Trial begins in extortion of Rick Pitino
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- It started as a fling between a former model and a famous (and married) college basketball coach at the table of an Italian restaurant after closing time.
Now the woman, Karen Cunagin Sypher, heads to trial today on charges that she tried to extort University of Louisville Coach Rick Pitino, allegedly demanding college tuition for her children, having her house paid off and $10 million for her silence.
The trial could sort out who's telling the truth in the sordid affair that dragged down the reputation of the coach, who leads one of the two biggest teams in basketball-mad Kentucky.
Prosecutors say they plan to use multiple witnesses, secretly recorded conversations and testimony from Pitino to prove that Sypher is guilty of multiple charges, including threatening communications with the intent to extort, lying to the FBI and retaliation against a witness.
Sypher has pleaded not guilty and said publicly: "I'm standing up for my rights and feeling like I don't have a lot of them at this moment. I'm just waiting for the truth to come out.''
Whether she will take the stand to tell her side of the story remains unknown. Her attorney, James Earhart, has filed a document with the court intended to explain to the jury what it means when a defendant doesn't testify in their defense.
Prosecutors also want to present details of a 2001 civil suit filed by Sypher, in which she claims she suffered sexual harassment in being laid off from her job. Her former employer, now deceased, said he had consensual sex with Sypher. Prosecutors say the suit shows a pattern of behavior that undercuts her credibility.
The testimony will track a relationship that started in August 2003, when Pitino and Sypher first met at Porcini, an Italian restaurant in Louisville's Crescent Hill neighborhood.
Pitino told police he had been drinking when Sypher approached him and asked the coach to call her sons with words of encouragement. The coach obliged, he said.
Later that night, after the restaurant cleared out, the owner gave Pitino his building keys and left the pair alone. They had sex at a table near the bar, according to statements to Louisville police by both Pitino and Sypher.
About two weeks later, Pitino told police that she called, told him she was pregnant and that he had to be the father. Pitino told her when they met again that he had five children and she had four, and that he didn't know what he wanted to do, according to the report by Sgt. Andy Abbott, commander of the sex-offense unit.
Pitino said Sypher told him she was going to have an abortion but didn't have health insurance, so he gave her $3,000 to have the procedure done in Cincinnati, according to the report.
Pitino, a prominent Roman Catholic, contended when the case came to light last year that he wanted Sypher to use the money for insurance, not an abortion.
Over the next six years, she married Pitino's longtime assistant, Tim Sypher, and the two have a daughter. The Syphers separated after the Pitino affair came to light and divorce proceedings are pending.
According to the criminal complaint written by FBI Special Agent Steven Wight, Pitino received two voicemails from an unidentified man on Feb. 26, 2009 and a third call on Feb. 28, 2009.