Few modern crime stories stick in the public mind as vividly as the events that occurred in January 1994, in which Olympic figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was attacked by an unknown man with a club. The story that unfolded put a black mark on the world of figure skating for years afterward.
Nancy Kerrigan was born in Massachusetts in 1969, and Tonya Harding the following year in Oregon. Kerrigan learned to skate playing hockey with her older brothers, while Harding is said to have skated at a nearby shopping mall rink as an escape from a difficult family life; her mother was said to be abusive, and Harding was the daughter of her mother’s fifth husband.
Neither girl came from money, even though figure skating is an expensive sport, but before they had reached their teenage years, the girls’ trainers had noticed clear, natural talent.
Harding was a strong, athletic performer, and Kerrigan was tall, elegant, and graceful. Both began entering and winning competitions, and each earned a spot at the 1992 winter Olympics, where Kerrigan won the third-place bronze medal, and Harding came in fourth.
This is a transcript from the video series Forensic History: Crimes, Frauds, and Scandals. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
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In January of 1994, the U.S. Figure Skating Championships were scheduled for Detroit. The day before the competition began, as Kerrigan was leaving the practice ice to head to her dressing room, a man rushed up behind her and smacked her just above the right knee with some type of club, knocking her to the ground. The suspect then ran off, and witnesses reported he got into a waiting car and sped away. The next day, Harding won first place, while Kerrigan nursed a painful and bruised right thigh.
By the time of the attack, a man named Shawn Eckardt had already confessed to his minister friend that he was part of a conspiracy to attack Kerrigan. Eckardt was Harding’s bodyguard, as well as the life-long friend of her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly. At the time of the confession, the minister was a college classmate of Eckardt in a paralegal program, and he ended up reporting the incident to two of their professors, an ethics professor, who was also an attorney, and another professor, who was a private detective.
The friend told the professors that Eckardt, Harding’s bodyguard, had played him an audiotape of the four conspirators discussing their plan. Eckardt told his friend he had made the tape in case he ended up needing to blackmail the other three guys.
The friend said Eckardt even thought a side benefit of the Kerrigan attack would be that other skaters would want protection, and the bodyguard could then expand his business by hiring and managing friends to watch over frightened skaters.
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The attorney/professor agreed to represent Eckardt in any subsequent legal actions against him, if Eckardt’s friend would take the allegation to the FBI. After the man agreed, the FBI asked Eckardt’s friend to wear a wire and meet Eckardt at a local restaurant to try to get him to talk. Agents told Eckardt’s friend not to get in the car with the bodyguard because they couldn’t protect him there, and they knew Eckardt carried a loaded gun.
But as soon as Eckardt got to the restaurant, he asked his friend to take a ride. When the man refused Eckardt’s invitation, the FBI got nothing; they’d have to pick the bodyguard up for questioning.
When they did, Eckardt confessed, claiming it was Gillooly’s idea to get Kerrigan out of the picture, so Harding would have a better chance at the U.S. Championships in January, which would then, in turn, take her to the Olympics in Norway the following month. Eckardt, as Harding’s bodyguard, and Gillooly, who was back living with her despite their divorce, were both too closely associated with Harding, so they had to come up with someone else to assault Kerrigan.
Eckardt had asked his friend, Derrick Smith, who refused. But Smith instead offered the plan to his nephew, Shane Stant, from Phoenix. Stant was originally asked to slit Kerrigan’s Achilles tendon, but he refused to cut her and agreed to damage her right knee, her landing leg, for $6,500.
The conspirators were initially planning to attack Kerrigan at her home rink in Massachusetts, but couldn’t figure out her exact practice schedule. The FBI later used phone records to verify that four phone calls were placed from the Gillooly-Harding home in Portland, Oregon to Kerrigan’s practice rink.
But by the time Stant finally got to the Massachusetts location, Kerrigan was already on her way to the Figure Skating Championship, so the plan had to shift to an attack at the competition arena in Detroit.
Stant and his uncle, Derrick Smith, cased the arena in the days before the assault. The weapon Stant used was a collapsible police baton. After hitting Kerrigan, Stant tried to run to the exit door he had scoped out the day before, but now it was chained shut.
He physically rammed through the Plexiglas panel to make his escape, threw the baton underneath a car in the parking lot, and jumped into his uncle’s car to make a getaway. No one got a good look at Stant, since all eyes and cameras were on Kerrigan. The video of her on the ground immediately following the injury was broadcast all over the world by the next day.
After winning the championship, Harding, along with Gillooly, Eckardt, and Smith, returned to Portland, Oregon. But one week after the attack, Eckardt and getaway driver, Derrick Smith, were arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit assault, based on the confession Shawn Eckardt had made to his minister friend. FBI agents arrested Shane Stant the next morning in Phoenix. Rumors swirled that Gillooly and Harding were also connected to the case and would probably be arrested.
They both denied involvement but hired attorneys. During the FBI interviews, Harding changed her story, saying she didn’t know about the plot until after she came home to Portland. She admitted to not coming forward earlier but claimed she was only keeping quiet to protect Gillooly and the others. But one piece of evidence ended up solidly implicating Harding in the plot.
The evidence had been found in a dumpster outside a Portland-area bar. Strangely enough, the bar’s owner routinely punished people who put their trash in the dumpster she paid for. She did this by opening the bags, figuring out who had capitalized on her trash pickup, and then returned the garbage to them.
In late January of 1994, when the bar owner found unwanted bags of trash in her dumpster and opened them, she found paperwork belonging to Jeff Gillooly, whose name was already heavily in the news. Rather than calling Harding’s ex-husband to get his trash, she instead phoned the FBI.
Among the items in the bag was a check stub from the U.S. Figure Skating Association and handwriting that forensic investigators later determined belonged to Harding. What she had written was the name and phone number of Kerrigan’s practice rink in Massachusetts, linking Harding to the scheme.
In February of 1994, Jeff Gillooly plead guilty to racketeering. After a plea agreement to testify against Harding, he ended up getting two years in prison and a $100,000 fine. The other three conspirators were indicted and all received jail sentences. Shawn Eckardt pled guilty to racketeering; Derrick Smith and Shane Stant pled guilty to conspiracy to commit second-degree assault.
Despite not skating in the U.S. Championships due to her injury, Kerrigan was selected for the 1994 winter Olympics in Norway. During the same month, Gillooly pled guilty to his involvement in the attack.
At that point, the extent of Harding’s participation wasn’t known, so she was also given the green light to skate for the U.S. in Norway. During her Olympic performance, Harding fell apart; she had trouble with her skates, and she delivered a poor showing, after which she finished eighth. But Kerrigan was near perfect on the ice and won the silver medal.
In the month following the Olympics, Harding pled guilty to conspiracy to hinder prosecution, just days before she was to leave for the World Championships in Japan. When the judge sentenced Harding to three years’ probation, 500 hours of community service, and a fine of $160,000, she was forced to resign from the U.S. Figure Skating Association and never made it to Japan.
Twenty years later, Harding still alleges she had no prior knowledge of the plan to sabotage Kerrigan. Kerrigan has said she’s tried to believe that for a long time. Harding’s career was ruined, and to make matters worse, Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, released videotape to the tabloids of he and a very drunk Harding having sex. She’s had no product endorsements and limited opportunities.
Harding’s exploits have amounted to nothing much more famous than winning a Celebrity Boxing match against Paula Jones, the woman who tried to sue President Bill Clinton for sexual harassment, opening the door to the Monica Lewinski sex scandal.
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