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On Thin Ice

Jan. 24, 1994
Jan. 24, 1994

Table of Contents
Jan. 24, 1994

Skiing
Harding And Kerrigan
Pro Football
AFC Playoffs
NFC Playoffs
Pro Basketball
College Basketball
Hockey
Vegard Ulvang
Television
Point After

On Thin Ice

As the Olympics loomed, Nancy Kerrigan was back on skates and Tonya Harding was under siege

It was a telling contrast. On Monday morning, in cold, blustery Stoneham, Mass., in a rink on a side street called Nancy Kerrigan Way, Nancy Kerrigan herself took the ice before a pool of reporters. A handful of local television crews and radio reporters waited in the snow for a look at the beautiful star. Kerrigan's agent, ProServ's Jerry Solomon, was relaxed and upbeat, having spent a portion of the weekend poring over 35 faxed offers for film rights to the story of Kerrigan's life. She skated easily, gracefully, with obvious pleasure, performing her trademark spiral but, on doctor's orders, no jumps. She even smiled after falling hard while doing some routine footwork, stabbing her toe pick in the ice.

This is an article from the Jan. 24, 1994 issue Original Layout

The Olympics? Yes, it was apparent to all who were there: This young lady would be ready for the Olympics. And the world would be ready to cheer her.

Some 3,000 miles away in Portland, Ore., in the wee hours of Monday, the very dead of night, embattled Tonya Harding had slipped into the Ice Capades Chalet at the Clackamas Town Center for the first time since returning from Detroit with her second national figure skating title. No fans had awaited her. Had she been dressed all in black, the image would have been complete. Isolated, rightly or wrongly, by the stunning events of the past 11 days, Harding for the next two hours attempted to establish some order in her troubled life through skating, just as she had done for most of her 23 years.

A shocked but riveted nation had but one question as details of the savage assault on Kerrigan emerged last week—an attack that was committed at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit on Jan. 6 and was designed to break Kerrigan's kneecap: Was Harding, who won the women's title, a conspirator in the crime?

Law enforcement officials and prosecutors still weren't saying as SI went to press on Monday night. They had arrested three people in the case, a motley trio, all of whom had Portland ties and one of whom was Harding's bodyguard, 26-year-old Shawn Eric Eckardt. According to numerous reports, the 311-pound Eckardt, a lifelong friend of Jeff Gillooly, Harding's former husband, has fingered both Harding and Gillooly as being involved in the planning and cover-up of the crime.

The two others who had been arrested and, like Eckardt, charged with second-degree conspiracy to commit assault against Kerrigan are former residents of Portland, where Harding and Gillooly live. The accused hit man is Shane Stant, 22, a convicted felon and bounty hunter from Chandler, Ariz. His 29-year-old uncle, Derrick Smith of Phoenix, a former janitor and a paramilitary enthusiast, allegedly drove the getaway car.

Stant, according to a report in last Saturday's Boston Globe, told investigators that Harding was involved in the conspiracy "way back." When Norman Frink, chief deputy district attorney of Multnomah County (Ore.), where the case may be prosecuted, was asked repeatedly whether Harding was a suspect, his denials began sounding less and less convincing. "Absolutely not" evolved into "the investigation is continuing, and we can neither confirm nor deny that." Asked for a more definitive answer on whether Harding and Gillooly would be charged, Frink replied, "You can draw your own conclusions."

Over the weekend the U.S. Olympic Committee appeared to be doing just that. At a previously scheduled meeting of the USOC's executive committee in Durham, N.C., Harding's case was discussed at length. Afterward, officials strongly hinted that Harding would be removed from the Olympic team whether or not she faces criminal charges. On Saturday the USOC president, Dr. LeRoy Walker, cited the overwhelming public response against Harding, and then went on, "We have to make a decision without the consideration of whether or not her rights have been abridged."

The horrible specter of an athlete—or someone close to that athlete—purposely harming a competitor violates everything the Olympic movement stands for: sportsmanship, brotherhood and fair play. "We have to hold ourselves to a higher standard [than the courts]," says Harvey Schiller, executive director of the USOC. Schiller says the USOC checked with the International Skating Union regarding eligibility and substitutions for the Winter Games. The USOC was told that a team must be named by Jan. 31, but that substitutions may be made "up to the day before the competition," which in the case of women's figure skating is Feb. 22.

The U.S. Figure Skating Association nominates the Olympic team to the USOC, which makes the final selection. The USFSA rule book says the association may exclude an athlete from the team whose "acts, statements or conduct [are] considered detrimental to the welfare of figure skating." If left off the team, Harding could apply for arbitration or sue. The USOC is prepared for that possibility. "We're willing to bite the bullet," says Walker. "We're not going to hedge on this simply because we might be sued."

There is every evidence that this could happen. Harding's coach, Diane Rawlinson, said in a press conference on Sunday in Portland, "Tonya won nationals, she has earned the right to skate in the Olympics, and she will be there."

Harding and Gillooly have refused to talk about the case since their initial protestations of innocence on Jan. 11. However, a statement was read at Rawlinson's press conference in which Harding said she "categorically denies all accusations and media speculation that she was involved in any way in the Kerrigan assault." But when asked about Gillooly, Rawlinson hedged. "I'd like to believe that Jeff is innocent," she said. "Tonya absolutely believes Jeff is innocent. If she discovers anything different from that, she will distance herself from him."

There were signs on Monday that just such a distance was being established. After originally retaining attorneys from the same Portland law firm, the pair now have independent counsel. Gillooly is being represented by Ronald Hoevet, and Harding's lawyer is Robert Weaver Jr. The split may also be a sign that prosecutors have placed Gillooly in a different category from Harding in the investigation. Asked about Harding's state of mind, Weaver said on Friday, "She's anxious to get this resolved and get ready for the Olympics."

The 26-year-old Gillooly, who recently quit his job with the Oregon Liquor Control Commission and is unemployed, started dating Harding when she was 15. Their off-again, on-again relationship has been on recently, but since their 1990 wedding, Harding has twice taken out restraining orders against him, citing a history of violence and fears for her safety. According to a 1991 police report, Gillooly once threatened to break Harding's legs to end her skating career.

David Webber, a 52-year-old cab driver who has known Harding since she was 14—she calls him Pop because he's like a second father to her—says the couple fought frequently last summer. "Those stories in the paper hinting that Jeff is physically abusing her are not just a hint," says Webber. "It's obvious. She was so furious when she left Jeff before the divorce, she left all her stuff with him—her tapes, her weights and everything else. The only thing she took was a water bed."

Gillooly and Harding were divorced last August. But Harding never got her affection for Gillooly out of her system. "We'd get together and have coffee," recalls Webber, "and she'd tell me that she still loved the guy. I told her to get away from Jeff and live a life, but he controls her. And it seems like he'll control her forever. It's so sad."

By October the couple were together, and while they have not remarried, they live together in a spartan rented house in the Portland suburb of Beavercreek.

The first break in the case came the day after the attack, on Jan. 7, when a woman who refused to identify herself called Detroit deputy police chief Benny Napolean to say that she had heard a tape recording, made some weeks earlier, of four people plotting against Kerrigan. The woman said she had initially dismissed what she heard as being a prank but now suggested police question Gillooly and Eckardt.

This tip gained credence three days later, when a 24-year-old minister of Portland's Celebration New Song Church, Eugene Saunders, told the FBI that he had listened to a tape recording of Gillooly and Eckardt plotting the attack with a "hit man" from Arizona. The tape had been made by Eckardt, who is taking, believe it or not, a legal investigation course with Saunders at Pioneer Pacific College in nearby Wilsonville, where both were studying to become paralegals. Exactly why Eckardt played the tape for Saunders, and whether it has since been destroyed, remains unclear.

Upon hearing the tape, Saunders went to the course instructor, Gary Crowe, who just happened to be a private investigator, for advice, and Crowe directed him to law enforcement officials. According to Crowe, Saunders mentioned two quotes from the tape. A voice—which Crowe suggested was Gillooly's—said: "Why don't we go ahead and just kill her?" To which another voice responded: "We don't need to kill her. Why don't we just smack her in the knee?"

Gillooly told The Oregonian, "I wouldn't do that. I have more faith in my wife than to bump off her competitors." But Eckardt, according to sources, cracked late on Jan. 11, confessing that he had hired two men to pull off the attack and implicating Gillooly as the mastermind. The alleged motive was money. With Kerrigan out of the picture, Harding's chances for a second U.S. figure skating title (she won her first one in 1991) and a medal in Lillehammer would be greatly enhanced, opening the door for potentially lucrative endorsement deals. When Harding, returning victoriously from Detroit, was asked to share her thoughts about the upcoming Olympics, she replied, "To be perfectly honest, what I'm really thinking are dollar signs."

In the past year, since she failed to qualify for the 1993 world championships, Harding has been outspoken about being strapped for funds. She earns no money through endorsements, and despite receiving fan donations and grants of close to $50,000 from the USFSA, she was too destitute to pay the rent on her Portland apartment, according to a court-ordered eviction notice against her and Gillooly in October.

On Jan. 12, Detroit police announced they had found what they believed to be the weapon used in the attack, a telescoping police baton. It was discovered in a dumpster behind Cobo Arena, where the assault on Kerrigan took place. These revelations, and the nationwide stir they created, brought another man forward, Rusty Reitz. The 38-year-old Reitz, too, is taking Crowe's legal investigation course at Pioneer Pacific College, and he told investigators that Eckardt had asked him if he would be willing to kill someone for $65,000. Reitz had said no. Eckardt then allegedly said he had a job in Detroit and asked if Reitz would break someone's legs for $65,000. Reitz again declined. He assumed Eckardt, a notorious blowhard who has claimed to have done everything from tracking down terrorists in the Middle East to conducting hostage retrieval operations, was merely trying to sound important. Two days later, however, Eckardt asked Reitz if he'd seen the news about Kerrigan. "Who's Kerrigan?" Reitz replied. "We got her," Eckardt allegedly said. "It's the job I had in Detroit."

Eckardt and Smith were arrested last Thursday. On Friday, Stant surrendered in Phoenix. A high school dropout who's a bodybuilder, Stant had been arrested in October 1991 for stealing four cars in Idaho and spent 15 days in prison for the thefts. Like Smith, Stant had an interest in survivalism and was frequently seen wearing black combat boots and army fatigues. Before leaving Portland in November 1992, the duo had once alarmed neighbors by lining the steep incline around their homes with barbed wire and booby traps.

On Saturday another story came out. Twenty-year-old Sarah Bergman, yet another member of Crowe's now infamous legal investigation class and a friend of Eckardt's, told Crowe that Gillooly "was the mastermind behind this" and that she had the impression Harding knew of the scheme but was uncertain of Harding's role. She had overheard Eckardt ranting and raving a few days before the attack because he feared that the two men from Arizona had taken off with the $55,000 he'd sent them. "How am I going to pay it back?" she quoted Eckardt as saying as he punched walls of the house.

Bergman said she had no idea where he could have come up with that kind of money. A few days earlier, Eckardt, who runs World Bodyguard Services, of which Harding is the only known client, had said he was down to his last $35. Police were said to be looking into the possibility that the money Eckardt allegedly wired to Smith and Stant had originated with Gillooly. There was also speculation that the sum paid to the Arizona men was as little as $6,500. In addition, police were examining whether Gillooly had access to Harding's USFSA grant money or to money contributed by George Steinbrenner, a USOC vice-president and a patron of three skaters, who contributed $20,000 to Harding's training.

If a paper trail to Gillooly cannot be established and the alleged tape recording that broke open the investigation has since been destroyed, any case against Gillooly, or Harding, would be difficult to prove. It would boil down to Eckardt's word against Gillooly's or Harding's.

In the interim Harding's coach and lawyers are attempting to stem the rising tide of opinion and speculation implicating her. In Sunday's press conference Diane Rawlinson went so far as to suggest there had been two victims of the assault. "Nancy first, of course, but I think Tonya's also a victim," she said. "Tonya will not be in line to make the type of money from endorsements that she would have been in line to make."

Rawlinson then divulged that Harding had written Kerrigan a letter. Back in Stoneham, though, Kerrigan had yet to receive it, as of Monday. Asked if Kerrigan would open it if it ever showed up, her coach, Evy Scotvold, replied, "I'm sure someone will. Maybe the FBI."

PHOTORICK FRIEDMAN/BLACK STARHaving weathered the attack, Kerrigan (with Solomon, her agent opposite) was smiling again, but Harding and Gillooly couldn't steer clear of questions and suspicions.PHOTOSHANE YOUNG/AP[See caption above.]PHOTOAPBy week's end Eckardt, Stant (right) and Smith had been arrested, and the alleged assault weapon had been found.PHOTODON RYAN/AP[See caption above.]PHOTORICHARD LEE/DETROIT FREE PRESS[See caption above.]PHOTOSCOTT TROYANOS/AP[See caption above.]PHOTOMANNY MILLANAs Kerrigan got back to work on Monday, there was every sign that she was bound for the Olympics.