Investigation Uncovers Bizarre Plot Twists
By Johnette Howard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 27, 1994; Page A1
PORTLAND, Ore., Jan. 26 It sounds like a script for a television movie. There's the ice skating champion who grew up in a trailer park and whose abusive ex-husband has been arrested for arranging an attack on her rival, a Hepburnesque beauty.
Then there's a 320-pound bodyguard who says he's told all. There's a former night janitor who allegedly drove the getaway car. And there's a small-time bounty hunter who escaped after the attack by breaking a door with his head.
But the unprecedented conspiracy to assault figure skater Nancy Kerrigan has only grown stranger as details have tumbled out. Since authorities arrested four suspects Tonya Harding's ex-husband Jeff Gillooly; sometime bodyguard Shawn Eric Eckardt; alleged getaway car driver Derrick Smith, and suspected attacker Shane Minoaka Stant, Smith's nephew by marriage every dark corner of Harding's life has been poked into.
But less attention has been paid to the quartet already charged. Or the bazaar of characters that has sprung up around this case.
Even before the alleged Kerrigan scheme, Eckardt, Stant and Smith fancied themselves students of intrigue. Paramilitary buffs. Henchmen for hire.
But, as much as anything, the caper was a primer in carelessness and foolish conceit, a scheme that dissolved into arrests within a week because of an almost laughable series of gaffes and oversights, ending with 26-year-old Eckardt babbling like a brook when federal agents came knocking on the door of his parents' home in Portland, where he still lives.
On Tuesday, Eckardt's mother, Agnes, also retained an attorney.
Eckardt who has known Gillooly since first grade has a concocted, three-page resume that reads like the Man from U.N.C.L.E.'s. He operated his Worldwide Bodyguard Services Inc. out of his parents' home. When a call to the number listed in the Yellow Pages was placed earlier this week, an answering machine with a woman's voice picked up and said, "Hi, we're not home right now" a curious admission for a security-conscious company to make.
Eckardt, 26, has also claimed he conducted successful "hostage retrieval" and counterintelligence operations, and "tracked and located targeted terrorist cells" throughout the Middle East, Central America and Europe.
"He told me once that he trained revolutionary troops in an undisclosed small country in the southern hemisphere," says Keith Lowe, an independent security contractor for the movie industry who met the well-spoken Eckardt a year ago, after Eckardt responded to an newspaper ad Lowe ran for security personnel.
Lowe says he hired Eckardt to teach a one-session orientation class to new employees. But Lowe was astounded when "the talk he gave lasted eight hours. And it was more an intro into Espionage 101, not the do's and don't's of the security business. He was talking about the exploding velocities of different types of pyrotechnics in feet per second. I mean, it was crazy. The guards I hire just watch equipment trucks, make sure no one talks during filming, things like that."
Smith, 29, the former janitor, is remembered in his rural home town just outside of Portland for stringing barbed wire and booby traps along a slope of his in-laws' property. When a Portland TV crew tried to interview the family about Smith and Stant's arrests, a woman described as Stant's grandmother fired two shots in the air as the crew scurried for cover.
In a telephone conversation this weekend though, Smith's wife (who asked that her first name not be printed to protect her anonymity) said the barbed wire was just to keep "campers and homeless people" away from a water tower on the property.
And the grandmother's gun shots?
"Everyone owns a gun out there it's farm country, there are bears and wolves and things in those woods," Smith's wife said.
Like Smith, the 6-2, 220-pound Stant has held a variety of odd jobs bar bouncer, karate instructor. More recently, Stant told friends he moved to Phoenix to start a paramilitary training school and continue his work as a bounty hunter. Until his arrest, Stant's biggest bolt of lifetime recognition appears to have been a bodybuilding award for best chest of the Northwest.
"The bounty hunter job, though, that's the one I remember," says Brad Grier, one of Stant's former workout partners. "I think he got into a little trouble with that." Why? "The object is get a person and take them back not beat the hell out of them. I think he has a bit of a temper."
In addition to being the alleged attacker of Kerrigan, his role in the case is notable for two more things: While making his escape, he used his head to ram out the plexiglas door panel he escaped through, though he still had the collapsible metal baton he allegedly hit Kerrigan with in his hand. After being released from jail when an undisclosed patron posted bond for him, Stant waded through the media in the lobby, checked the street outside, then ran back inside and asked if he could re-enter jail because there was no one to pick him up.
Fortunately for investigators, facets of the plan were botched from the beginning. There was Eckardt's inability to keep a secret. The paper trail of phone records, bank withdrawals and wire transfers Gillooly and Eckardt left.
Over the eight days that Stant stalked Kerrigan, he went from Portland to Boston to Cape Cod to Detroit and back. He slept in three hotels, rented a car, took two plane flights and one 20-hour bus ride but, almost comically, didn't begin traveling under false names until he and Smith returned to Arizona after the attack.
Now, the only obvious bombshell left in this case is whether Harding knew about the plot. Persistent reports say Gillooly is trying to strike a deal with prosecutors in exchange for implicating her. But Harding, who may yet be charged, continues to insist she is innocent.
In the wait for a resolution, everyone seems to have an interest or an opinion or a thirst for fame or a way to make a buck off this thing.
The print, television and tabloid media have flocked to Portland like lemmings, their cellular phones and beepers combining to produce a cacophony whenever there's a break in the case.
America has been fixated on this three-week saga, and the thirst for more information but a dearth of real news has led the scrambling media here to give the proverbial 15 seconds (not minutes) of fame to anyone willing to blab about something: high school chums of Gillooly's, fans at a mall where Harding trains, a man who claims Harding asked him and another man to "take care of" Gillooly for her after she and Gillooly had a particularly violent fight, and a woman who saw Harding and her dad, Al, playing bingo the other night.
Even those on the periphery of the investigation are being shuttled on "Inside Edition" and "Hard Copy" for pay, or popping up on "Nightline," "Geraldo," "The Montel Williams Show" and CBS's "Eye to Eye With Connie Chung" to spout opinions or defend themselves.
Harding's mother, La Vona Golden, has surfaced twice to combat charges she was a bad mother. Earlier this week she also told a reporter she quit her waitress job because of "artificial parts" in her hands. She did not elaborate.
There's a Chicago promoter who wants to arrange a $5 million, post-Olympic skate-off between Harding and Kerrigan. There's Stephanie Quintero, the truck-stop waitress whom Harding has stayed with since separating from Gillooly. There's also Gary Crowe, a long-haired private eye who taught the trade-school paralegal course where Eugene Saunders and Eckardt first met.
Saunders is a 26-year-old ordained minister who independently contacted FBI officials about the alleged plot. He says Eckardt played a barely audible tape recording for him about the Kerrigan "hit" while the two of them were doing homework for their course.
FBI officials immediately had Saunders arrange a meeting with Eckardt at a diner, then strapped a tape recorder to Saunders's back. Eckardt showed up but insisted on talking in the parking lot. So the minister, heart pounding, stepped outside, contrary to FBI instructions.
"Are you wired?" Eckardt asked.
"Why would I be wired?" Saunders answered.
"Well," Saunders says now, somewhat sheepishly, "I didn't want to lie."
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