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  Attack on Figure Skater Seen as a Plot

By Christine Brennan and Jim McGee
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 13, 1994; Page A1




U.S. national figure skating champion Tonya Harding yesterday canceled an appearance scheduled for tonight at a Fairfax exhibition amid published and televised reports that the FBI is investigating her husband and her bodyguard as suspects in last week's attack on Nancy Kerrigan, the 1993 U.S. champion.

Interviews were conducted throughout the day by the FBI and police in Detroit, site of the attack, and other locations. Meanwhile, the Detroit Free Press reported in today's editions that police have recovered a black metal baton, believed to be the weapon used in the assault.

However, as of late last night, authorities said they had not yet made any arrests.

There was confusion about the status of the case as Detroit police scheduled a news conference at their headquarters at about 4:30 p.m. yesterday. Dozens of reporters waited through the evening, but an announcement concerning any possible arrests never was made.

"The chief of police in Detroit had made an announcement that he thought it was coming to a conclusion," said Hank Glasbie, Detroit FBI spokesman. "... That statement is accurate; however, no arrests have been made."

FBI agents were actively pursuing leads in several cities, believed to include Detroit, Harding's home town of Portland, Ore., and an unnamed city in Arizona.

"The FBI informed us that events were evolving at a rapid rate through the day," said Justice Department spokesman John Russell.

It all began when a private investigator in Portland told reporters that the nationwide FBI investigation was spurred by a tape recording in which Jeff Gillooly, Harding's husband, and bodyguard Shawn Eric Eckardt allegedly discussed a plot to hurt Kerrigan. The private investigator added that Harding knew nothing of the alleged plan.

(The FBI said late last night that it fears that a piece of evidence has been destroyed by one of the suspects identified in press accounts. While a spokesman did not specify what the evidence was, the Oregonian newspaper in Portland yesterday reported the presence of the tape recording.)

Kerrigan, the 1992 Olympic bronze medalist and a gold-medal favorite at next month's Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, was attacked by a man wielding a blunt object after a Jan. 6 practice at the U.S. Olympic trials at Detroit's Cobo Arena. She suffered a severe bruise over her right knee and withdrew from the trials on the advice of her doctors. The U.S. Figure Skating Association later voted Kerrigan a place on the Olympic team.

Kerrigan, 24, and Harding, 23, are the two U.S. entries in the women's competition, scheduled for Feb. 23 and 25. They both were members of the 1992 U.S. Olympic team as well.

Gary Crowe, the Portland private investigator, told the Oregonian that he was approached by a minister, Eugene C. Saunders, who came to him after an acquaintance played the tape for him.

According to the Oregonian, Saunders told Crowe a man's voice on the tape said, "Why don't we just kill her?"

Saunders said the response was: "We don't need to kill her. Let's just hit her in the knee," according to Crowe.

Crowe said Saunders identified the voices on the tape as those of Gillooly, Eckardt and an Arizona man. Crowe said Saunders's acquaintance, who was not identified, became concerned after receiving threats from the Arizona man because Gillooly had failed to pay him $100,000, apparently in return for the attack on Kerrigan.

Crowe said Saunders knows Eckardt, but he said he didn't know whether it was Eckardt who asked him to listen to the tape.

Harding has been quoted on various televised reports as denying any knowledge of any plot, and saying she always has wanted to compete against Kerrigan.

"I worked my butt off for this, and if anybody wanted to beat Nancy, it was me," Harding told a Portland television station. "Who wanted to compete against her the most? It was me."

Harding, who was married in March 1990, twice has filed restraining orders against Gillooly and also has filed for divorce two times, only to change her mind, according to published reports.

Last March, Harding filed a report with the Clackamas County sheriff's department, accusing Gillooly of assault. No arrest was made, officials said.

Concerning the Kerrigan case, Gillooly told the Oregonian that he is being investigated but said he had nothing to do with the assault.

"That's illegal," he told the newspaper. "I wouldn't do that. I have more faith in my wife than to bump off her competition."

Eckardt also denied any wrongdoing.

"That is absurd," he said. "You know, I would never get involved in anything like that. That would be jeopardizing my future, my career. I mean, that's not something I could do or allow."

Harding was supposed to perform in a pre-Olympic skating show today at George Mason University's Patriot Center, but told organizers in a telephone conversation that she was not attending.

"Tonya's not going to be here," said Stan Feig, co-producer of the NationsBank U.S. Olympic Festival on Ice. "I think she's otherwise preoccupied."

Harding herself was the target of a death threat last November that prevented her from competing at a sectional championship in Portland. It was at that time that she hired a bodyguard. The threat and her use of a bodyguard were the topics of much conversation last week at the Olympic trials.

The FBI initially offered its cooperation to the Detroit police, which was investigating the attack on Kerrigan as an assault case. Within a day, said an informed official, the FBI received evidence that suggested the possibility of interstate involvement and opened a federal criminal inquiry.

Kerrigan, who is undergoing physical therapy and plans to begin skating as early as this weekend, was met by a horde of reporters and camera crews outside her home in Stoneham, Mass., but said she knew nothing about the investigation.

"We have nothing to say," said Jerry Solomon, her Washington-based agent. "We understand it's an ongoing investigation."

© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company

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