Pitino tells jury he didn’t report alleged extortion to keep sexual tryst secret from family

By Dylan Lovan, AP
Thursday, July 29, 2010

Pitino tells jury he hoped to keep tryst secret

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Rick Pitino, worried that his wife and kids would find out he had a one-night stand with a woman he met in a bar, acknowledged Thursday that he didn’t immediately tell police about demands for cars, cash and housing in order to keep the tryst secret.

The Louisville basketball coach told jurors he kept quiet for nearly two months, hoping he could “contain” the damaging information.

Intimate details emerged over the past two days as Pitino, 57, testified against the woman, Karen Cunagin Sypher, at her federal extortion trial. He recounted the sex, the threatening calls he said left him “sick to my stomach” and strongly denied allegations he raped Sypher.

Pitino had to pause, look down and gather himself Thursday as he told jurors the hardest part of the case: telling his family about the 2003 affair after he reported the alleged extortion demands to the FBI in April 2009.

Pitino, who coached in the NBA before taking over at Louisville in 2001, said his best two years came when his son Richard served as an assistant. But as the secrets came out, the partnership had to end. Richard Pitino wound up taking a job at the University of Florida.

“When I had to suggest to him to move on, it was very difficult,” Pitino said.

Pitino and defense attorney James Earhart frequently cut each other off during Thursday’s questioning, and the tension escalated as Earhart pushed Pitino to address the rape allegations.

The coach interrupted, saying he was “here to give the truth.” Earhart retorted, “I bet you are.”

“I don’t fear the truth,” Pitino said.

“Neither do we,” Earhart shot back.

Sypher, 50, has pleaded not guilty. She filed a rape report with police after she was indicted last year, about six years after she and Pitino had sex in an empty restaurant a few hours after they met. Authorities have said her rape claim lacked merit, and no charges were filed.

Pitino told jurors Wednesday and again Thursday that Sypher initiated the sex by whispering to him and unzipping his pants when he got up to leave. He said they had sex “very briefly” and called the liaison “unfortunate.”

Sypher watched Pitino’s testimony closely but showed no reaction. Some jurors began fidgeting as Earhart questioned Pitino about that night and whether Sypher was raped.

Pitino cut off one question by saying Sypher didn’t protest as they had sex.

Earhart asked why Pitino didn’t address the rape allegations during several meetings with Sypher.

“The truth is, you never at one time challenged the fact that you raped her,” Earhart said.

“I didn’t have to challenge it because it wasn’t true,” Pitino said.

They sparred again when Earhart asked Pitino why he told Sypher the phone calls would stop if she denied they had sex.

“You’re probably not proud of the fact that you asked someone to lie,” Earhart said.

“I never asked someone to lie,” Pitino said.

The coach’s testimony was the first time he’s talked publicly in detail about the relationship. Pitino portrayed Sypher as the aggressor, and several witnesses said she was flirty and persistent when she approached Pitino at the restaurant.

Sypher’s ex-husband and longtime Pitino aide, Tim Sypher, told jurors Thursday afternoon that Pitino called him in August 2003 with a request to help Karen Sypher, then known as Karen Wise, find counseling and medical treatment after she said she was pregnant.

Karen Sypher ultimately had an abortion in August 2003 at a clinic in Cincinnati. Pitino gave her $3,000 for medical insurance, about $430 of which was used to pay for the abortion, Tim Sypher said.

Tim and Karen Sypher started dating shortly after and were married less than a year later. Tim Sypher said his ex-wife was fine around Pitino until 2007, when she started making claims of rape and talking about wanting a car and a house.

“It just came out of the blue,” said Tim Sypher, who speaks with a heavy accent from his native Massachusetts.

He confirmed on the stand that he and Karen Sypher are officially divorced but some issues such as division of assets are still pending.

Jurors also heard Sypher’s version of events when prosecutors played a never-broadcast TV interview of her rape claim.

No one else has testified to witnessing the sexual liaison after hours at an upscale Italian restaurant. The owner said he left for the night after showing Pitino and Sypher how to get out through a self-locking door. Pitino’s driver said he didn’t see or hear anything because he had stepped behind a partial wall to leave the couple some privacy.

Prosecutors showed the jury a handwritten note from Sypher that asked for cars, housing and money, which Tim Sypher said he delivered to Pitino.

“I really didn’t know what was in there. I don’t know,” Tim Sypher said. “She’s nuts.”

When Pitino’s testimony ended, he had spent about six hours on the witness stand. His attorney, Steve Pence, said Pitino would return to recruiting later in the day.

“This matter, certainly his portion, is behind him now,” Pence said. “I’m very proud of coach Pitino in how he handled this.”

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