The Queen of Clubs? The Case For The Defense

Eckardt, Stant and Smith were all sentenced to 18 months in jail for their roles in the Nancy Kerrigan attack, although in practice they each only served about a year. Gillooly was given two years and fined $100,000 but only served eight months after going on a "boot camp" program. He has since remarried and changed his name to Jeff Stone. The guilt of these four men in the matter is unequivocal; but the extent of Tonya's role in the whole mess remains less clear.

It would be foolish to try to argue that Tonya Harding behaved perfectly in the weeks following the assault on Nancy Kerrigan. It is an established fact that she lied and concealed evidence of a serious crime. Nevertheless, there is a good case to be made that Tonya was denied due process by the sports authorities and the public at large, and that much of the negative attitude towards her stems largely from her refusal to conform to established standards of "ladylike" behavior rather than any compelling evidence against her for any prior involvement in the planning of the attack.

A Fair Hearing

At the time of the Incident, there were many people who disbelieved Tonya in her claims of innocence. So exactly what is the evidence in favor of her having had a deeper involvement in the attack than she has claimed? Despite the best efforts of the FBI, and the Detroit & Portland police forces, the only evidence against her is circumstantial or consists of the accusations of the plotters who can hardly be said to be unbiased observers.

At first glance, Tonya would appear to have a clear motive for wanting Kerrigan out of the picture: Nancy was widely regarded as Tonya's main rival and could have potentially taken the National title. Problem was, Tonya had already won a National title, and made little money out of it, largely due to her rough image. Tonya had hired Michael Rosenberg to act as her agent shortly after her 1991 Nationals victory but he had dumped her as a client in November 1993 for precisely that reason (plus, he was getting sick of dealing with Gillooly). For Tonya, winning a second US title was old news: it was "been there, done that" territory. The real prize was in Lillehammer, an Olympic medal, and Nancy was no threat to Tonya getting on the Olympic team as the US was entitled to send two women to Lillehammer that year. Even if Nancy had won at Nationals (which is by no means certain), Tonya would still have been on the team. There were no other US skaters that were regarded as serious competition to Tonya and Nancy at that time: Michelle Kwan was seen as too immature and Nicole Bobek was (and largely still is) regarded as flaky and erratic in her performances. It is highly unlikely that eliminating Nancy from Nationals would have affected Tonya's chances of making the Olympic team at all.

Nor, for that matter, were either Tonya or Nancy regarded as serious medal prospects in Norway. Part of the reason why so many athletes despised the affair was because it was giving what they saw as two second-rate skaters undue attention. It must be remembered that it was Oksana Baiul, not Nancy Kerrigan, who took the gold. Nancy's silver medal performance was regarded as a shock upset. There are some who believe that Nancy was gyped out of the gold in preference to Baiul precisely because the judges were sick of the whole Tonya/Nancy brough-ha-ha. All this points to the attack being the kind of scheme that someone like Gillooly would come up with rather than Tonya - a man who knows enough about skating to realize Nancy was Tonya's main rival, but not enough to know it didn't matter. Tonya would have therefore had little motive to get rid of Nancy.

By far the most outrageous claims of Tonya's involvement come from Shawn Eckardt. In an interview with the "Oregonian" Eckardt claims to have been present at Tonya's practice meeting at the Clackamas Town Center that took place on the evening of December 31st and the wee hours of the morning of January 1st . He describes how Tonya allegedly skated up to him and after enquiring about his back (which he had injured) expressed anger at the delay and told him that 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?". She allegedly urged Eckardt to "stop screwing around and get it done". He also claims that when the attack site shifted to Detroit, Tonya found out details of Nancy's hotel room for Stant and Smith. But this story does NOT square with what he told the FBI under oath earlier. In fact, Eckardt told the Feds TWO stories; initially he claimed that Tonya was not involved at all. Then he claimed that Gillooly had told him Tonya was in the know about it. Neither of these stories are consistent with his claims to the "Oregonian". Which one of his stories is the truth? Are ANY of them the truth? It is worth noting, however, that Gene Saunders, the church minister to whom Eckardt confided, expressed the opinion that he got the impression from Eckardt that the whole thing was cooked up behind Tonya's back.

As we have seen, Shawn Eckardt is a man with lots of stories. He's a compulsive liar and a fantasy merchant, who lives in a land of shadows & trenchcoats, who likes to brag about his work for the FBI and the CIA, blowing up pipelines in Peru & training in antiterrorist tactics in Israel, (even though he would have only been 16 at the time)! He's an A-grade con artist, a James Bond wannabee who wants a 007 prefix to match his 007 IQ. Nothing such a man says can be taken at face value. Even his lawyer admitted "he has a credibility problem".

UPDATE: Since this article was originally written, we have uncovered a witness who was at the New Year's Eve/New Year's Day practice meeting where the above conversation allegedly took place. THIS WITNESS, WHO WAS PRESENT THE WHOLE TIME ECKARDT WAS AT THE RINK, HAS CONFIRMED THAT ECKARDT'S ACCOUNT OF THIS MEETING IS A COMPLETE AND UTTER FABRICATION - NO DISCUSSION OF ANY TYPE WHATSOEVER TOOK PLACE BETWEEN ECKARDT AND TONYA THAT NIGHT, LET ALONE ANYTHING ABOUT HARMING NANCY KERRIGAN. This witness's account can be read in the November 12, 2000 edition of "The Portlandian" in the "Haran chronicles" section. This must cast further doubt on Eckardt's already tattered credibility and destroys one of the chief pieces of evidence against Tonya.

The other main source of claims about Tonya's involvement is Jeff Gillooly. Gillooly claims, among other things, that Tonya obtained information about Nancy's training schedule and hotel room number for the attackers. He also claims that Tonya suggested beating up Kerrigan in a bar to make it look as if she hung around with the wrong crowd. Gillooly, however, has also changed his story several times, and also initially claimed that Tonya was innocent. Gillooly is a violent and unpleasant man who has repeatedly abused Tonya both emotionally and physically. According to statements made by Tonya in a petition for a restraining order, Gillooly repeatedly hit her with his open hand and fist during their short four year marriage. In an application for another order she said "I recently found out he bought a shotgun, and I am scared for my safety." In a police report she recounts an incident when Gillooly cornered her in a boatyard and threatened "I think we should break your legs and end your career." In addition he was also responsible for the release of the so-called Wedding Night tape. Nor is he a disinterested observer. As the chief mastermind behind the Kerrigan attack he faced the prospect of a long time in stir for his involvement. It's in his interest to foist as much of the blame as possible onto his ex-wife. In addition he also has a poor reputation for truthfulness. On the Fox "Breaking The Ice" special that screened in February 1998 he admitted to making up a story about Tonya having an ovarian cyst in late 1993. And although he has admitted his relationship with Tonya was "abusive", he still denies ever hitting her, despite evidence to the contrary. How do we know he isn't lying again?

UPDATE: Since his divorce from Tonya, Gillooly has again been involved in domestic altercations. In 2000 he was arrested for assaulting his new wife, Nicole Nancy Sharkey, who subsequently also divorced him. In May of 2003 he was again arrested for assaulting her on a visit to his house with their children. This confirms that Gillooly was, and still is, a violent and abusive individual and must give added weight to Tonya's claims that he intimidated her into covering up his role in the Kerrigan attack.

Gillooly also had another significant reason to try to blame Tonya as much as possible. NBC News reported on the "Now" show that sources stated Gillooly was working on a deal in which he would plead guilty and get an 18-month sentence, half of what he could get if convicted.

Telephone company records obtained by police and Federal agents certainly show that calls were made to the Tony Kent arena from the cabin on the Christmas tree farm in Beavercreek where Tonya and Gillooly lived. But who made those calls is not clear; it could well have been Gillooly. The rink staff at Tony Kent would not have remembered such a call or whether it was a man or a woman who made the call as enquiries about Nancy's training schedule by her fans were apparently quite routine and no-one would have attached any significance to them. This is not sufficient to verify Gillooly's claims.

Shane Stant is also reported to have said that Tonya was in it from the start. But Stant never met Tonya, so any claims to that effect from him must be based on what Eckardt or Gillooly told him and can only be regarded as hearsay.

The only independent testimony at all that links Tonya to Nancy in the days leading up to the attack are the phone calls to Vera Marano and a request made by Tonya to a clerk at the Westin hotel for Nancy's room number. This is circumstantial to say the least. Marano has confirmed that Tonya did indeed call her asking for details of Nancy's address and training rink, but Tonya explained that this was because she wanted to ask Nancy about signing a poster at Nationals and also to settle a bet with Gillooly. Is it not reasonable that maybe this "bet" was a ruse contrived by Gillooly to trick Tonya into finding out the information he wanted? Tonya has also claimed that she merely wanted Nancy's number in order to slip the poster under her door for her to sign that she had promised to her fan club president Elaine Stamm.

UPDATE: A description of the poster (which many Tonyaphobes have tried to suggest never existed) and the circumstances surrounding Tonya's attempts to obtain Nancy's signature can be found in the November 12, 2000 edition of "The Portlandian".

In late January 1994 another piece of evidence emerged that some say connects Tonya to the attack. Kathy Peterson, proprietor of the Dockside Inn in Portland noticed a strange garbage bag in her dumpster. Upon opening it she found an envelope addressed to Jeff Gillooly, a receipt for the Detroit Airport taxi service, the stub of a ten thousand dollar check from the USFSA and a piece of paper with "Tunnee Can arena" and numbers that were later found to correspond to Nancy's practice times. Tonya has denied writing the note in a CBS special that aired around the time of the recent Olympics. Multnomah County Assistant DA Norm Frink is convinced that this note is in Tonya's handwriting, but there has never been any independent testimony to that effect by handwriting experts made public. If Gillooly had intended to dispose of this evidence, would it not have been simpler and much more effective to just burn the papers and flush the ashes down the toilet rather than drive all the way across town? This is apparently what Eckardt did with his notes and the tape. If even Eckardt, Portland's answer to Maxwell Smart, could figure this out, why not Gillooly?

To date, this garbage-bag note remains the sole piece of so-called "hard" evidence that supposedly proves Tonya had prior knowledge of the plan to attack Nancy Kerrigan. No charges were ever laid to that effect by the Multnomah County District Attorney. Instead, Assistant DA Norman Frink negotiated a plea bargain with Tonya a matter of days before the Grand Jury was due to hand down its indictment. Frink claims this was to avoid putting local taxpayers to the expense of a long and costly trial. But if this really was the case, surely it would have been better to wait until after the Grand Jury had made it's decision - surely this would have given Frink much more bargaining power. More likely he lacked confidence in being able to get a guilty verdict and wanted to save face. We only have to look at the public's attitude to Marcia Clark to see there is little sympathy for prosecutors who bungle high profile cases.

Some have also suggested that only Tonya would have known that Kerrigan landed on her right leg. It's not unrealistic to expect that Gillooly would know this, having hung around skaters for so long. He could even have tricked Tonya into revealing this in idle conversation.

Guilty until proven innocent

None of this, of course, proves that Tonya is innocent. But in a civilized society it should be up to the prosecution to make it's case, not the other way around. If they fail, the accused should be given the benefit of the doubt. So should it be in the case of Tonya Harding. As Robert Weaver, one of Tonya's attorneys put it in an NBC interview: "Is the United States a place where not withstanding the fact that there are no charges, there are no allegations, there are no accusations, that the women's U.S. figure skating champion is going to be asked to leave the team based upon what really are some careless remarks that are passed from one medium to another? Or does the United States stand for something greater than that? Is it a place where the presumption of innocence means something and accounts for something in this case? I would just ask the people who make that decision to think about that, I would ask them to take the higher ground".

If the evidence for Tonya being involved in the conspiracy is shaky, then there is a much stronger case that Tonya was denied her right to due process and a fair hearing by both the sports authorities and the general public. Consider the following:

The real villains

In their haste to find someone to blame, the media and the public have largely ignored the real villain: Jeffrey Scott Gillooly, an exploitive and abusive man who almost singlehandedly destroyed the career of one of the world's greatest figure skaters. In this he was unwittingly aided by the bungling simpletons at the US Figure Skating Association who failed to see through his "Mr Nice Guy" act and may even have forced Tonya back to him. Could it be that he's continuing that abuse today with his repeated, persistent claims of Tonya's involvement?

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