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The Slippery Saga of Tonya Harding

7 minute read
Jill Smolowe

The date is Dec. 28. Jeff Gillooly has just been dropped off by his ex-wife, Tonya Harding, at the home of Harding’s bodyguard, Shawn Eckardt. Inside, Gillooly, Eckardt and two out-of-town thugs for hire discuss ways to keep Nancy Kerrigan from competing Jan. 7 and 8 in the U.S. figure-skating championships in Detroit. Methodically the four men run down their options: cut Kerrigan’s Achilles tendon, break her leg or kneecap, kill her. According to Gillooly, he then calls Harding and asks her to pick him up. As Gillooly drives, he details a proposed $2,000 deal that carries a money-back guarantee. If Gillooly is to be believed, their dialogue goes something like this:

H: How do you feel about it?

G: Pretty good, but I’ll leave it up to you.

H: No, I’ll leave it up to you.

G: I think we should go for it.

H: O.K., let’s do it.

On Saturday, the U.S. Figure Skating Association decided that the evidence against Harding was sufficient to enforce one of its rules: “Any person whose acts, statements or conduct is considered detrimental to the welfare of figure skating is subject to the loss of the privilege of registration by the U.S.F.S.A.” The association ruled that Harding must face a disciplinary hearing. She has 30 days to appeal the U.S.F.S.A. decision — which means the U.S. Olympic Committee will have to make a final decision by Feb. 21, two days before the women’s competition begins. Meanwhile, prosecutors declined to confirm reports that Harding will be charged this week with “hindering prosecution” by lying about when she first learned of the Kerrigan plot.

Still, nowhere in the 17 1/2 hours of testimony provided for investigators by Gillooly on Jan. 26 and 27 and released last week by Oregon’s Multnomah County circuit court did he give evidence that independently corroborated his charge that Harding gave the go-ahead for the assault on Kerrigan. Despite Gillooly’s guilty plea to one count of racketeering in exchange for a recommended two-year prison sentence and a $100,000 fine, his statements alone offered no firm basis to indict Harding in the pre-assault conspiracy.

But an interesting tidbit of evidence buried in the 123 pages of statements lent support to Gillooly’s claims that Harding was in on the plot from the start. Four days before Gillooly began testifying, a part-time sports journalist, Vera Marano of Pennsylvania, was questioned by investigators. Marano, who says she has been friends with Harding since 1990, testified that she had received several calls from Harding around Christmastime. Harding, she said, asked for two pieces of information about Kerrigan: Where did she train? And did she own property on Cape Cod? Harding explained that she was interested because of a “bet” she had made. Marano said that after tracking down the name of Kerrigan’s training facility, she left the information on Harding’s answering machine. The next day, she said, Harding called back to ask Marano to clarify her message.

Gillooly has charged that Harding obtained the name of Kerrigan’s Cape Cod training rink, the place where hitman Shane Stant said he stalked Kerrigan before pursuing her to Detroit. Gillooly testified that Harding, after listening to a message from Marano, told him the name of Kerrigan’s rink sounded something like “Toby Can.” Later, Gillooly claimed, he heard Harding tell Marano by phone, “Spell it out,” and watched her write “Tony Kent Arena” on a piece of paper.

Last week FBI agents received more potentially damaging evidence, retrieved by Kathy Peterson on Jan. 30 from a Dumpster outside her Portland restaurant. Peterson says the items she turned over included one handwritten note with the phone number and address of the Tony Kent Arena and the numbers “12-4,” which mirror Kerrigan’s practice hours; another note bearing the notations “tunee can arena” and “tony kent arena”; and an envelope addressed to Gillooly. The FBI reportedly began tests to determine if the scratchings matched Harding’s handwriting.

Shortly before Gillooly pleaded guilty, Harding denied his charges, insisting in a statement that “Jeff Gillooly’s accusations appear to evidence a continued practice of abusive conduct intended to disrupt Tonya Harding’s life and destroy her career.” But Harding’s word has a poor record for stacking up against the truth. On Jan. 18, she initially told investigators that Gillooly was innocent. Later in the interview, however, after an FBI agent told Harding he knew she was lying, Harding did an abrupt about-face. “I know now he is involved,” she said of her ex-husband. On Jan. 27, Harding told reporters that she had learned of the plot “within the next few days” of returning from Detroit.

All this may eventually add up to little more than bad judgment on Harding’s part. Others involved in the case have behaved just as poorly. Last Tuesday, Gillooly’s attorney Ronald Hoevet publicly elaborated on his client’s guilty plea. Hoevet charged Harding with obtaining both the name of the Tony Kent Arena and Kerrigan’s hotel-room number in Detroit and of participating in a Jan. 10 meeting between Gillooly and Eckardt at which an alibi was concocted. He said he had “no doubt” about Harding’s guilt and suggested that it would be “unconscionable” for Harding to skate at the Olympics. The next day the state bar was flooded with calls questioning whether Hoevet had violated Oregon’s code of professional conduct, which states, “A lawyer shall not make an extra-judicial statement . . . by means of public communications.” At least seven people have filed formal complaints against Hoevet.

Nevertheless, opinions surfaced everywhere as to Harding’s future on the team — from beauty salons to op-ed pages to the President of the U.S. (“She should be given the benefit of the doubt”). Nike Inc. pledged $25,000 to help Harding defend herself if she is booted off the team. Others, however, were less sympathetic. Scott Hamilton, the men’s Olympic figure-skating champion in 1984, believes “Olympic athletes are expected to live up to a higher ideal, to remain pure.”

Despite the constitutional guarantee of a presumption of innocence, the U.S.F.S.A. and the U.S.O.C. are well within their rights in barring her for violating their codes of ethics. In 1988, for example, the U.S.O.C. was prepared to kick diver Bruce Kimball off the Olympic team if he had qualified for a berth. An intoxicated Kimball had killed two teenagers in a car accident and was awaiting trial. Kimball, however, failed to make it past qualifying heats. He later pleaded guilty to manslaughter, and was sentenced to 17 years in prison but released on probation last year. Unlike the evidence against Kimball, however, the points in Harding’s saga so far are of the he-says she- says variety. Besides, she has recourse to many legal maneuvers.

If American officials try to push her off the squad, she can appeal to the American Arbitration Board. If the board rules against her, she might try to win a temporary restraining order from higher courts, perhaps even the U.S. Supreme Court. Harding may also be able to curb the actions of the International Olympic Committee in case it tries to get into the act. U.S. courts arguably have jurisdiction over the I.O.C. because of the business the organization does in this country — for one, the gigantic sums television networks spend on the Olympics. Last week I.O.C. officials expressed reluctance to become involved in the affairs of its U.S. counterpart. Richard Pound, a member of the I.O.C. executive board, said the U.S.O.C. “doesn’t have much choice” but to let Harding skate — even if she is charged. “I don’t think an accusation is enough. Grand juries can indict fire hydrants in the U.S. You couldn’t take that seriously.” The legal wranglings will take weeks, enough time for Harding to compete in Lillehammer — unless, of course, a warrant for her arrest requires her to surrender her passport. Still, she might get that waived . . .

At the moment, only one thing is certain: barring further injury, Kerrigan will skate in the Games. After a panel of judges proclaimed Kerrigan physically fit last week, she at least was poised to pursue her Olympic dream.

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