Skip to main content
Original Issue

Look Who's In the Hot Seat

The arrest of her ex-husband and questions about a $10,000 check and phone calls have put Tonya Harding on the spot

Those three little words that broke open the Watergate scandal—follow the money—sent Portland investigators last week to Colorado Springs, home of the U.S. Figure Skating Association, in their efforts to determine whether Tonya Harding was involved in the attack on Nancy Kerrigan at the national championships in Detroit on Jan. 6 and whether USFSA grant money was used to pay for the hit.

Shawn Eric Eckardt, the gelatinous bodyguard who confessed to his role in the crime, has told prosecutors that contrary to his initial statements to the FBI, Harding knew in advance of the plot. In a three-hour interview with The Oregonian on Jan. 19, Eckardt alleged that Harding was so eager to have the attack on Kerrigan carried out that on Dec. 31 or thereabouts, Harding skated up to him during a practice session at the Clackamas Town Center and said, "You know, you need to stop screwing around with this and get it done." When Eckardt suggested that she call Shane Stant—the confessed hit man who was at that very moment on the outskirts of Boston, stalking Kerrigan—Harding allegedly replied, "No, I want you to do it." Eckardt also told the newspaper that later that day Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, who on Jan. 19 became the fourth man arrested in the case and was charged with second-degree conspiracy to commit assault, flashed a $10,000 check from the USFSA and said, "Tell these guys [Stant and Derrick Smith, two confessed accomplices of Eckardt's] I'll give them a $10,000 bonus if they'll get it done."

Pursuing that lead, the Multnomah County district attorney's office has subpoenaed USFSA records to determine if and when a check in that amount had been issued to Harding and, if so, in whose bank account it had been deposited. A USFSA official told SI that Harding did receive a $10,000 check from the association and endorsed it over to Gillooly, with whom she had reconciled and with whom she was living when the alleged conspiracy would have been carried out.

A second source closely connected to the USFSA told SI that George Steinbrenner, a longtime supporter of that organization, contributed $10,000, earmarked for Harding, to the USFSA's Memorial Fund division in mid-December. This source said Steinbrenner had been contacted in November by Dotty Baker, a member of the USFSA, and told that Harding was in such financial straits that she would not be able to afford the trip to the nationals. He subsequently sent checks totaling $20,000—including one for $10,000 in December—to Colorado Springs to be deposited in the Memorial Fund division. Harding was free to use the money as she saw fit, with the understanding, according to Jerry Lace, executive director of the USFSA, that it go "for offsetting expenses associated with training and competition."

Was this the money used to pay Stant and Smith, the confessed driver of the getaway car in Detroit? Investigators are not saying, but according to the affidavit of deputy sheriff James McNelly, which was filed with Gillooly's arrest warrant, it has been determined that Gillooly withdrew $9,000 in cash from the First Interstate Bank in Portland between Dec. 27 and the day of the attack on Kerrigan. The affidavit further states that according to Eckardt and Smith, arrangements were made to pay $6,500 to Stant and Smith.

Even if investigators determine that a sum of $10,000 went from, say, Steinbrenner to the USFSA to Harding to Gillooly to the men who attacked Kerrigan, it is not clear whether the skating federation will consider that a misuse of training funds, which might alone provide grounds to remove Harding from the U.S. team that will compete next month in Lillehammer. As for the possibility that a Portland grand jury now considering the case might indict Harding, she has maintained that she was unaware of any conspiracy against Kerrigan. While being interrogated for more than 10 hours by the FBI on Jan. 18, Harding issued a statement that she was separating from Gillooly yet again. She added that she believes he is innocent and wished him "nothing but the best."

Prosecutors wouldn't rule out the possibility of arrests beyond the four already made. As of Monday, Gillooly had not been forthcoming in his statements to authorities, and the only trail cited by McNelly's affidavit that might lead directly to Harding consists of four phone calls, three on Dec. 28 and one on Jan. 3, made from the house she shared with Gillooly to the Tony Kent Arena in South Dennis, Mass., where Kerrigan trains. Eckardt has alleged in an affidavit that Gillooly told him these calls were placed by Harding to find out Kerrigan's practice schedule. A spokesperson for the rink said that calls from people asking about Kerrigan's practice times frequently came in and that no one would have recognized Harding's voice if she had made those calls.

Of course, it is possible that someone other than Harding called the Tony Kent Arena. One problem prosecutors would face in bringing a case against Harding is that the 26-year-old Eckardt, her primary accuser, is something less than a fortress of veracity. Many of the statements Eckardt has made to authorities since his confession have proved correct, but assertions regarding his past have been more difficult to check. "We're very much aware of the fact that his credibility is at issue," his attorney, Mark McKnight, said, "and corroborating facts are going to be necessary, or he'll be torn apart."

In literature Eckardt distributed last year in an effort to lure students to enroll in a five-day course he offered on corporate intelligence and counterespionage, he claimed he had received training in terrorism counteraction while employed by an organization called the Blackstone Corporation of Switzerland in 1981. Eckardt, a high school dropout, would have been 14 at the time. By 1988, the rèsumè said, Eckardt had 150 employees "engaged worldwide in executive protection." In a letter dated Oct. 21,1991, calling himself the CEO of the NZUS-Group, Eckardt wrote to the minister of the interior of Gambia to offer his services to that nation in fending off terrorist attacks or foreign invasions.

Eckardt, who lives with his parents, played the role of a corpulent James Bond. Even when arrested for soliciting a prostitute in 1987—he pleaded guilty and paid a $125 fine—he claimed he was working undercover, trying to catch a burglar who had stolen computer equipment from a friend.

"When I heard he got the job guarding Tonya Harding, I laughed my head off," says Sam Watt, the owner of a Portland security-services firm and an acquaintance of Eckardt's. "The guy is a giant 1 marshmallow."

One of Watt's employees told SI's Shelley Smith that he had been employed for a year doing security work for Eckardt's grandly titled World Bodyguard Services. The employee claimed to be present once when Gillooly and Eckardt—who have been friends since grade school—allegedly discussed the possibility of killing a man Harding was dating during one of her many separations from Gillooly. The employee also said he heard the two of them discuss loosening the lug nuts on the tires of Harding's truck. He also said Eckardt had offered him $6,500 in mid-December to cut Kerrigan's Achilles tendon. (Eckardt himself told The Oregonian that he and his coconspirators at one point contemplated getting Kerrigan into a car accident to "bruise her up a bit.") The lawyers for Eckardt and Gillooly did not return phone calls.

The strange portrait of Eckardt that emerges from such tales is no stranger than those swirling around both Harding and Gillooly. In Sunday's Oregonian a man who declined to be identified but said he had worked out in a gym with Harding was quoted as saying that Harding had talked to him and another gym habituè about having Gillooly "taken care of." Later, he alleged, Harding asked him: Would someone be interested in simply beating Gillooly up? He said he was offended and stopped working out with her. Meanwhile, an Edmonton skater, Patricia Schmidt Tilbe, said last week that while she and Harding were warming up for a competition in Los Angeles in 1985, Harding punched her in the stomach.

Harding has been involved in several violent confrontations. Last October she was handcuffed to a police car and read her rights by officers who had received a report that a gun was fired during an argument between her and Gillooly outside her apartment. At first Harding said the gun had gone off accidentally when Gillooly was holding it. Later she admitted she had, in fact, been responsible for the gunshot. No charges were filed.

When she was 15, Harding says, she defended herself against the sexual advances of a half-brother, Chris Davison, by burning him with a hot curling iron and later hitting him with a hockey stick. Davison was killed in 1989 by a hit-and-run driver, a case that has never been solved. Harding's mother, LaVona Golden, didn't believe her daughter when Harding told her that Davison had made advances. In 1992 she told SI, "Tonya has a vivid imagination. She has a tendency to tell tall tales."

Golden seemed to have changed her tune last week while watching her daughter practice in the Clackamas Town Center. Stating that she believed Tonya was not involved in the Kerrigan attack, Golden said, "All she said was, 'I didn't do it, Mom.' That's good enough for me."

Whether it's enough for the grand jury, which has until Feb. 3 to act. remains to be seen. So many questions, so little credibility among the principals. So little time before the Olympics.



Three others charged in the Kerrigan attack confessed, but Gillooly professed his innocence.



As if a 10-hour grilling by the FBI weren't enough, Harding found herself besieged by the media.



While Eckardt was implicating her, Harding (above, left) continued to prepare for Lillehammer.



[See caption above.]