Tangled relationship among Pitino, assistant, assistant’s ex-wife at center of extortion case

By Brett Barrouquere, AP
Sunday, August 1, 2010

Tangled relationship at center of Pitino case

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The tangled relationship among Rick Pitino, his personal assistant and the assistant’s wife was thrown back into public view during the woman’s extortion trial this week.

Testimony from the Louisville coach and the assistant, Tim Sypher, marked the first time either had spoken at length about the tryst that tarnished Pitino’s reputation. Their testimony revealed the sordid details of the bizarre relationship and what happened between the one-night stand in a restaurant booth in 2003 and last year. That’s when Karen Cunagin Sypher was accused of demanding cash, cars and housing from Pitino in exchange for keeping quiet about the encounter.

Although Pitino is finished testifying, the trial continues Monday. Karen Sypher has pleaded not guilty.

Jurors were told that Pitino, a married father of five, and Karen Sypher had sex on July 31, 2003, after all other patrons and even the owner had left Porcini, one of the coach’s favorite places to eat. The two had met only a few hours earlier. Pitino said the encounter was consensual and lasted about “15 seconds.”

Karen Sypher would claim she was raped — but not until years after that night. Police said the claims were meritless.

Pitino has denied the rape allegations and said they made him “sick to my stomach.” He testified that the whole ordeal left him physically and mentally worn out, unable to sleep as his team made what would be a successful push for the Big East conference championship. The coach feared his wife and children would find out and waited two months to tell the police about the threatening phone calls and letters he received to try and “contain” the information.

Ultimately, he would tell his family about the affair — which he said was the most painful thing of all. He knew what a media storm it would cause and ultimately advised his son, Richard Pitino, who had been working for him, to take a job elsewhere.

Pitino had known Tim Sypher since his days coaching the NBA’s Boston Celtics, and Sypher followed Pitino when he signed on with the Cardinals in 2001.

After the 2003 tryst with the woman then known as Karen Wise, Pitino called his former driver and then-equipment manager.

“He told me he had a little problem with this woman,” Tim Sypher testified. “That he supposedly got someone pregnant.”

Tim Sypher said Pitino advised him to take Karen Sypher out of town. He called clinics in Indiana and Ohio before taking the woman to Cincinnati, where she had an abortion on Aug. 29, 2003. Tim Sypher said he paid for the procedure with $3,000 Pitino provided for medical care, then gave her the rest of the money.

“I just figured it was a good thing to do, go out of town,” Tim Sypher said. “Yeah, he (Pitino) said go out of town.”

As Karen Sypher came out of the abortion clinic, Tim Sypher said he extended his hand, prompting “a look I’ll never forget.” On the 75-minute ride back from Cincinnati, a romance started.

The two started dating, sometimes attending university functions where Pitino was present, including a 2004 holiday party at Porcini.

“We clicked,” Tim Sypher said. “I loved her. I would have done anything for her.”

Because of that trip to Cincinnati for the abortion, they began calling each other “Daisy” and “Hoke” after the characters in the movie “Driving Miss Daisy.”

In April 2004, the two got married in Nantucket, Mass. The wedding came as a surprise to those who knew the couple, particularly Pitino.

“I got a call,” Pitino said. “That came out of the blue.”

But by 2007, the Syphers’ marriage deteriorated as their finances tightened, Tim Sypher said. That’s when Karen Sypher first started claiming Pitino raped her and talking about wanting new things and more money, Tim Sypher said.

Jurors saw a never-broadcast WDRB-TV interview with Karen Sypher in which she claimed her husband had essentially abandoned the family around this time, spending nights out drinking and gambling, while being overworked by Pitino.

Karen Sypher said her husband “brainwashed” her and her family on behalf of Pitino, an allegation Tim Sypher denies.

“You can’t tell me this isn’t some type of conspiracy,” Karen Sypher said of the charges against her.

On Feb. 26 and Feb. 28, 2009, Pitino received three anonymous calls threatening to expose the one-night stand and accuse the coach of rape. After the first two calls, Pitino tracked down Tim Sypher, asking for a meeting with Karen Sypher.

Pitino said he suspected Karen Sypher’s involvement with the calls. Tim Sypher pressed his wife, stepson and mother-in-law about the messages while setting up a meeting for her with Pitino. Lester Goetzinger would eventually admit to making the calls in exchange for sexual favors from Sypher and testify against her.

On March 6, 2009, Tim Sypher delivered a note, handwritten by Karen Sypher, to Pitino before a crucial game with West Virginia. The note included a list of seven demands, ranging from cars to cash, to keep silent about the affair. Pitino and an associate told Tim Sypher he needed to consider what just happened and what he wanted to do next.

Tim Sypher would send a text message to Pitino a couple of days later, telling the coach “I love my wife. I love my kids,” and that he wanted to stay with them. Karen Sypher filed for divorce less than a month later.

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