It began with a fourth-place finish in China, Japan, a result that, except in the mind of Tonya Harding, could not have been less extraordinary. Competing for something called the NHK Trophy, Harding fell on her combination jump in the technical program, a disastrous error, which eventuated in her being beaten by three of the best skaters in the world, Surya Bonaly of France, Yuka Sato of Japan and Lu Chen of China.
Harding thought she had skated well, certainly well enough to finish higher than fourth. When Harding returned home to Portland, in mid-December, her live-in ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, lent a sympathetic ear. Because Tonya wasn't the darling and cover girl of the U.S. Figure Skating Association, because she wasn't Nancy Kerrigan, she would never be given a fair shake by the judges and the press. He knew it, and she knew it. And fourth-place finishes by the hardscrabble Harding were not going to provide them the ticket to fame and fortune they both so desperately sought.
Gillooly explained all this to his lifelong friend Shawn Eckardt around the 16th of December. Gillooly doesn't remember where they were at the time, but they certainly made quite a pair. Gillooly, trim, well-groomed, tight-lipped, weighed in at 143. Eckardt, rotund, unkempt, bigmouthed, weighed 311. They had been in the same first-, seventh- and eighth-grade classes and in the same freshman class at David Douglas High. Both were now 26 and, essentially, unemployed. Eckardt had dropped out of high school and was currently enrolled in a paralegal course at Pioneer Pacific College—that is, when he wasn't running the grandly titled World Bodyguard Services from the second floor of his parents' Portland home. Eckardt had no clients and few prospects, but his imagination was world class. His résumé would have put James Bond's to shame. Never mind that little of it appears to have been true.
Gillooly? He'd been out of work since quitting his warehouse job at the Oregon Liquor Control Commission in March 1992. Harding was his meal ticket, and he passed his time by being her money manager and sometime gofer. He reportedly was an abusive husband, but there is little hard evidence of this—no broken bones or black eyes—and Harding herself has been inconsistent on the subject. Though in the past she had been granted restraining orders against him, in her most recent interviews with the FBI, she says she was not abused by Gillooly. They were married in 1990, divorced last August, but had been back living together in a rented house in Beavercreek since October. "I thought I was renting to a couple of love-struck kids," their landlord, Melvin Babb, recently said. "One who might skate in the Olympics."
In Gillooly's account to the FBI—a version of events that largely squares with the statements to authorities made by Eckardt and two other confessed conspirators in the case, Derrick Smith and Shane Stant, but which is disputed by Harding (box, previous page)—he said the original idea to disable Kerrigan was Eckardt's. Eckardt told investigators it was Gillooly who first floated the notion. Whichever is the case, Eckardt was immediately intrigued. Such an attack, he figured, would cause a panic in the figure skating world. Hordes of rich skaters, he fantasized, egged on by his old pal Gillooly, would flock to his World Bodyguard Service for protection. "How's it gonna feel driving that brand-new ZR1 Corvette?" Eckardt says Gillooly asked him.
According to Gillooly's FBI statement, when he told Harding about his conversation with Eckardt, she liked the idea of injuring Kerrigan. But she was skeptical about whether Eckardt, a notorious blowhard, was the right man to arrange it. How could he know anyone who would do something like that? Gillooly says he told her that it was Eckardt's business to know such people and that Eckardt would get back to him. If they didn't like what Eckardt came up with, they could pull the plug on the project then.
Around Dec. 22 Smith called Eckardt from Phoenix. Smith was 29, 6'1", 258 pounds and recently unemployed. He and his wife, Suzanne, had moved from Portland to Arizona in October with two other couples. One of those couples was Stant and his girlfriend, Leslie Thomas.
Smith had hated the weather in Oregon. He nurtured a dream of quitting his Portland job with Developmental Systems, Inc., where he supervised the work of mentally retarded adults, and starting a paramilitary survival school in the Arizona desert. Smith had met Eckardt about 10 years ago when both were taking a course at Mount Hood Community College; he was calling now because he thought Eckardt might be interested in moving down to help get the school off the ground. Then, by way of making conversation, he asked if anything else was going on.
Eckardt says he told Smith he had a client who needed someone "taken down." The act might involve a physical confrontation and, hopefully, some bodyguard work afterward. But it would definitely not involve a killing. Did Smith know anyone? Smith, who had no criminal record, told Eckardt he had a fellow in mind, and he would get back to him soon.
Stant, 22, was a bodybuilder, a muscular 225-pounder. A martial-arts expert and health-food nut, he, too, was interested in helping Smith set up his survival school. Part Hawaiian, part American Indian, Stant was one of those guys who seldom finished what they started. Like Eckardt, he was a high school dropout. He had enlisted in the Oregon National Guard in 1989 but was discharged when he failed three times to show up for a secondary physical. He once worked as a busboy for eight days in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, but was fired for not showing up for work. At another time he was arrested and served 15 days in jail for stealing cars. In 1992 Stant tried out for the Oregon Thunderbolts, a semipro football team, but left without explanation after a month. He had also been involved in his share of bar fights.