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 Figure skating section

  Harding Admits Guilt in Plea Bargain, Avoids Prison

By Johnette Howard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 17, 1994; Page A1

In a plea agreement that ensures she will do no prison time, Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding pleaded guilty yesterday to hindering the investigation of the Jan. 6 attack on rival U.S. skater Nancy Kerrigan.

With the plea, made during a hastily arranged hearing in Portland, Ore., Harding agreed with the Multnomah County district attorney's office charge that she obstructed its investigation on Jan. 10, the day she returned to Portland from the U.S. Olympic trials in Detroit, where Kerrigan was attacked.

As a result, authorities promised Harding would not be prosecuted further in any jurisdiction. And Harding, 23, agreed to a lengthy list of penalties.

She must resign "forthwith" from the American team that will compete at the figure skating world championships next week in Japan, and surrender her membership in the U.S. Figure Skating Association — a membership she sought to retain just six days ago when her attorneys won a court injunction blocking a USFSA disciplinary hearing that, they believed, would end with Harding off the team.

Under the agreement with prosecutors, she will also receive three years' supervised probation, pay a $100,000 state fine (the maximum for her crime under Oregon sentencing guidelines), set up a $50,000 fund to benefit Special Olympics, reimburse the Multnomah County prosecutor's office $10,000 in costs, perform 500 hours of yet-unspecified community service work and undergo a psychiatric examination and participate in any treatment ordered by the court.

Asked yesterday by Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Donald Londer if she had anything to say to the court, Harding said only, "I'd just like to say I'm really sorry that I interfered."

In a one-paragraph statement the Kerrigan family said: "We have been informed by the Portland authorities of the plea bargain in Oregon. ... Nancy and all of us have been through a lot lately. We need time to digest this news and discuss it as a family, and therefore we cannot comment further at this time."

With Harding's plea, all five principals identified by investigators have admitted some involvement in the attack on Kerrigan.

Harding's former husband, Jeff Gillooly, in a separate plea agreement with the Multnomah County district attorney, pleaded guilty to racketeering for helping plan the Kerrigan attack. Bodyguard Shawn Eckardt, Shane Stant and Derrick Smith have been charged with conspiracy. Eckardt arranged for the attack, Stant executed it and Smith drove the getaway car. They have confessed to their roles but have not been indicted.

Still, the felony charge Harding pleaded guilty to yesterday falls far short of accusations made against her by Gillooly and Eckardt.

Both men told authorities Harding had prior knowledge of the attack on Kerrigan and procured information that helped them carry it out. Gillooly — whom Harding accused of abuse in at least two applications for restraining orders during their marriage — also claimed Harding gave the final go-ahead for the attack and actively conspired to help in the coverup when he and the other three men were quickly suspected.

Yesterday in court, Harding's lead attorney, Robert C. Weaver Jr., said he "wanted to make it clear" that Harding was not conceding guilt "in all the matters" — a reference to the sworn statements of the four men.

But Multnomah County deputy district attorney Norman Frink, who headed the Oregon investigation from the start and handled yesterday's hearing for the county, refused to concede Harding any measure of victory in her latest legal maneuver. Frink said after yesterday's hearing that there was "substantial evidence to support Ms. Harding's involvement prior to the assault. ...

"She's not going to plead guilty to it, but I think the facts speak for themselves."

"I didn't say we didn't have enough to indict on more," Frink said. "Had this agreement not taken place we would have proceeded with indictments on other pertinent charges."

Like many other facets of the bizarre case — the unprecedented nature of the plot to disable Kerrigan, Harding's steadfast denials of any involvement, then her admission that she learned within days who had carried out the attack but had not come forward — yesterday's apparent denouement came unexpectedly.

Londer was summoned back from vacation, making a two-hour drive and arriving more than 40 minutes late for the scheduled 4 p.m. PST hearing. Beneath his judicial robes Londer wore a dress shirt a staff member had hurriedly purchased for him to wear in court.

The USFSA also seemed caught off guard. President Claire Ferguson, in a statement, said Harding's resignation from the group "obviously comes as a surprise and bit of a shock that this could happen so close to the world championships." USFSA spokesman Matt Pensinger said yesterday that Harding's felony conviction alone does not necessarily guarantee that her amateur career has ended.

"Our rules are not as specific as that," Pensinger said.

Harding was scheduled to leave for the Japan competition today, which may only partly explain the abrupt conclusion to the legal case. The grand jury deciding whether to indict Harding for her role in the attack had also met in Portland throughout the day. And Harding's attorneys were in contact with prosecutors.

Harding's plea agreement yesterday mentioned only one occasion — Jan. 10 — in which she hindered the investigation. She was interviewed by Portland authorities for 8 1/2 hours exactly one week later and was told then in mid-interview that they knew she was lying.

The intervening three months have been an almost unrelenting soap opera, with Kerrigan being portrayed as America's sweetheart, Harding a ruthless competitor who just might be capable of anything, and hit men Eckardt, Smith and Stant revealed as bumbling goofs.

Harding successfully fought for, and won, the right to compete at last month's Lillehammer Winter Olympics after filing a $25 million lawsuit against the U.S. Olympic Committee, then dropping it the night of the Feb. 12 start of the Games.

Once at the Games, the saga took another twist when Harding belatedly took the ice for her long program routine complaining she'd snapped a skate lace in warmups. She skated no longer than 30 seconds of her program, aborted her first jump, clopped over to the side of the rink with tears in her eyes and pleaded to Games officials for their forbearance.

Given a re-skate, Harding's marks left her in eighth place. Kerrigan finished second, a hair's breadth behind gold medalist Oksana Baiul of Ukraine.

Harding, who may be able to pay court-ordered fines out of skating earnings she stockpiled and money for selling her story to TV tabloid show "Inside Edition," said in a statement released by her attorneys, "I am committed to seeking professional help and turning my full attention to getting my personal life in order. This objective is more important than my figure skating."

Staff writers Serge F. Kovaleski in Washington and Christine Spolar in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company

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