Sypher, mother vow not to back down
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Judy Cunigan sits in the darkened living room of her modest house in Louisville's South End. The blinds are drawn on this spring afternoon. The doors are dead-bolted.
She is fearful. And she is furious.
"I want to kill him," she says, "for what he's done to my family."
The object of her rage is arguably the most popular and powerful man in town: Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino.
What Cunigan alleges Pitino has done to her family dates back more than five years, when her daughter, then Karen Cunigan and now Karen Sypher, first met the coach. The family has never filed any criminal complaints or civil claims against Pitino, and to date, their allegations remain so unsubstantiated that they cannot even be reported responsibly. As one source close to the situation put it, "There are severe credibility problems here."
Karen Sypher -- now the estranged wife of Louisville basketball equipment manager Tim Sypher -- spent the week under federal investigation for allegedly extorting Pitino. Friday, she was formally charged with extortion and lying to the FBI.
Since the story broke Saturday evening with a University of Louisville news release that Pitino had gone to the FBI to report an attempted extortion, this basketball-mad city has been in an uproar. And since Karen Sypher was identified by a Louisville TV station that night as the primary individual under investigation, it has thrown a previously anonymous mother of five into the middle of a media maelstrom.
Message boards are melting down. Talk-show hosts are dancing their way around delicate (and potentially defamatory) topics. Few people have first-hand information, but many have vicious opinions about a celebrity coach and a woman they'd never heard of before Saturday.
"It's like an out-of-body experience," Karen Sypher said in a phone conversation Tuesday afternoon. "It's like I'm not here. It's a terrible, terrible nightmare. I feel like I'm being stoned to death because I talked."
On Saturday, April 18, University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino released a statement saying he had reported an extortion attempt to the FBI. A day later, the attorney for Karen Sypher, the wife of longtime University of Louisville equipment manager Tim Sypher, said his client had been contacted by the FBI regarding the case.
That night, WDRB-TV in Louisville said it conducted an interview with Karen Sypher. WDRB news anchor Candyce Clifft, who conducted the interview, said the station chose not to air it because "we couldn't substantiate the claims she was making."
Clifft said the claims against Pitino were "of a personal nature, not related to his recruiting or coaching. That's all I'm at liberty to say."
On Sunday, a University of Louisville source told ESPN.com that Pitino began receiving threatening phone calls in late February from Sypher and possible accomplices of hers, and that the calls continued throughout the Big East and NCAA tournaments. In late March, Pitino called the FBI and apprised the bureau of the attempt to extort him.
On Tuesday, Karen Sypher's attorney, Thomas Clay, told ESPN.com the FBI's probe was nearing its completion. The FBI has yet to act publicly on the matter.
• Extortion probe nearly done
• FBI investigating extortion claim
But instead of shrinking away from the spotlight's glare and the backlash of infamy, Karen Sypher and others in her family are defiantly digging in.
Since Pitino refuted any potential claims by Sypher in the school's released statement, he has declined comment (as has his lawyer). Louisville athletic department spokesman Kenny Klein reiterated that stance Tuesday night.
With the exception of Tim Sypher, who issued a statement Sunday siding with Pitino and calling his wife's unspecified allegations "bizarre," everyone at the university has kept quiet since Saturday. The same cannot be said of the Karen Sypher camp.
In the school's statement, Pitino said he went public with the extortion allegation because he knew "the individual behind this extortion attempt has already gone to the media with false, defamatory and outrageous allegations in an attempt to pressure me to cave in to this scheme." Sypher had done a lengthy interview with the local Fox affiliate, WDRB-41, but the station didn't air it because it "has decided not to relate details of her claims at this time."
Karen Sypher said tearfully Tuesday afternoon that her name has been dragged through the mud, and wondered how she would ever get another job. Yet she agreed to meet with an ESPN.com reporter despite the urging of her attorney, Thomas Clay, to keep quiet.
In fact, Karen Sypher told ESPN.com that Clay quit as her attorney Tuesday because his client would not stop publicly airing her grievances against Pitino, and, to a lesser extent, grievances against her own husband. Clay said Wednesday that he does still represent Karen Sypher, at least as of the time of the phone call.
"[Clay] has not helped me," Karen Sypher said earlier in the day by phone. "He tells me to keep my mouth shut and he'll keep me out of prison. This is ridiculous. What have I got to lose here?
"I feel like I'm in this web here, and I didn't start it. I am the victim here, not Rick Pitino, and I'm sick of it."
The FBI could decide otherwise, and soon. But as they investigate, the rumor mill spins at a hysterical rate.
One recent night this month, Karen Sypher and her attorney say, she was interviewed at length by the FBI. Her son was interviewed as well.
She and her mother claim that Sypher's ex-husband was also interviewed, but sources dispute that.
The FBI gave Karen Sypher a polygraph test. Multiple sources say she didn't pass the test. She also took a polygraph test at WDRB after the unaired TV interview, and the results of that fell in the inconclusive range, according to the station.
Karen Sypher said she was under significant duress during the FBI polygraph test and challenged anyone else to pass the test under those circumstances.
She said the FBI asked her about harassing phone calls made to the millionaire coach of the Cardinals. The calls started in February, according to a University of Louisville source, and continued through the team's run to Big East regular-season and tournament titles and into the NCAA tournament, in which Louisville was the No. 1 overall seed.
Multiple people were said to be calling the coach on behalf of Karen Sypher, sources said. She denies having encouraged anyone to harass Pitino, and denies having any knowledge of those calls before being asked about them by the authorities.
Judy Cunigan said she called and talked to Pitino once herself about three weeks ago, "to ask him what has happened to my daughter." Cunigan said she got Pitino's number from her daughter. Judy Cunigan said Tim Sypher came by her house the night she placed that call, pounded on the door and, after being let in, told her not to do it again.
"Now they've got it going around that I asked for millions of dollars," Cunigan said. "We haven't asked for anything but the truth."
Judy Cunigan said other calls were made by a family friend she only identified as "Lester." She said that to her knowledge, Lester never threatened Pitino but only encouraged him to do right by Karen.
Karen Sypher said that if Lester called Pitino, she didn't know how he got the coach's unlisted number. She said the only way she suspected that he had placed any phone calls to Pitino was when the FBI played an audio recording of a call over and over, and she believed the voice to be Lester's.
Karen Sypher said she told Lester and others of her complaints about Pitino -- hundreds of others.
"I told 200 people in the last year and a half," she said. "I don't care."
Karen Sypher suggests meeting at a Starbucks, hardly a discreet locale for a woman under siege. She walks into the coffee shop with a sheaf of documents hugged to her chest and a notebook from the 2005 Final Four, which is the last time Louisville made it that far. After ordering a low-fat vanilla latte with shots of espresso, she excuses herself to the bathroom.
Even from a nearby table, she can be heard talking on the phone. Another woman walks up and waits to use the bathroom. After several minutes, she gives up and slips into and then out of the men's room. In the women's room, Karen Sypher keeps talking.
"The only thing she can't do is keep her mouth shut," Judy Cunigan had said earlier in the day. "She talks too much. She come out of the womb talking."
For more than two hours after emerging from the bathroom, Karen Sypher talks. That is after a 30-minute phone conversation earlier in the day with ESPN.com. Most of this second conversation is off the record.
She has documents with her that she wants to make public, but not yet; not if doing so will heighten the risk of being imprisoned. She says her recent divorce filing in Jefferson Circuit Court Family Division is especially revealing, but the documents have been sealed by court order.
She talks, and she cries, more than once. She says she hasn't slept well, doesn't eat well and has relied on counseling to get her through recent weeks. She is terrified of what will happen to her children if she is sent to jail.
"My life's over," she says at one point.
Several miles away, her mother stays behind locked doors and shuttered blinds -- fearing, she says, for herself and for her daughter.
"Rick is a powerful man," Judy Cunigan said. "And I don't think you can beat a powerful man."
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is also the co-author of a book, "The Rebound Rules," with Pitino. The book was published in 2008.