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Defendant in Pitino extortion says she was set up

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?"

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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