Another Skate Drops

TONYA HARDING COULDN'T HELP but notice that some people sharing the front page with her these days--perpetrators of far more heinous acts than a whack on a figure skater's knee--were managing to portray themselves as victims, too. If the Menendez brothers and Lorena Bobbitt could become sympathetic figures, why not Harding, whose worst proven sin is bad taste in skating outfits, husbands and bodyguards?

So last week was Tonya's turn. First came a "60 Minutes" story, a 1986 film on Harding made by a grad student: in it Harding's coach claims Tonya's mother beat her with a hairbrush and Harding herself detailed how her mother said her skating "sucked" right after her first national championship. "What a bitch!" the 15-year-old pronounced. Back in the present, Harding disclosed that she had indeed written a letter--presumably sympathetic and apologetic--to her injured skating rival, Nancy Kerrigan. She also, after repeated requests from investigators, finally showed up at FBI offices in Portland, Ore., for questioning. Well into the 10-hour-plus interrogation, her lawyers released a statement in which Harding professed faith in her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly's innocence and, in the next breath, put an end to their toggle-switch relationship. There was no more tough talk about "whipping butts" at the Olympics. When the press caught up with her at her practice rink, Harding said, "OK, no questions about anything that's going on."

If Harding wasn't talking, everyone else sure was. And her new tack, cooperative and discreet, appeared to be getting good marks from the judges. Talkshow callers and newspaper columnists alike railed "innocent until proven guilty" and accused the media of sexism in bashing Tonya just because she isn't as pretty, genteel and politic as Kerrigan. Indeed, with Harding back on the ice performing her Olympic routines, it might have turned out to be a swell week had another skate not dropped. The morning after Harding was questioned, Gillooly was arrested and charged with plotting the Kerrigan hit. And for the first time, allegations linking Harding to the scheme were revealed publicly. In an affidavit, the first man arrested, Harding's ex-bodyguard Shawn Eckardt, claimed that Tonya herself called Kerrigan's practice rink on Cape Cod, Mass., to determine Nancy's schedule--so the assault could take place there.

Harding has denied any involvement in the attack on Kerrigan, which took place in Detroit earlier this month. With Kerrigan on the sidelines, Harding won the national championship. Four men-- Gillooly, Eckardt and the alleged hit team, Shane Stant and Derrick Smith--have now been charged with conspiracy. Gillooly denies the charge. A grand jury continued to meet in Portland and late last week heard testimony from the skater's father and coach, as well as Gillooly's mother. Investigators have records confirming that several phone calls were made to the Tony Kent Arena in South Dennis, Mass., where Kerrigan practices, from the home Harding and Gillooly shared. But there apparently is no indication who made those calls. Dottie Larkin, manager of the rink, says there are frequently calls inquiring about Kerrigan's appearances. In the last week of December, her daughter, Deborah Kennedy, recalled two such calls within minutes from, she believes, the same person--but they were from a man.

Eckardt may not prove to be the most credible witness. His college classmates regard him as a blowhard, and the 350-pounder's four-page resume for security services boasts that he "successfully tracked and located targeted terrorist cells through the Middle East, Central America and Europe." Moreover, Eckardt is a friend of Gillooly's, and in the Harding-Gillooly wars, a friend of one is often not a friend of the other. The bodyguard's account has hardly been consistent. In his first FBI interview, he said Harding wasn't involved. Later he recalled the phone calls she supposedly made to assist the attack--and how she got irritated when it wasn't carried out quickly.

Eckardt told The (Portland) Oregonian that Harding chastised the conspirators: "You need to stop screwing around with this and get it done." He also implicated her in what is farcically described as the cover-up. When Harding and Gillooly made their triumphant return home from Detroit, Eckardt told the newspaper, the couple began to worry about getting caught. "Tonya was getting upset," he said. "And then she started coming up with these excuses for the acts she had done." Gillooly promised everything would be OK and, according to Eckardt, said, "We've got to get some damage control. I'm great at damage control."

Apparently not. According to the arrest warrant, Gillooly hired the hit team for a bargain-basement price of $6,500, about $4,000 of which was paid out. Though police say Gillooly withdrew $9,000 in cash during 10 days in late December and early January, his attorney, Ronald Hoevet, said his only payment to Eckardt was $3,500"a legitimate payment...for bodyguard services." Eckardt told The Oregonian that Gillooly assured him he'd get rich off new demand for his services. "He said I'd make a lot of money," recalled Eckardt. "Things like 'How's it gonna feel driving that brand new ZR1 Corvette?' and 'What's it gonna be like having an office suite?"'

The danger to Harding is her ex-mate. Somewhere in the bowels of the Multnomah County, Ore., criminal-justice system a prosecutor is preparing a pitch: Jeff, you could do hard time--a skinny fellow like you with a felony record. The bus is leaving. Who you got to give up? If it's Tonya, and she's arrested, the U.S. Olympic Committee will likely bounce her. Otherwise, severe litigation phobia may keep her on the team.

Harding practiced last week amid a press siege. She was alternately angry--"I'm tired of answering your questions. Leave me alone," and pleading--"I know it's your job and everything, but sometimes I'd like some privacy." When she stopped talking, she skated wonderfully. In her workouts she showed a style that was at once graceful and powerful. After one session, her coach Diane Rawlinson said she was amazed: "Tonya wanted to jump today. She's like a racehorse that wants to run."

Back in Boston, Kerrigan was having a relatively normal week. That is, if offers from 50 different movie-production companies for her life story can be considered normal. The press hordes no longer camped at her family's home--they left after a cameraman struck her legally blind mother in the head. Nancy completed double jumps in practice a week ahead of the plan and over the weekend she headed for California to shoot an ad. While Tonya worries about Jeff, Kerrigan will skate on Planet Reebok.

PHOTO: The siege of Harding: Only one question matters--was she involved?

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