• U.S.

What Did Tonya Know?

7 minute read
Jill Smolowe

Skulduggery is Shawn Eckardt’s passion. With no record of military service, Eckardt boasts that his skills include unconventional warfare, surveillance, psychological operations and something he calls the “Secret Service characteristics matrix for assassins.” He claims to have worked as a counterintelligence specialist for a Swiss company 10 years ago — when he was just 16 years old. He likes to pass on tales of working in Peru sabotaging pipelines and training in antiterrorist tactics in Israel. Having worked as Tonya Harding’s bodyguard for two months, he is now passing along tales about her — indeed, three different ones. The first clears the skater of any wrongdoing in the attack on her rival Nancy Kerrigan; the second implicates her on hearsay evidence; the third implicates her directly. Based on his past bouts of braggadocio, it’s impossible to know which of Eckardt’s allegations deserve a 6.0 for technical merit and which earn a 6.0 for what may be called artistic impression.

Yet unless police turn up new evidence quickly, Harding’s participation in the Winter Olympics next month will depend largely on which of Eckardt’s stories athletics officials choose to believe. With the U.S. Figure Skating Association (USFSA) facing a Jan. 31 deadline to name its Olympic squad, Harding, 23, remains an ambiguous character in the plot to cripple Kerrigan. Four men, including Eckardt and Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, 26, have been arrested and charged in the conspiracy. Investigators have uncovered money transfers and phone and bank records that link the four alleged conspirators to one another and the assault, but nothing in that paper trail either decisively implicates or clears Harding. That is unlikely to change unless prosecutors can squeeze new evidence from Gillooly, the only one of the four alleged co-conspirators who has not signed a confession.

Suspicions about Harding’s role surround a failed plan that predated the Jan. 6 attack in Detroit. Three of the arrested men — Eckardt; hit man Shane Stant, 22; and getaway driver Derrick Smith, 29 — have told investigators that during the final days of 1993, they conspired with Gillooly to attack Kerrigan while she trained at the Tony Kent Arena on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. An 11-page affidavit, prepared by the Multnomah County sheriff’s office in Oregon and made public last week, states that Eckardt initially claimed that Harding did not know about the plot. But under two days of FBI interrogation, – the affidavit says, Eckardt recalled Gillooly’s telling him that Harding had assisted in setting up the attack by placing two phone calls from her Oregon home to the Tony Kent Arena to determine Kerrigan’s practice schedule. Gillooly, said Eckardt, also spoke of Harding’s constructing an alibi for the calls. At no point in the affidavit does Eckardt mention ever discussing the plan directly with Harding. But the same day that the affidavit was released, Eckardt, no longer under oath, offered the Portland Oregonian a story far more damaging to Harding. As Stant stalked Kerrigan on the Cape, Eckardt said he was summoned by Gillooly to the Portland skating rink where Harding trains. Eckardt claimed that Harding skated up to him and said she was “pissed off and disappointed that these guys weren’t able to do what they said they were gonna do. And why hasn’t it happened yet?” He also said that when the attack site shifted to Detroit, where both Kerrigan and Harding were scheduled to compete, Harding identified Kerrigan’s hotel for the four men.

Until these allegations hit the newsstand, Harding bore up in public with surprising composure. On Tuesday she withstood more than 10 hours of FBI questioning. After the eighth hour, she issued a statement announcing that she was separating from Gillooly — their third breakup in four tempestuous years. When she emerged from the interrogation at 11:25 p.m., she paused to answer reporters’ questions. Asked if she had a message for her fans, she replied, “Please believe in me.” Did she still believe in Gillooly? “Definitely,” she answered firmly.

But after the publication of the Oregonian interview with Eckardt, Harding’s patience cracked. Asked about the charges, she brushed past reporters, snapping, “I haven’t spoke with anyone, O.K.?” When the questions continued, she shouted, “I’m not answering your questions, I said.” A few hours later she smiled sweetly into the camera for ABC’s Prime Time Live and said, “I believe God is watching over me. Maybe he believes it’s time for something good to happen to me.”

Beyond Eckardt’s ever changing accounts, the allegations that dog Harding emanate largely from rumor and anonymously sourced press reports. The only evidence in the affidavit that may begin to implicate Harding is a phone record of four calls placed between Dec. 28 and Jan. 3 from the cabin she shares with Gillooly to the Tony Kent Arena. The calls, however, could have been made by Gillooly — or even by Eckardt himself.

The rest of the affidavit, which draws on the confessions signed by Eckardt, Stant and Smith, lays out a series of verbal and money transactions that implicate Gillooly but not Harding. All three co-conspirators say they met with Gillooly in Portland in late December; two of them say a price of $6,500 was set for Stant and Smith to injure Kerrigan. Eckardt and Smith concur that Smith was paid $2,000 on the spot, with bills supplied by Gillooly. Gillooly’s bank records indicate that he made three withdrawals totaling $9,000 between Dec. 27 and Jan. 6. Western Union records show that on Jan. 5 and 6 Eckardt wired two payments to Smith. Investigators are trying to determine if any of the money drawn from Gillooly’s account was provided by Harding. So far, the trail seems to be cold, save for Eckardt’s claim in the Oregonian that Gillooly offered to pay Stant and Smith a bonus to get the job done — showing them a $10,000 USFSA check in his wallet.

Amid the controversy, sympathetic portraits of Harding emerged. CBS’s 60 Minutes broadcast eight-year-old video footage that showed her difficulties with her mother LaVona. But within the skating world, Harding’s plight has not been greeted with universal sympathy — and she has largely herself to blame. For years, she has played a Jekyll-and-Hyde game that has earned her more detractors than fans. People who publicly say they believe Harding is now telling the truth add, sotto voce, that she has long had a reputation for lying.

USFSA and Olympic officials hope that a grand jury impaneled last week in Oregon will move swiftly to determine whether Harding is to be charged or not. But the panel is not required to submit its report until three days after the U.S. team must be named. And an indictment is not a conviction, so even if charged, Harding will still have a strong case to compete in the Games. (She has legal precedent on her side. U.S. sprinter Butch Reynolds was barred from competing in the last Olympics after failing a 1990 drug test that he claimed was flawed; when a court upheld his claim, Reynolds won a $27.3 million judgment.)

If Harding makes it to Lillehammer, she is likely to meet up again with Kerrigan. Last week the injured skater showed signs of rapid recovery, successfully running through her routines, albeit with minor jumping adjustments. Then Kerrigan took off for California to shoot a Reebok commercial — just the sort of lucrative deal Harding dreams of.

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