Trial to begin in Pitino extortion case

LOUISVILLE — Former model Karen Cunagin Sypher heads to trial 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 began between the married coach and Sypher at an Italian restaurant after closing time.

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 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, who is 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.

A longtime friend of Sypher's, Lester Goetzinger of Louisville, has admitted making the calls in exchange for sexual favors from Sypher and agreed to testify against her. If Goetzinger testifies truthfully, he'll avoid jail time and the charges will be dismissed after a year.

Prosecutors say Sypher used a Louisville attorney, Dana Kolter, and her son, Jacob Wise, to deliver other written extortion demands to Pitino. Neither person has been charged in the case, but both may be called by prosecutors to testify.

"If all is accepted, I will protect Rick Pitino's name for life," prosecutors quote Sypher as saying.

The FBI charged Sypher in April, not long after Pitino released a public statement about the report to the FBI.

After being indicted, Sypher went to the Louisville police department and filed a complaint saying Pitino raped her twice — once at Porcini and a second time a few weeks later.

Abbott, the police investigator, asked Sypher why she came forward only after she was indicted to report the rape allegations.

"Because ... where we are, it seems like retaliation," Abbott said.

"I know it does," Sypher responded.

Louisville police interviewed Pitino, who denied raping Sypher, and declined to pursue charges based on Sypher's allegation. The Jefferson County Commonwealth's Attorney declined to prosecute.

The charges against Sypher — and her accusations against Pitino — have garnered so much media attention that jury selection was a challenge. After three days, a panel of eight men and eight women were chosen from about 100 prospective panelists to hear the case.

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