LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) – The estranged wife of a longtime aide to Louisville men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino faces charges that she tried to extort the coach, at first demanding cars and tuition for her children, then later asking for $10 million, according to a federal complaint filed Friday.

Karen Cunagin Sypher, 49, who also is accused of lying to the FBI about the case, did not enter a plea at a court appearance Friday and was released on her own recognizance.

Sypher’s husband and Cardinals equipment manager, Tim Sypher, on March 6 brought Pitino a written list of demands including tuition, two cars of her choice, paying off her house and $3,000 per month, according to the complaint. The demands later escalated to $10 million, the complaint said.

According to the complaint, the note said, “If all is accepted, I will protect Rick Pitino’s name for life.”

What sort of information Sypher may have been trying to use to extort the successful coach was not included in the complaint, which only said Pitino believed it was related to an unspecified encounter with the woman in 2003, two years after Pitino took over Louisville’s basketball program.

The 56-year-old coach first brought up the extortion allegations last week, when he said he had reported them to the FBI. Pitino’s attorney, Steve Pence, released a statement and said he has directed the coach to have no further comment on the case.

Outside the courthouse, Karen Sypher’s attorney, Thomas Clay, declined to predict what might happen in the case.

“The criminal complaint clearly reflects other people were involved in this,” Clay said. “Whether they will be charged, I don’t know.”

Clay also declined to comment on Sypher’s allegation against Pitino. In court, she answered only “yes, sir” to questions from U.S. Magistrate Judge Dave Whalin, and she would not comment later.

According to the complaint written by FBI Special Agent Steven Wight, Pitino received two voicemail messages on Feb. 26 from a man who did not identify himself and a third call on Feb. 28. Pitino told Wight the first two concerned personal allegations that were “criminal in nature” and could harm the coach’s reputation, and the other was a threat to make the allegations public in two weeks.

Wight said the truth about the allegations against Pitino is “suspect” and were left out of the complaint.

Since Pitino’s announcement, Karen Sypher has given some media interviews, mostly saying she’s just defending herself. One station that did an extensive interview said it chose not to air her allegations because they could not be confirmed.

Tim Sypher, 48, voiced his support for his boss in a statement last week, and divorce papers for the couple, who married in April 2004, have been filed in recent weeks. The relationship between the men goes back to the days when Pitino coached the Boston Celtics, when Sypher was Pitino’s personal assistant from 1997 to 2001, according to his resume on file at Louisville.

Pitino told Wight he met with the Syphers after the first two calls and asked what she wanted. Karen Sypher then talked about a house, cars and cash. Pitino told Wight that he played the voicemail for her and she denied knowing about the calls.

Kenyon Meyer, Tim Sypher’s attorney, said his client is not being targeted in the criminal investigation and is cooperating.

Tim Sypher’s mother, Joan Sypher, of Raynham, Mass, said her son loves sports, which helped him land a job with Pitino, first as a driver.

“My son was not married or anything, and of course when you’re a driver for somebody you have to be available 24 hours, so that’s how he got the job,” she told The Associated Press earlier this week by telephone.

Wight said Karen Sypher’s attorney later mailed a letter to Pitino repeating the allegations made in the voicemail. In it, Sypher also accused Pitino of orchestrating the threatening calls, Wight said. The attorney filed a divorce petition and made demands of Pitino, including one for $10 million, Wight said. An affidavit containing the allegations against Pitino and attached to the petition has been sealed.

Assistant U.S. Attorney John Kuhn asked Whalin to bar Karen Sypher from hurting Pitino’s reputation while on bond, and Clay said his client agreed not discuss the coach in public.

Pitino signed a three-year contract extension with the Cardinals in May 2007 that could keep him at the school through 2013. The deal pays him an annual salary of $2.5 million a year if he stays until the end of the contract. He’ll receive loyalty bonuses of $3.6 million in 2010 and 2013 if he remains with the school.

Pitino led Louisville to the Final Four in 2005, the third school he has taken there. The others were Providence in 1987 and Kentucky, which won the national championship in 1996.

Kuhn said a federal grand jury is scheduled to meet May 11-12 and could hear the case against Sypher.

The FBI interviewed her earlier this month about the calls and said she failed a polygraph test to her during the second interview. She then gave false information about the caller’s identity, leading to charges of lying to the FBI, Wight said.

Also, a man the FBI said admitted making the calls told Wight that Karen Sypher talked about getting $200,000 to $400,000. The unidentified man said Sypher asked him to make the calls “during a critical period in the basketball season to increase the pressure” on Pitino, Wight said.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.