JOURNAL - FAIR PLAY

The Futility of Sabotage


2019/07/10 - Monocle Journal

It was the evening before the US Figure Skating Championships in January 1994 and defending national champion Nancy Kerrigan had just finished her last practice session at the Detroit Cobo Arena. As she walked down the corridor leading out of the arena, she heard hurried footsteps as a man ran up behind her, holding a 53cm long collapsible baton. He struck out at her right knee with enough force to make it terrifyingly clear that he intended to injure her severely. By sheer luck, she escaped with bad bruising, but no broken bones.

Even before a formal investigation into the attack was launched, Kerrigan’s biggest rival, Tonya Harding, was immediately suspected of having been involved. The attack had simply been too deliberate to be dismissed as a random act of violence; there was clearly a weightier motive. After all, had the attacker succeeded in breaking Kerrigan’s leg, she would have been unable to compete, not only the next day but for the rest of the year, effectively eliminating her from both the National Championships and the Winter Olympics that year.

Right from the outset, Harding had been a misfit in the somewhat prissy world of sequined leotards, taut expressions and graceful moves. Her family had struggled financially and she wore hand-me-down costumes that her mother sewed for her. She liked to skate to rock songs; her build was muscular and her hair wild; her skating style powerful and athletic rather than swift and elegant. She learned about motor mechanics from her father and spent weekends drag racing and hunting with him. She dropped out of high school to pursue her skating career, funding it by working as a truck driver and an assistant in a fishing shop, among other jobs. For many people, it didn’t seem too far a stretch of the imagination that the “bad girl” of American figure skating could have planned an assault on the wholesome young Kerrigan in her signature white leotard.

Before 1994, Harding was most famous for being one of only two women in figure skating history to have landed a triple-axel – the most difficult jump in figure skating, named after its creator Norwegian skater Axel Paulsen. The magnificent manoeuvre requires the skater to leap off the ice with enough velocity to propel themselves through three full turns in the air, before landing back on the ice and fluidly turning out of the move on one leg. Not only did Harding achieve a perfect triple-axel at the 1991 US Championships, but later that year at Skate America she went on to repeat the move – executing it twice in the competition. At that competition, she also became the first woman to ever complete a triple-axel in combination with another move, in that case a double toe loop. She won the 1991 US Ladies’ Singles title, achieving a 6.0 technical merit score, and went on to compete at the 1991 World Championships, where she showed off her triple-axel once again. The US took all three podium places in the competition, with Harding finishing second, behind the national champion Kristi Yamaguchi, and ahead of Kerrigan.

But Harding’s time at the top was short-lived. By 1992 her rankings were falling and in 1993 she failed to even qualify for the World Championship team. By 1994, she was under serious pressure to get her professional skating career back on track. Meanwhile, Kerrigan had taken the bronze medal at the 1992 Winter Olympics and the silver in the 1992 World Championships. With Yamaguchi’s retirement, Kerrigan became the US champion in 1993.

An FBI investigation into the attack would reveal that Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, and one-time bodyguard, Shawn Eckardt, had orchestrated the assault on Kerrigan. When she was questioned immediately following the attack, Harding vehemently maintained her innocence, claiming that she had had absolutely nothing to do with it. Later, however, she admitted that she had found out about Gillooly’s involvement after the attack had occurred and had failed to report it. She denied that she had played any role in planning the assault and maintained that “despite my mistakes and rough edges, I have done nothing to violate the standards of excellence in sportsmanship that are expected in an Olympic athlete.” With little evidence to suggest otherwise at that point, the US Figure Skating Association (USFSA) disciplinary panel allowed her to remain a member of the 1994 US Olympic ice-skating team, alongside Kerrigan, who returned to the rink within a month, determined to show the world that she would not be defeated by the attack.

* * *

Three muscular men with buzzcuts were practically bulging out of a Volkswagen Golf GTI as they drew level with a shiny silver Mercedes Benz S 600 on a deserted road in Johannesburg, at around 9pm. The driver of the fancier car – a plump middle-aged man with greying edges to his dark hair – rolled down his window and seemed to almost purposefully turn to face the other vehicle as one of the muscular men drew out a gun and aimed it straight at his head. The assassin pulled the trigger, but nothing happened. The victim and the shooter looked at each other in a moment of astonishment, before the killer shouted to his driver, “Kappie, go!” The driver of the Mercedes remained where he was, apparently waiting whilst the Golf circled around the block before drawing level with him once more. Having reloaded his gun, again the assassin tried to shoot. Again, the gun failed to discharge. Again, the driver of the Mercedes waited. On the third attempt, the assassin caught the look of disappointment in the elder man’s eyes before he leaned through the window and finally squeezed out a shot. He continued to shoot, with seven bullets ripping into the other man before the Golf drove way for the fourth, and final time.

This was the account of the murder of South African mining magnate Brett Kebble provided by Mikey Schultz, the former bouncer from Alberton who admitted to pulling the trigger. On the condition that he was granted full and permanent indemnity from prosecution, he told the South Gauteng High Court how he and two other men had been hired by Kebble’s former head of security, Clinton Nassif, who promised them R2 million to carry out the hit. And in another strange twist of events, apparently Nassif had been tasked with arranging the murder by Kebble himself. It was a highly elaborate pseudo-murder suicide – or so the court ruled.

At 32, Kebble was at the helm of JSE-listed Randgold and Exploration, a mining company that grew to incorporate several subsidiaries, including Randgold Resources and Western Areas. At the time, Western Areas controlled South Deep– the richest unexploited gold seam in the world. However, despite the significant resources at his disposal, when the price of gold unexpectedly skyrocketed in 2006, Kebble missed the boat entirely. In need of funding, he had previously agreed to sell gold at a fixed rate of $308 – less than half the going price of gold in 2006. Through a range of complex business deals and machinations, Kebble nonetheless managed to keep the public image of his business intact. And, in fact, to a large extent, he also managed to keep the public image of himself as a wealthy, powerful and ethical businessman intact as well. He led a lavish lifestyle, complete with highly connected political friends, luxury vehicles and a private jet, and he was known to make extravagant donations to the arts. At his funeral he was remembered by South Africa’s business elite and prominent politicians as an intrepid dealmaker, mentor to young entrepreneurs, and philanthropic leader. 

However, as the mystery of his death began to unravel, so did the truth behind his apparent success. To stem the losses his companies were experiencing in the early 2000s, Kebble had engaged in an array of fraudulent activities that reportedly on occasion involved senior members of the ANC. Kebble was a prominent supporter of Jacob Zuma, who was building momentum to take over the presidency from Thabo Mbeki at the time. Far from the noble businessman he had appeared to be, Kebble was in fact the kingpin at the intersection between business, politics and the criminal underworld in South Africa at the time. By 2005, the carefully constructed façade of Kebble’s life was starting to crumble, with an audit about to reveal that he had swindled Randgold’s investors out of R2.5 billion. In addition, his outstanding tax bill was sitting at around R250 million. Kebble was forced to resign from three of his companies. A month later, he was dead.

The state’s prime suspect in Kebble’s murder was Glenn Agliotti, a physically imposing businessman with a greying moustache and a serious expression that give him the look of an archetypal mafia don. A convicted drug-dealer, Agliotti also stood accused of murder or attempted murder in several other cases involving senior mine managers. Cell phone records show that he had called the hitmen on the evening of Kebble’s death, and prosecutors aimed to demonstrate that he had planned the murder with John Stratton, a former business associate of Kebble’s. Stratton was believed to have been involved in the shady business dealings that had begun to destroy Kebble’s empire and was known to have links to both Agliotti and Nassif. However, Stratton had relocated to Australia, and managed to avoid extradition and investigation.

Perhaps more importantly, however, Agliotti was also a close friend of then national police commissioner Jackie Selebi. A former judge named Willem Heath was hired by the Kebble family to review the evidence in the trial and he noted that the police had mishandled evidence or otherwise bungled investigations into the murder to such a degree that he suspected that they had deliberately tried to sabotage the investigation. As one example, it was well-documented that the police had released Kebble’s car to Nassif shortly after the murder, enabling Nassif to have the car cleaned before it was processed for evidence. The case featured no forensic evidence, making it impossible to draw any certain conclusions. Agliotti maintained that Kebble had made a deal with him to acquire his services in an assisted suicide, but that on the evening of his death, Agliotti had tried to contact the hitmen to call off the plan, as Kebble had not paid him. He was not guilty of murder, he claimed, and with Schultz’s testimony and the dearth of physical evidence, all charges against Agliotti were dropped.

However, until his own death in 2015 – also, apparently, suicide by shooting – Kebble’s father, Roger, vehemently maintained that his son would never have killed himself. And indeed, the court ruling that Kebble’s death had been self-inflicted seems strangely over simplistic, given the plethora of ulterior motives that existed in the case. The Kebble case prompted an investigation into Selebi, who in 2010, was convicted for corruption, with evidence emerging that he had accepted over R1.2 million in bribes from Agliotti for confidential information about police investigations since 2000. Selebi received a 15-year jail sentence. Agliotti provided the key testimony required to secure the conviction.

* * *

After returning from the 1994 Winter Olympics, Harding pled guilty to the charge of conspiracy to hinder the prosecution for failing to report Gillooly’s involvement once she learned about it, and further admitted that she had colluded with Gillooly and Eckardt to create a cover story immediately after the attack occurred. She received three years of probation, a $100 000 fine and 500 hours of community service and agreed to undergo psychiatric examination. However, to this day, Harding maintains that she had no prior knowledge of the assault on Kerrigan. There has been much speculation about the truth of her claims, given her close connection to Gillooly and the fact that, had the assault succeeded in eliminating Kerrigan, she was the only one who stood to benefit directly from the incident. Gillooly – who served prison time for the attack – has also claimed that although he devised the plan to attack Kerrigan, it was Harding who ultimately gave him the instruction to go through with it. She allegedly also provided the hitman with information about where Kerrigan would be training on the day of the attack.

Nancy Kerrigan

At the 1994 Winter Olympics, Kerrigan competed in the same costume she had been wearing when she was attacked and took the silver medal. Meanwhile, as the announcer repeatedly called out Harding’s name over the loudspeaker, Harding struggled frantically in the changing rooms with a broken lace on her ice skates. She entered the Olympic ice rink late and flustered and broke down in tears a few minutes into her routine. Although the referees allowed her a second chance – a highly unusual move that many considered an unfair allowance – Harding finished eighth overall. With the ongoing conjecture at the time about her involvement in Kerrigan’s attack, the USFSA disciplinary panel agreed that Harding had shown “a clear disregard for fairness, good sportsmanship, and ethical behaviour”. She was subsequently stripped of her 1994 US Championship title and banned from competing in USFSA events for life, as either a skater or a coach.



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