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Harding Knew Details of Attack Later, Kept Silent

January 28, 1994|JOHN BALZAR and RANDY HARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

PORTLAND, Ore. — Tears welling in her eyes and her lips quivering, Tonya Harding confessed Thursday that she knew about the plot to attack rival Nancy Kerrigan after the fact and did not report it to police. But Harding steadfastly said she was not involved and knew nothing of the assault beforehand.

She pleaded, all but begged to remain on the U.S. Olympic team.

"I have devoted my entire life to one objective: winning an Olympic gold medal for my country. This is my last chance. I ask only for your understanding."

However, the U.S. Olympic Committee issued a statement later saying it was "deeply concerned" about Harding's admission, and the U.S. Figure Skating Assn. said it formed a five-member committee to investigate.

The 23-year-old Harding, the U.S. national women's figure skating champion, ended her long, self-imposed silence about the strange case, reading a prepared statement slowly and emotionally to reporters at the Multnomah Athletic Club in downtown Portland. It ran counter to her previous denials in which she said she was completely innocent.

"I had no prior knowledge of the planned assault on Nancy Kerrigan. I am responsible, however, for failing to report things I learned about the assault when I returned home" on Jan. 10 from the U.S. figure skating championships in Detroit. Kerrigan was attacked Jan. 6.

"Within the next few days, I learned that some persons that were close to me may have been involved in the assault. . . . I have since reported this information to the authorities. Although my lawyers tell me that my failure to immediately report this information is not a crime, I know I have let you down, but I have also let myself down."

Harding expressed sorrow for what happened to Kerrigan and described herself as "embarrassed and ashamed that anyone close to me could be involved."

"Many of you will be unable to forgive me for that," she said. "It will be difficult to forgive myself."

Harding gave no accounting of exactly what information she kept secret about the attack and neither did she identify those close to her who allegedly were involved.

*

As Harding made her statement, her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, was across town at the office of the FBI, undergoing his second day of questioning by investigators.

The two have had a stormy, seven-year relationship, including a divorce last August and a reconciliation that was broken off last week hours before Gillooly, 26, became the fourth man arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit second-degree assault in the case. The crime is a felony that carries a sentence of up to three years in prison.

Reports have been intensifying in the last two days that Harding herself would be charged in the case. The (Portland) Oregonian newspaper said a criminal complaint was "virtually certain."

The newspaper said in its early editions today that Harding initially lied to FBI investigators for several hours when questioned last week, saying she knew nothing of the plot. But she reportedly changed her story when challenged, amended her statements and implicated Gillooly, who was arrested the next day, sources told the newspaper.

Giving false information to the FBI is a crime. An FBI spokesman said he could not comment on the Oregonian report.

Legal experts said it was not a crime in Oregon, as in most states, to know of a crime and not report it. But it is unlawful to assist in trying to cover up a criminal act.

The U.S. Figure Skating Assn. said Thursday that it will submit Harding's name to the U.S. Olympic Committee as a member of the team that will compete in the Feb. 12-27 Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway. But, at the same time, the USFSA revealed that it has begun the process that could result in her removal from the team.

The first step in learning Harding's Olympic fate will be next Tuesday when the USFSA hearing panel meets in Colorado Springs, Colo. Association rules allow Harding 30 days before she must appear at a hearing to respond to the panel's recommendations. Because that process might not be completed before the end of the Winter Olympics, the USOC could be required to rule on Harding's status.

USOC officials said that Harding's name will be forwarded to the Lillehammer Olympic Organizing Committee as a member of the U.S. team before Monday's deadline, but the list of entries for the women's figure skating competition also will include alternates.

The USOC has until Feb. 21, two days before the women's competition begins, to name the two skaters who will participate. The first alternate, because of her second-place finish behind Harding in the recent national championships, is 13-year-old Michelle Kwan of Torrance, Calif.

Harvey Schiller, executive director of the USOC, said the organization is "deeply concerned with statements made . . . by Tonya Harding relative to her stated knowledge of the attack on Nancy Kerrigan at the national championships."

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