LOUISVILLE, Ky. — A Kentucky woman was convicted Thursday of demanding millions of dollars from Rick Pitino to keep secret their one-night stand in a restaurant, then claiming the Louisville basketball coach raped her after he reported the extortion.
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. She stared at the ceiling as the verdict was read, while one of her sons wept openly.
The case involved a 2003 sexual encounter between Pitino and Sypher, a former model at car shows, at a table inside a 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 three threatening phone calls and two letters demanding cash and gifts for Sypher to keep the tryst secret. One of the letters showed to the jury was a handwritten note from Sypher that asked for cars, tuition for her children and her mortgage to be paid off.
Neither Sypher or her attorney commented as they left federal court following her eight-day trial. But one of her sons, Jacob Wise, confronted prosecutors. “Thanks for taking my mother away, guys,” said Wise, 20.
Assistant U.S. Attorney John Kuhn called it a very difficult trial for the prosecutors, Pitino and the community.
A University of Louisville spokesman said the coach was traveling and referred calls to Pitino attorney Steve Pence, who said the jury did the right thing.
Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich said Pitino has been “100 percent truthful” and will not be disciplined.
“We don’t view anything as a win,” Jurich said. “I think this has been a long 17 months. There’s probably been a lot of damage done.”
Jury foreman Glen Elder told The Associated Press the panel went through the charges line by line and there were no disagreements during about five hours of deliberations over two days.
Juror Charles Smith said there “was never a huge deadlock” and the tapes of the three extortion calls “were key, they played a major part” in their decision.
“It was a hard decision, I mean we’re human beings so we took it into consideration, but we made a decision based on the evidence provided,” Smith said. “We did the defense justice by deliberating, we didn’t go in and just look at it one-sided.”
The charges carry a maximum sentence of 26 years in prison, but under federal sentencing guidelines, the penalty will likely be lighter. She will remain free until her sentencing Oct. 27.
“This was nothing more than a pure shakedown of Richard Pitino,” Assistant U.S. attorney Marisa Ford told jurors in closing arguments.
Sypher’s 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, who was the star witness.
Prosecution and defense attorneys questioned the coach in detail about the night he met Sypher, then known as Karen Wise. Pitino, a married father of five, told the jury the two had sex in the empty restaurant after she whispered to him and then unzipped his pants.
Pitino said the sex lasted “15 seconds” and was “unfortunate.”
Although Sypher never testified, jurors heard her version of events when prosecutors played a never-broadcast TV interview where she claimed Pitino raped her.
“All he said was shut up, shut up and be quiet,” she said on the tape.
Although some witnesses described Sypher as persistent and flirty that night, no one else testified to witnessing the sex.
Tim Sypher, a longtime Pitino aide and now Karen Sypher’s ex-husband, testified he arranged for an abortion and paid for it with $3,000 Pitino had given Karen Sypher. He testified that the two met when Pitino asked him for help after she said she was pregnant.
Pitino said he thought the money was for counseling and medical needs but Sypher later said she had an abortion.
Pitino has coached at Louisville since 2001. He 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.