Trial begins in Pitino extortion case
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- A Kentucky woman lied repeatedly in an attempt to extort millions from the University of Louisville's basketball coach, then traded sexual favors and lied again to cover up her crime, federal prosecutors said at the start of her trial Monday.
Assistant U.S. Attorney John Kuhn told jurors that Karen Cunagin Sypher threatened to ruin Rick Pitino's reputation with false allegations of rape and forced abortion.
"I submit to you that you will not believe a word she has to say about anything," Kuhn said.
Sypher, 50, has pleaded not guilty to extortion, retaliating against a witness and lying to the FBI. She is accused of demanding college tuition for her children, her house to be paid off and $10 million.
A jury of eight men and eight women were selected to hear the case. Four jurors will be excused as alternates before deliberations begin.
Sypher's attorney, James Earhart, told jurors Pitino pulled strings and used his influence to cover up his sexual assault of Sypher and others had their own motives for manipulating his client.
"What this case is about is power, money and influence," Earhart said. "It's about what happens when you are raped by a person with power, influence and money and you have to be destroyed."
The prosecutor walked jurors through the relationship between Sypher and Pitino, which began with a sexual encounter at an Italian restaurant in Louisville in 2003. Sypher later told Pitino she was pregnant, planned to have an abortion but did not have medical insurance. He told police he gave her $3,000, which his attorney said was for insurance, not an abortion.
Six years later, Kuhn said, Sypher approached a longtime friend, Lester Goetzinger, and traded sexual favors for his making phone calls in February 2009 to Pitino threatening to tell the public that the coach raped Sypher in 2003. Kuhn played part of one call for jurors.
"You need to do the right thing, that's all," Goetzinger is heard saying on the tape.
A month later, Sypher traded sexual favors with attorney Dana Kolter, who then signed a joint letter with his client demanding money and threatening to file suit over the 2003 sexual encounter, Kuhn said.
Earhart said Kolter suggested suing Pitino, not Sypher. And Earhart described Goetzinger as being obsessed with Sypher, comparing him to Glenn Close's character in the movie "Fatal Attraction," in which she became obsessed with a man, eventually trying to take over his life and later kill him.
"He's infatuated with her," Earhart said. "I'm not going to use the word stalker, but in some ways he is."
Kolter, who hasn't been charged, and Goetzinger, who reached a deal with prosecutors, will testify later at trial.
Pitino reported the extortion attempts to the FBI, which interviewed Sypher several times. Kuhn said Sypher lied repeatedly to investigators about who made the calls, her relationship with Kolter and what happened at the restaurant, Porcini.
"If you boil all that down, what this case ultimately leaves you with is lies," Kuhn said.
Sypher filed a report with the Louisville police department in June 2009 accusing Pitino of rape in 2003. Federal prosecutors say the police report was in retaliation for Pitino reporting the alleged extortion attempt to the FBI.
State prosecutors have said Sypher's claim is without merit. Kuhn said the report is the basis for the charge of retaliating against a witness.
Earhart said Sypher didn't call the police after leaving Porcini because she didn't think anyone would believe her. After telling Pitino she was pregnant, the coach made a veiled death threat, Earhart said.
"He makes a suggestion of something having to do with concrete shoes and a river if this matter can't be resolved," Earhart said.
FBI special agent Steven Wight told jurors about three meetings in February 2009 between Pitino and Sypher in which the coach asked about the threatening phone calls. Wight said Sypher denied knowing who made the calls.
The agent said Pitino also asked Sypher what would "make her life easier." Wight didn't give context for comment.
At the third meeting, all of which took place at the University of Louisville basketball practice center, Sypher asked Pitino for a house, cars, and money. Wight said Sypher had picked out a pearl white Lexus LX470, which sold at the time for $60,000-70,000.
"She said she would remain silent, be quiet, in exchange," Wight said. "That implied that if she did not get them, she would not keep silent."
Pitino has coached at Louisville since 2001, a job he took after leaving the NBA's Boston Celtics, where Sypher's estranged husband, Tim Sypher, served as special assistant to Pitino. Tim and Karen Sypher are in the midst of a divorce. They have a young daughter together.
Pitino has coached three different schools to the Final Four -- Louisville, Providence and Kentucky, where he won a national title. Along with the Celtics, Pitino also coached professionally with the New York Knicks.
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press
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