The attack on figure skater Nancy Kerrigan thrust Detroit into the international spotlight back in 1994. The investigation spanned 4 states, but it all started in Detroit and became one of the biggest controversies in Olympic history.
It became known as the “whack heard ‘round the world” – the vicious assault on figure skater Nancy Kerrigan inside Cobo Arena 24 years ago.
Detroit was hosting the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. At stake: a national title and two spots on the U.S. Olympic Team.
On January 6, 1994, Kerrigan was leaving the ice after practice when a man clubbed her just above the right knee: her landing leg.
The next day, then-Detroit Deputy Police Chief Benny Napoleon got a call from a woman who said at least 4 people were behind the attack. Napoleon alerted the FBI.
“She indicated to me that she had been privy to a conversation regarding a planned assault on Nancy,” said Napoleon at a press conference back in 1994.
With Kerrigan unable to compete, her main rival Tonya Harding took first at Nationals in Detroit.
And suspicion quickly grew that the Portland-based skater was involved in the crime.
“Agents immediately went out and coordinated with Detroit Police,” said retired FBI Special Agent Andy Bartnowak. He returned to the scene of the crime at Cobo with the 7 Investigators to talk about his days working on the Kerrigan attack.
“It was a tremendous effort by law enforcement, who were really under the scrutiny of the constant media frenzy covering this case at the time, both here and in Portland, as well as nationally,” said Bartnowak.
When Harding and her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly returned home to Portland, they could not escape the cameras or law enforcement.
Within days, Gillooly, Harding’s body guard Shawn Eckardt, hitman Shane Stant, and getaway driver Derrick Smith were all arrested – accused in the plot to injure Kerrigan. Police said their goal was to guarantee Harding a spot on the Olympic team.
Harding later pleaded guilty to hindering the prosecution of the case, but she always maintained she knew nothing of the attack before it happened – until now.
“It was a common belief amongst everyone who worked the case, and everyone who was involved that Tonya Harding absolutely had knowledge. And despite her claims for almost 20 years that she didn’t know beforehand – nobody in law enforcement believed that version,” said Bartnowak.
“I always thought she well knew anyways, myself,” said Douglas Baker. Baker was the Deputy Chief Wayne County Prosecutor at the time. Now he’s the Chief of Criminal Enforcement and Quality of Life with the Detroit Law Department.
Cameras followed Baker’s every move back in 1994 as reporters from around the world waited for charges to come.
“It’s hard to imagine - because it was international!! I mean this was the Olympics, so you had just a real intense interest,” Baker told 7 Investigator Heather Catallo.
Baker is the one who reviewed the reports from DPD detectives. He even flew with them and with Prosecutor John O’Hair to Portland to decide which jurisdiction would prosecute the case.
“I know one of the sentiments expressed… was that it would be difficult to prosecute Tonya Harding in her home county, because she had a lot of people that liked her,” said Baker.
O’Hair, Baker, and Detroit-based FBI officials all agreed to let authorities in Portland handle the case. They turned over everything they’d uncovered.
“Because of the evidence they were gathering-- all of the witnesses were there, and it made all the sense to keep the case there,” said Baker.
Ultimately, all four men went to prison. In a plea deal, Harding avoided time behind bars – but was stripped of her National Championship title and her reputation.
“It seemed such an incongruity, that in the world of ice skating – this kind of world – that you had these players and this kind of crime being committed,” said Baker.
Both Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding were given spots on the Olympic team in 1994. Kerrigan won a silver medal, losing gold by a tenth of a point. Harding ended up in 8th place.
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