A Done Deal

Tonya Harding confessed to a crime but avoided jail
March 28, 1994

In a tiny voice, her eyes downcast like those of a naughty child appearing before the principal, 23-year-old Tonya Harding sought to put the events of the past 10 weeks behind her. "I'm really sorry I interfered," she said to Judge Donald Londer in a Portland courtroom packed with reporters and TV cameras. It was March 16, and Harding was apologizing for committing a Class C felony for "hindering prosecution," part of a plea bargain struck between Multnomah County chief deputy district attorney Norman Frink and Robert Weaver, Harding's lawyer. Her plea put any determination by the legal system of her possible complicity in the Jan. 6 attack on figure skater Nancy Kerrigan on ice forevermore.

Befitting such an extraordinary case, the terms of the deal were unique: Harding was placed on three years' probation, assessed $110,000 in fines and legal fees, sentenced to 500 hours of unspecified community service and forced to resign as a member of the U.S. Figure Skating Association and give up her plans to compete in this week's world championships, in Chiba, Japan—conditions imposed by Frink without consulting the USFSA, whose attempt to hold its own disciplinary hearing has been delayed by a judge's temporary restraining order. As other conditions of her plea, Harding agreed to contribute $50,000 to the Special Olympics and to undergo a psychological evaluation. In return she will spend no time in jail, and she has been assured that neither federal prosecutors nor authorities in Detroit, where the attack on Kerrigan took place during the national championships, will pursue a case against her.

The one question that people most wanted the criminal justice system to address was thus left unanswered: Did Harding help plan the attack on Kerrigan?

Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, and her former bodyguard, Shawn Eckardt, both of whom have admitted being involved in the attack, have alleged that she was in on the scheme, and Frink agrees with them, never mind that he chose not to prosecute her for that offense. A Portland grand jury wasn't buying Harding's denials, either; on Monday it named her as an unindicted co-conspirator in the planning of the assault.

Frink said last week, "In our view the evidence was clear that Harding was involved and participated prior to the assault, and we were prepared to go forward with charges on each and every crime we believed she was culpable for. But it would have been irresponsible to have continued on with a criminal prosecution to try to establish, beyond a reasonable doubt, that she was involved prior to the attack when so much would be accomplished by a plea of guilty. We felt it wasn't in the interest of the citizens of Oregon to go ahead with a lengthy, disruptive and expensive prosecution. We didn't achieve each and every goal of the prosecution, but we did achieve what we believe to be substantial justice."

That assessment didn't wash with many observers of the case, some of whom felt that Frink had cut Harding a sweetheart deal. "When the prosecutor starts talking about balancing budget restrictions with the concerns of citizens, you know he's made a bad bargain," says a veteran Oregon prosecutor. "What Frink is saying now is the typical language we use when we have made an agreement that we are not happy with."

A Portland lawyer who says he had access to at least some of the evidence against Harding adds, "I am surprised that the prosecution did not go forward in a more focused and vigorous way. I'm amazed."

But another Portland lawyer familiar with the case is not surprised, saying, "[The state's] entire case rested on the word of Jeff Gillooly, who comes off as a lying snake. If they had a solid case against Harding, they would have indicted her."

Weaver, who has proved to be more formidable in the courtroom than Harding has ever been on the ice, seconds that opinion: "To conclude that Tonya participated in the plot would require an objective fact finder to embrace Jeff Gillooly's account. Had the government charged her with participation in the assault, I have every confidence she would have been acquitted."

Still, there is circumstantial evidence suggesting that Harding participated in the scheme to injure Kerrigan—enough, obviously, to convince a grand jury. Some of that evidence may be weighed when the USFSA panel finally holds its disciplinary hearing, probably sometime this summer. The panel could act strictly on the basis of Harding's guilty plea—it was, after all, an investigation into an attack on a rival skater that she admitted hindering—and strip her of the national title she won after Kerrigan was knocked out of the competition. Although Harding has resigned as a member, the USFSA might further punish her by banning her for life. The executive committee of the USFSA has also discussed trying to recoup legal expenses and training funds from Harding.

Circumstantial or not, the evidence suggesting that Harding was involved in the attack on Kerrigan is considerable. Harding was living with Gillooly at the time that he, Eckardt and two other confessed conspirators in the assault, Shane Stant and Derrick Smith, were plotting the deed. Also, a USFSA official says that Harding's training funds were withdrawn by Gillooly allegedly to finance the assault. Is it possible that the plot to injure Kerrigan could have happened under Harding's nose without her knowing?

Even more damaging are the phone calls that free-lance journalist Vera Marano says Harding made to her to try to find out the name and location of the rink where Kerrigan was training. According to Marano, Harding told her she wanted that information to settle a bet. But that rink, the Tony Kent Arena in South Dennis, Mass., is where, according to the confessed conspirators, Stant originally sought to attack Kerrigan. In other words, according to Marano, Harding was trying to get the name of Kerrigan's training rink at the same time that, by a remarkable coincidence, Gillooly and his henchmen were seeking the same information.

Then there is this question: Why would Gillooly and Eckardt have suddenly enlisted Harding's participation in the cover-up of the crime immediately upon her return from Detroit on Jan. 10 if they had shielded her from all of its planning?

But evidence directly linking Harding to the plan is another matter. A note bearing the scribbled name of the Tony Kent Arena found in a restaurant trash bin might have implicated Harding, but only if the handwriting was hers—and Frink's office has not yet revealed whether such a determination was made. A Portland television station reported that Harding failed two of three polygraph tests administered by the FBI and that Gillooly passed one polygraph, but even if this is so, the results from such tests are inadmissible in court. Gillooly, who is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to a racketeering charge in the case, is Harding's principal accuser, but he would have been a dubious witness. Not even a recent makeover—he has shaved off his mustache and tinted his hair—alters the fact that he has come across as vindictive toward Harding, who implicated him to the FBI.

All of which no doubt helped persuade Frink to consent to the plea bargain. The wheels were set in motion the night of Wednesday, March 9, when, by coincidence, Frink ran into Weaver at Kell's, a popular Irish restaurant in Portland a few blocks from Weaver's office. Weaver was there with his wife to celebrate the fact that earlier in the day U.S. district court judge Owen Panner had granted Weaver's motion for a temporary restraining order that blocked the USFSA from holding its disciplinary hearing until Harding's lawyers had had more time to prepare her defense.

Weaver and Frink had been amiable adversaries throughout the investigation. The two had spoken together almost daily. But Weaver had been so involved in litigation against both the USFSA and the U.S. Olympic Committee—a $25 million lawsuit filed by Weaver had cowed USOC lawyers into canceling a planned hearing in Norway that might have resulted in Harding's being barred from competing in Lillehammer—that he hadn't had time to focus on the possibility of a plea bargain. At Kell's, Weaver and Frink exchanged pleasantries, then agreed to meet the following week to discuss the criminal case.

"I didn't know what the grand jury was prepared to do," says Weaver. "But I had to prepare as if it would embrace Gillooly's version of the facts. I was genuinely optimistic about the option of going to trial. But I also knew that the possibility of settling would become more remote if we waited until after she was charged."

The talks between Weaver and Frink began on Monday and went back and forth for the next 48 hours. Weaver's primary concern was avoiding jail time for Harding. Frink won't say what his wish list consisted of, but sources familiar with the talks say jail time for Harding was on it, along with a guilty plea to the charge of conspiracy to commit assault. As for the provision in the deal forcing Harding to resign from the USFSA, Frink appeared to be frustrated with the performances of the lawyers representing the USOC and the USFSA, who had been outflanked by Weaver in their efforts to keep Harding from competing. "We had hoped to leave the matter to the associations and to their administrative procedures," Frink says. "But when it was demonstrated that they couldn't ban her from amateur competition, certainly that became something that was desirable to us."

By Tuesday afternoon Weaver had a pretty good idea what the terms of the deal would be, and he asked Harding to come to his office to discuss the pros and cons of pleading guilty. "Her purse is a portable apothecary," Weaver recalls, "and she was blowing her nose and hitting the asthma inhaler the whole time." Soon thereafter Harding agreed to the deal.

The sordid story of the attack on Kerrigan now enters a new phase. In addition to naming Harding as a co-conspirator, the Portland grand jury indicted Eckardt, Smith and Stant. Eckardt pleaded not guilty to one charge of hindering prosecution, he and Smith pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy to hinder prosecution, and they joined Stant in pleading not guilty to charges of racketeering, criminal conspiracy to commit assault, assault and secretly recording conversations.

As for Harding, thanks to her new notoriety, she now finds herself with considerably more resources than she has ever had before. Her legal fees and fines will be nicely covered by the estimated $400,000 she received from the tabloid TV show Inside Edition for a series of interviews. Plus she has already signed a movie deal: She'll receive an undisclosed fee for the "authorized" movie of her life from Zev Braun Pictures, Inc., a Hollywood production company that just finished a four-hour miniseries on the Menendez-family murders. A book deal is also being negotiated. Endorsement opportunities for certain products—ranging from asthma inhalers to security devices—are beginning to come her way. And sources close to Harding say that Donald Trump is interested in "doing something with Tonya."

On top of all that, a promoter from the All Japan Women's Professional Wrestling Association has put a $2 million offer on the table for Harding, with the stipulation that she be willing to wrestle as a "baddie." Says Aja Kong, the undisputed queen of the Japanese baddies, "If I am to fight her, I'd better be careful that I don't get attacked before the bout."

Harding, though, says she has no interest in wrestling in Japan, as a goodie or a baddie. Nor does she have any interest in posing for the Japanese girlie magazines that have been sending offers to her lawyers. Besides, according to the terms of her probation, Harding needs written permission to venture outside Oregon, Washington and California. So it is also unlikely that she'll appear in any ice shows in the near future, although at least one has approached her.

Clearly, Harding's options are more varied and lucrative than those of any other eighth-place finisher in Olympic history. "The message the public picks up from this is that crime does pay," says Mark McKnight, the lawyer representing Eckardt.

Ignoring the fact that Harding now has a felony conviction besmirching her name, McKnight adds, "She's laughing all the way to the bank. It's not a pretty picture of the criminal justice system."

It's not a pretty picture of much of anything.

PHOTOMULTNOMAH COUNTY SHERIFFImplicated by the newly shorn Gillooly (below), Harding had her day in court (opposite) with Weaver at her side. TWO PHOTOSDALE WITTNER[See caption above.] PHOTOBILL FRAKESSidelined by the attack, Kerrigan was obliged to watch the nationals in January from a box. PHOTOMANNY MILLANThe asthmatic Harding won in Detroit but soon, she would admit, was engaged in a cover-up. PHOTODON RYAN/APThe day after striking her deal with the prosecution, Harding greeted a young friend at the rink.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)