Thin Ice

THE CALL CAME INTO DETROIT police headquarters less than 48 hours after an assault on figure skater Nancy Kerrigan had left her championship dreams in a heap of pain and tears. The anonymous caller, a woman, was insistent: she would talk only to Deputy Chief Benny Napoleon, the man she had seen on television. A police lieutenant patched her call through to Napoleon's home and she proceeded to tell him an amazing, horrifying story. "A few months before," she had heard a tape recording of several men plotting a crippling assault on Kerrigan. The tip was the first, critical break in the case and one that, to Napoleon, didn't seem the least farfetched. "I never believed this [attack] was random," he said. He put down the phone, reached out to FBI agents and set in motion a nationwide investigation that, within days, had placed the attack on Kerrigan little more than a triple jump from the skates of her archrival, Tonya Harding.

Only a week ago, Nancy's agonizing questions"Why me? Why anyone? Why?"--appeared unanswerable. Now the case of the brutal attack on America's best female figure skater appears all too comprehensible. It's a story as old as the Bible and as new as the mega-millions that go with sport celebrity. It is a tale of jealousy and greed--mixed with buffoonery and a touch of madness. Eliminate America's Sweetheart and perhaps Tonya could skate into the void--and off with an Olympic gold medal next month that would be a ticket to riches. "Tonya was always so confident she could beat Nancy," says Kerrigan's coach, Evy Scotvold, whose skater had defeated Harding in four straight major championships over the past two years. "Obviously the people around her had no confidence in her at all."

At least one of those people, a hulking braggart named Shawn Eric Eckardt, apparently wasn't willing to chance a fair competition. According to authorities, Eckardt--who served as Harding's personal bodyguard--hatched a plot to attack Kerrigan. He allegedly hired two men, 29-year-old Derrick Smith and his nephew Shane Stant, 22, to stalk Kerrigan and put her out of the competition. AR three men have been arrested and were charged in Portland, Ore., with conspiracy to commit assault, a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $100,000 fine. Detroit police said they would soon seek arrest warrants--reportedly including one for Jeff Gillooly, Harding's exhusband with whom she still lives outside Portland. NEWSWEEK has learned that Stant, in a written statement to federal investigators, also implicated Gillooly in the plot, FBI sources say. A NEWSWEEK Poll showed that 41 percent of Americans believe Harding herself was, at the very least, aware of the plot. Both Gillooly and Harding have denied any involvement in the attack. "To my knowledge there's absolutely nothing that would implicate Tonya Harding in this incident at this point in time," said Napoleon.

In the assault, Stant allegedly struck Kerrigan with a telescoping metal baton, causing only a severe bruise and badly straining her knee. Police say Stant ditched the weapon--recovered a few days later--and escaped in a car allegedly driven by Smith.

Harding and Gillooly appeared briefly in public Friday, and he told the (Portland) Oregonian, "Everything will work out fine." That would be unusual in the couple's relationship, which has been marked by charges of abuse, financial troubles and general cussedness. For a long time Harding has been an outsider in the high-style world of skating. She may be a two-time national champion, but Tonya is better known for her public scrapes, her taste in pool halls and her troubled family background (page 70).

The episode set off immediate comparisons--unfair or not--to the infamous Texas cheerleader episode. In that case, an ambitious mother was accused of arranging a "hit" on a rival for a cheerleading spot coveted by her teenage daughter. While Harding captured the national title this month in Kerrigan's absence, her Olympic dream may be over. Scotvold says it would be an unfair burden for Nancy to head for the Olympics in Norway with Harding as a teammate. And both the U.S. Olympic Committee and Figure Skating Association appeared to be distancing themselves from Harding, perhaps preparing to dump her from the Olympic team. The USOC said that its final decision will reflect "issues of sportsmanship as well as the potential of disruptive elements." Even if she gets to Lillehammer, Harding might face hostile judges anxious to mete out punishment with their scores. Endorsements now seem unlikely; any money to be made will come from selling her story to television.

What could the conspirators have been thinking? According to police, the weakest link in the conspiracy was turning out to be Eckardt, who, despite a 350-pound frame that he crunched into a 1976 green four-door Mercury, fancied himself a dashing James Bond type. None of his fellow students in a paralegal program at Pioneer Pacific College in Wilsonville, Ore., appeared to take very seriously his boasts about CIA-style foreign adventures. But that all changed when Eckardt began talking about Harding and Kerrigan to his classmates.

TWO DAYS AFTER KERRIGAN WAS attacked, private investigator Gary Crowe--who teaches legal courses at the college--was approached by a distraught student, Eugene Saunders. Crowe says that Saunders told him "the most sensational story I ever heard in my life." Saunders, a born-again Christian and minister, told Crowe that he had been wrestling with his conscience ever since Eckardt had invited him to his home and played him a tape. Saunders, according to Crowe, said he heard the voice of Gillooly, Tonya' ex-husband, asking, "Why don't we just kill her?" His buddy Eckardt replied: "We don't need to kill her. We just have to hit her in the leg." According to Crowe, Eckardt told Saunders he was scared that the hit men, who hadn't been paid their fee--reportedly as much as $100,000--would come after him. FBI sources say they suspect that Eckardt made the tape, perhaps now destroyed, for protection and possibly for blackmail.

While Saunders took his story to investigators, other classmates of Eckardt came forth with similar tales. Russell Rietz alleged that on Jan. 4 Eckardt asked him if he'd kill somebody for $65,000. When Rietz, who bad known Eckardt for only a few months, said no--and no again to breaking someone's legs for the same amount--Eckardt said casually, "I've got a hit in Detroit. I'll just have to send my team." Rietz dismissed the talk--and Eckardt as "a blowhard."

Two days later Kerrigan was bashed on the knee. That very night Rietz says Eckardt boasted in class, "We got her. We got Kerrigan." Rietz didn't know what to make of it because Eckardt, as one Pioneer Pacific professor put it, is a man with "gaps in his intelligence." Sarah Bergman, another classmate, told Portland's KATU-TV that Eckardt believes Gillooly conceived the scheme to "look better in [Tonya's] eyes" by helping her win an Olympic gold.

Since the first phone tip to Napoleon, the FBI had been tracking phone records and other documents tying the men named in the women's account to the assault. FBI sources indicate that in the two months before Christmas, Smith phoned Eckardt 31 times; in the month of December alone he phoned Gillooly's parents' home at least 15 times. FBI sources say that Stant actually flew to Boston on Dec. 30 to attack Kerrigan before she ever got to the figure-skating championships. But he apparently found the winter weather unsuitable for mayhem. Five days later he checked into the Super 8 Motel--under his own name and recorded by videotape--in Romulus, Mich., near the Detroit airport. Stant took a room with a water bed and killed time watching movies like "Hollywood Fantasies" and "Girls of Beverly Hills" and calling Oregon and Arizona through the motel switchboard.

Even the Kerrigan family, holed up in their home in suburban Stoneham, Mass., was finding the tale of low-rent--and, fortunately, incompetent--low-lifes mesmerizing. "It's a great story and would be fun to watch on television if it were someone else," said Kerrigan's agent, Jerry Solomon. "But it's her so it's bizarre."

With the case moving toward a solution, Kerrigan's principal concern was her physical condition. "My leg is going to be OK--there shouldn't be any distractions," she said Friday afternoon at a press conference after her daily regimen of physical therapy. The swelling in her knee is way down, its extension almost normal, and she walked without any trace of a limp. Both Kerrigan and her coaches expected her to resume skating early this week. She refused to comment on the case, except to say, "I don't think I could ever understand." For now Nancy just wishes it would all go away--yet knows it won't. She worries that she might face the ultimate distraction once she takes the Olympic ice. "I have a strange feeling there's going to be a big applause when I go out there," she said in what will likely prove to be an understatement.

Still, it's a long way to Lillehammer and it's apt to be a difficult road. Perhaps, though, there is some solace for Kerrigan in this bewildering saga's latest developments. "It's a little comforting to know that she doesn't have to worry about some guy still out there stalking," said one family member. Indeed, a whole country would rejoice if it could only return to a storybook tale of a young woman whose greatest obstacle to Olympic gold is a triple jump.

Should Tonya Harding be permitted to skate in the Olympics?

18% Yes. she should

56% She should, unless she is charged with a crime in connection with the Kerrigan attack

18% No, she shouldn't

FOR THIS NEWSWEEK POLL, PRINCETON SURVEY RESEARCH ASSOCIATES INTERVIEWED 505 ADULTS BY TELEPHONE JAN. 14, 1994. THE MARGIN OF ERROR IS +/-5 PERCENTAGE POINTS. SOME RESPONSES NOT SHOWN. THE NEWSWEEK POLL (C) 1994 BY NEWSWEEK, INC. ..MR0-