- The Washington Times - Friday, June 12, 2009

LOUISVILLE, KY. (AP) - She doesn’t have a job and has taken to going to Mass every weekday morning. Except when she has to pick up her children from school, she stays home and out of sight, dreading the next time she might end up on the front page of the newspaper.

Karen Cunagin Sypher, a 49-year-old former model and auto glass saleswoman accused of trying to extort Louisville men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino, says she feels shunned.

“I feel like I’m in a horrible movie that is just … ,” she said, trailing off during an interview in the office of her attorney, Thomas Clay. “I was set up from the very beginning and I’m still being set up and I am going to prove my innocence.”

Federal prosecutors accuse her of demanding the good life _ cars, a house and $10 million _ from one of college basketball’s millionaire superstar coaches in exchange for keeping quiet about what an FBI affidavit characterizes as unsubstantiated allegations describing “an interaction between Mr. Pitino and an unnamed woman as criminal in nature.”

Cunagin Sypher has pleaded not guilty to federal charges of trying to extort money from Pitino and of lying to the FBI. Her maximum prison sentence if convicted on both counts could be seven years. She is free while awaiting her trial, scheduled to begin later this month, though her attorney has asked for a postponement.

The case began in April, when Pitino said through the university that he and his family had been threatened “as part of a criminal scheme to extort money” and he reported it to the FBI. Pitino, who is married and has five children, told an FBI agent he and the woman had an unspecified “encounter” in 2003, according to an affidavit filed with the criminal complaint charging Cunagin Sypher.

“The notion that she is being set up is absolutely ridiculous,” said Pitino’s attorney, Steve Pence of Louisville. “Karen Sypher is charged with a very serious crime and she is looking at very serious time in jail if she is convicted.”

Tim Sypher, Karen’s estranged husband and a longtime Pitino aide who is the team’s equipment manager, came out for his boss, saying in a statement he was “devastated by the bizarre allegations that my estranged wife is making against Coach Pitino and myself.”

Clay would not allow his client to discuss details of the case, allowing her to say only that Pitino had introduced her to Tim Sypher. The Syphers, whose divorce is pending, were married in 2004 and have a 4-year-old daughter.

Cunagin Sypher has four sons, ages 13 to 21, from a previous marriage; the oldest two attend the University of Louisville, she said.

Tim Sypher served as Pitino’s personal assistant with the Boston Celtics from 1997-2001, then followed Pitino to Louisville in 2001.

Pitino, 57, is the only coach to take three different schools to the Final Four _ Louisville, Providence and Kentucky, where he won a national title. In addition to the Celtics, he coached the New York Knicks.

The criminal complaint says Tim Sypher brought Pitino a written list of demands from his wife that included college tuition for her children, two cars, having her house paid off and a stipend of $3,000 per month. The complaint said an attorney she hired later escalated those demands to $10 million.

Cunagin Sypher said she fears Pitino’s popularity and clout in a basketball-crazed city means she’ll be sent to prison. She said she is considering applying for food stamps, and choked back sobs while vowing she will not give in.

“Do you back down? Do you show your children that the justice system doesn’t work?” she said. “Or do you show them that it does work?”

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