LOUISVILLE, Ky. — A Kentucky woman was convicted of extortion Thursday after she demanded millions of dollars from Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino to keep their tryst at a restaurant secret.
Karen Cunagin Sypher, 50, of Louisville, was found guilty of three counts of extortion, two counts of lying to the FBI and one count of retaliating against a witness. As the jury’s verdict was read, Sypher closed her eyes, then opened them and stared at the ceiling. One of her sons sitting in the front row with other family members wept openly.
The case involved a 2003 sexual encounter between Pitino and Sypher at a table inside an Italian restaurant closed for the night. Pitino testified she came on to him and the sex was consensual. After she was charged, Sypher told police it was rape but Pitino was never charged.
Last year, Pitino received threatening phone calls and two letters demanding cash and gifts for Sypher to keep the tryst secret.
Sypher faces a maximum sentence of 26 years in prison, but under federal sentencing guidelines, the penalty will likely be lighter. She will be sentenced Oct. 27.
The jury deliberated for slightly more than five hours over two days. The trial lasted eight days.
“This was nothing more than a pure shakedown of Richard Pitino,” Assistant U.S. attorney Marisa Ford told jurors in closing arguments Wednesday.
Defense attorney James Earhart told jurors Sypher had been “villainized” during the trial. He argued that the government’s case proved that “rules don’t apply to the privileged” like Pitino.
The star witness was Pitino.
Prosecution and defense attorneys questioned him in detail about the night he met Sypher, then known as Karen Wise. The married father of five told the jury they had sex in an empty restaurant after she whispered to him and then unzipped his pants.
The tryst that he described as lasting 15 seconds was “unfortunate,” Pitino told the jury. Sypher watched attentively during Pitino’s six hours of testimony but showed no reaction.
After a brief stumble stepping into the witness box, Pitino held his own as he sparred with the defense lawyer. He struggled to control his emotion as he described how hard it had been to tell his family about the affair and advise his son, then working on his staff, to take a job at Florida to avoid the unpleasant publicity.
Although Sypher never testified, jurors heard her version of events when prosecutors played a never-broadcast TV interview where she claimed Pitino raped her.
“It didn’t last long. It seemed like hours for me,” Sypher said, appearing to cry. “All he said was shut up, shut up and be quiet.”
Although some witnesses described Sypher as persistent and flirty that night, no one else testified to witnessing the sex.
The jury also heard how Pitino responded when the woman told him a few weeks later she was pregnant. She met her future husband when Pitino asked his longtime aide, Tim Sypher, for help. Tim Sypher testified he arranged for an abortion and paid for it with $3,000 Pitino had given Karen Sypher.
Pitino said he thought the money was for counseling and medical needs but Sypher later said she had an abortion.
The Syphers married soon after and occasionally saw Pitino at events, Tim Sypher said.
The coach told jurors that he received phone calls in February 2009 from a man who threatened to expose what happened between Pitino and Karen Sypher.
“He mentioned the word rape. I got very sick to my stomach,” Pitino said. He acknowledged to jurors, though, that he didn’t go to authorities for about two months as he tried to “contain” the damaging information.
Prosecutors showed the jury a handwritten note from Sypher that asked for cars, tuition for her children and her mortgage to be paid off.
Two witnesses who testified they helped Karen Sypher by making threats to Pitino also said they were sexually involved with her.
Pitino has coached at Louisville since 2001, after leaving the NBA’s Boston Celtics and previously coaching at Kentucky.
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