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
“With the resolution of the case, Bill has given us the gift of healing,” Battaglia remembered saying at Forsyth’s retirement dinner. Forsyth teared up, and she and her husband hugged him.
In 40 years as a prosecutor — 30 as the elected head of the Kent County office — Forsyth has personally tried more than 40 murder cases and overseen thousands of others. Now he will oversee a case the whole world is watching.
Earlier this month, state attorney general Bill Schuette appointed Forsyth, 68, as special prosecutor to investigate how former Michigan State University physician Larry Nassar could have sexually abused girls and young women for nearly 20 years without the school intervening. Prosecutors who have worked with Forsyth praised the appointment. They say he is a meticulous, detailed, fair and compassionate prosecutor, who is genuinely concerned about the victims of crime.
“He’s going to look for the truth. I think that drives him,” said newly elected Kent County Prosecutor Christopher Becker, who worked under Forsyth and went on to replace him.
His former boss always preached to his prosecutors that lying to him or the court or withholding evidence would get them fired, Becker recalled.
In a speech last week, Forsyth talked pointedly about his search for the truth during his career — and now.
“I’ve always believed as a prosecutor that probably the most important function as a prosecutor is to represent the victims of crime. And in each case, I’ve always tried to view it as … seeking justice, searching for the truth and doing the right thing,” he told reporters. “And that philosophy has pretty much guided me in my entire career. And it’s the philosophy that I’ll bring to this investigation.”
A Michigan judge last week sentenced Nassar to 40 to 175 years in prison after he pleaded guilty to seven counts of criminal sexual conduct in Ingham County, Michigan, and admitted to using his trusted medical position to assault and molest girls under the guise of medical treatment.
More than 150 girls and women asserted during Nassar’s sentencing hearing this month that he sexually abused them under the guise of medical care as an MSU or USA Gymnastics physician over two decades.
Now Forsyth is being brought in to lead an investigation into the school itself that began last year, according to Schuette, who announced the probe after Nassar was sentenced. Shortly after the sentencing, MSU president Lou Anna Simon and Athletic Director Mark Hollis also announced they would be stepping down.
Nassar had already been sentenced to 60 years in prison for federal child pornography charges, and pleaded guilty to three charges of criminal sexual conduct in Easton County, Michigan. He is scheduled to be sentenced on those charges on Wednesday.
Forsyth acknowledged the complexity and scope of the investigation, which he said would be painstaking.
“Everybody I’m sure would like to get this done and wrapped up as quickly as possible, while quick is a relative term depending on the context in which you’re using it,” he told reporters last week. “And to quote legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, ‘We’re going to be quick but we’re not going to hurry.’ We’re going to do a thorough job and we’re going to do this the right way.”
“But you have to bear with us and remember what it is we’re being asked to look at,” he added. “This is almost 20 years of predatory conduct on the part of Nassar.”
“And when we’re done, I can’t promise that everybody’s going to be satisfied with our report and what we find,” he said. “But I can promise you that we’re going to work extremely hard at our task and you will get our best effort.”
‘A very useful 68 year-old’
When Forsyth retired, he couldn’t stay retired. “He’s has to do something. He’s a very useful 68-year-old,” said Forsyth’s daughter, Andrea, an attorney in Grand Rapids.
For several months, he returned to Kent County to help them prepare for the resentencing of several juveniles convicted of murder and sentenced to life without parole, including one he tried — the conviction of Federico Cruz, who killed a teenager and recorded himself talking to the severed head, Becker said.
Cruz, who was sentenced in 1997, and many other then-juvenile offenders have been re-sentenced following a US Supreme Court ruling that mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles was cruel and usual punishment, CNN affiliate WXMI reported.
The juvenile cases are pending while the Michigan Supreme Court decides whether a jury or judge would decide the sentences, Becker said.
Recently, the head of the two-person prosecutor team in Standish, Michigan, in Arenac County said he needed an assistant, Andrea Forsyth said. Her father, a Standish native, agreed to come on board.
The 68-year-old grandfather has always stayed active, she said. He often ran during his lunch break when he was prosecutor.
She and her father enjoy going mountain climbing together — they recently scaled Mount Rainer in Washington state and Mount Whitney in California, she said.
‘A model independent prosecutor’
Forsyth was doing chores around the house when Schuette called asking him to be the special prosecutor, his daughter said.
The attorney general called Forsyth “a man of immense integrity” with “an impeccable reputation.”
Forsyth’s daughter said the job was perfect for her father. “He’s meticulous. He doesn’t have an agenda. He’s not motivated by anything but getting to the bottom of it, getting to the truth,” she said.
Kevin Bramble, an assistant prosecutor in Kent County recalled Forsyth working so hard on Cruz case that he looked drawn out in the face.
“He really poured his heart and soul into it,” Bramble said. “He’s one of the guys that is just so thorough and doesn’t leave any stone unturned.”
Forsyth was an early proponent of victim advocate programs statewide, and helped start the one with the Kent County Prosecutor’s Office, Becker said.
The advocates assist victims through the legal process and many times read their victim impact statements to the court.
“If you could build a model independent prosecutor, he would be it,” said Vicki Seidl, a prosecutor in Kent County. “You would want somebody with his charter, with his sense of right and wrong and his sense of responsibility. His sense of fairness.”
Battaglia said she saw Forsyth’s compassion when her son’s killer was sentenced. Tears welled up in his eyes during the sentencing.
“He was with us in our pain and our sorrow, but also our joy,” she said.