Sypher trial Day 1
By: Travis K. Kircher
U.S. District Court Building
Day 1: Special Agent Steve Wight testifies
Shortly after 2:00 Monday afternoon, Special Agent Steve Wight of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was called to testify.
Wight testified to a number of events that allegedly took place in early 2009. He said that meetings took place in February and March 2009, in which Karen Sypher and Rick Pitino went through mediation.
At one point, Wight said he interviewed Karen Sypher about these meetings, which sometimes included Dana Kolter (Sypher's divorce attorney) and Rick Avare, the owner of Lexus in Lexington and a business associate of Pitino's.
Wight said Sypher told him that, during one of these meetings, Pitino looked at her and said, "I do not like the word rape." And later: "I did not rape you, Karen!" And later (looking at Karen Sypher's stepson, Jacob): "Jacob, I did not rape your mom!"
Wight also testified that a businessmen (possibly Avare) set up a college account in Massachusetts for one of Karen Sypher's daughters.
During cross examination, defense attorney Jim Earhart blasted Wight for the way in which the FBI handled the interrogation of Jacob Wise, Karen Sypher's stepson. Shortly after mediation ended and Rick Pitino approached the FBI about the alleged extortion, Wight said he arranged for Wise to be picked questioned by agents. He said two special agent cars approached Wise in the parking lot of BWIIIs on Shelbyville Road and told him to get in the car. From there, Wight said he was taken down the street to a hotel room, filled with boxes labeled with the words, "Karen Sypher Extortion Case."
"Why didn't you take him to an FBI office?" Earhart asked.
Wight later admitted that the boxes were an effort by the FBI to "stage" the room to put pressure on Wise, though he added that Wise was free to leave the room at any time and able to make phone calls or send text messages.
Wight's testimony ended a few minutes before 5:00 p.m. and court was adjourned.
This ends Day One of the Karen Sypher extortion trial.
Day 1: Opening statements for the defense
You know the hardest part about providing a detailed, in-depth account of what's happening inside a federal courtroom? Time. There isn't any. I'm not a TV reporter. I'm not a radio reporter. I'm a Web guy. Web guys are nothing without our laptops – and the federal courthouse doesn't allow laptops.
The result is that we furiously write down what happens in court, then race into a small elevator to the first-floor media room and try to file on our laptops from there. And sometimes it takes hours to get pages of notes onto the screen.
What I'm getting at is that, while Karen Sypher's attorneys were making their opening arguments, I was still down in the media room typing out the openings from the prosecution. The upshot is, I missed the defense's statements.
Thankfully, Fox 41's own Katie Delaune was in the courtroom for this, and she was generous enough to provide this info to me. (You probably remember Katie from the exclusive story she did last week on the teen charged with sodomy from the "Count it all Joy" daycare!) Thanks Katie, for getting this down for us!
Defense attorney Jim Earhart began his opening statements at 1:45 in the afternoon – and quickly defined the issue as a battle between the haves and the have-nots.
"This case is about power, money and influence, what happens when you challenge money, power and influence, when you are raped by a person with money, power and influence and you have to be destroyed to discredit yourself," Earhart told the jury.
He asked jurors not to be prejudiced in the case or to pick sides, telling them that their constitutional role was to "protect Karen Sypher."
He added that what they were about to do as jurors would impact both Sypher's liberty and freedom.
Earhart then began to provide details about the July 31, 2003 sexual encounter between Karen Sypher and Rick Pitino in a Louisville restaurant. He said Sypher was at the restaurant to enquire about a sales job at The Courier-Journal, when she happened to walk by Rick Pitino, who was dining there. Earhart said Sypher claims Pitino asked her to join him for a glass of wine. Over time, the restaurant emptied out, so that Pitino and Sypher were just about the last people left.
At this point, Earhart says the owner of the restaurant handed the keys to Pitino and told him to lock up when he was done. Pitino then – according to Earhart – made advances to Sypher but she refused, and so Pitino forced sexual intercourse under the table.
Earhart acknowledged that both sides agree that Pitino and Sypher had a sexual encounter, adding that there's "no dispute about that." The real issue, he said, was whether Sypher consented.
After the sex ended, Earhart says Pitino asked Sypher to take him home.
Some weeks later, Earhart said, Karen Sypher learned that she was pregnant. (At this point, Katie Delaune says she noticed Sypher wipe tears from her eyes as she was listening to Earhart speak.)
Earhart said Sypher called Pitino about the pregnancy, at which point he apologized for the "unfortunate incident." Though Pitino told her that she's free to do whatever she wishes, he also – according to Earhart – reminded her that she was a single mother and there's both "concrete" and "the river" if she can't handle things.
Earhart also addressed Sypher's relationship with Lester Goetzinger – the man who allegedly made anonymous threatening phone calls to Pitino's cell phone. Earhart said Goetzinger was "strange" and compared him to the "Glenn Close" character in "Fatal Attraction." He implied that Goetzinger was too infatuated with Sypher and – this is the important bit – that he made the threatening calls to Pitino of his OWN ACCORD and WITHOUT Sypher's knowledge.
The last – and probably most effective – part of Earhart's opening statement left Sypher in tears. In the past, Karen's Sypher's ex-husband, Tim Sypher, had threatened to put her in concrete boots if she didn't remain silent about the alleged rapes. On Christmas 2008, Earhart said he gave Karen Sypher an empty Nike shoebox to remind her of this.
This ended the opening statement for the defense.
As Assistant U.S. Prosecutor John Kuhn continues his opening arguments, he addresses what he says is grounds for the fourth charge against her: making false statements to the FBI.
Kuhn says that on April 7, 2009, Rick Pitino contacts the Kentucky Attorney General's Office to report that he is the victim of extortion. The AG's office immediately recognizes that federal laws may have been broken and contacts the FBI.
On April 16, 2009, Karen Sypher is interviewed by the FBI. She (along with her new lawyer, Thomas Clay) says she doesn't know who made threatening phone calls to Rick Pitino's cell phone. She adds that she doesn't recognize the voice on the recordings -- and what's more -- she claims that she hears different voices.
In a later interview, Kuhn said Sypher told the FBI that she had actually given Pitino's cell phone number to a man named "Lester Getts." The FBI does a search of the name, but he isn't in any databases. That's when, Kuhn said, they got Karen Sypher to call him. He picks up the phone, then hangs up quickly.
Kuhn said that phone call will be played for the jury later this week.
According to Kuhn, Sypher takes the FBI to the home of "Lester Getts" in Jeffersontown, Ky., but it turned out his real name wasn't Getts -- its was Goetzinger.
Kuhn said Sypher lied to the FBI in her initial interview, thus forming the basis for the fourth charge.
Kuhn then began making his case for the fifth count against Sypher, which also pertains to making false statements to the FBI.
Kuhn said Sypher told investigators that her relationship with her former lawyer, Dana Kolter, was platonic.
"Our relationship is strictly business -- that's all it is," Kuhn quoted Sypher as saying.
"In fact, Kolter will testify that they had a very intimate personal relationship," Kuhn told the jury. "I don't think you'll care much for Kolter after you hear him testify."
Sypher's alleged lie about the relationship constitutes the basis for Count 5, according to Kuhn.
The sixth and final count against Karen Sypher was the one Assistant U.S. Attorney John Kuhn spent the most time on. On April 24, Sypher is charged with a criminal complaint after Rick Pitino went to authorities about alleged extortion.
On June 16, Kuhn said Sypher contacted Melanie Kahn, a reporter for WHAS-11, and asked her to send a camera crew to the Louisville Metro Police Department to shoot her as she visits the sex crimes unit to make allegations of rape against Rick Pitino. She tells police that Pitino raped her twice: once at a Louisville restaurant, and a second time at Tim Sypher's condominium.
"You'll be able to hear Karen Sypher's version of what happened in 2003," Kuhn told the jury. Those accusations will be heard through various recordings, including lengthy interviews conducted by Fox 41's Bennett Haeberle.
Kuhn outlined what he said was Sypher's side of the story: Sypher claims that, during the first alleged rape, she was in a Louisville restaurant in 2003 for a job interview. At some point during the evening, Sypher claims Rick Pitino raped her.
"She will say during the rape that she was screaming," Kuhn said.
He added that Sypher claims she gave Pitino a ride home after the rape. Later, after she found out that she was pregnant, Kuhn said that Sypher alleges that Pitino "threatened to put her and her children in concrete" unless she had an abortion.
Kuhn also outlined Karen Sypher's allegations of the second alleged rape that occurred at Tim Sypher's condo.
"She will say that Tim Sypher was upstairs while it was happening, and she will also say that she was screaming and resisting during that rape," Kuhn said.
Kuhn then began to pick apart Sypher's allegations, beginning with the claim that -- on the night of the first alleged rape -- she was at the Louisville restaurant for a job interview for The Courier-Journal.
"You'll hear from the man she claimed she had a job interview with," he told the jurors. "He'll say he never heard of her before."
Kuhn added that The Courier-Journal never received an application from Sypher.
He also said the jury would hear from Rick Pitino.
"Rick Pitino will testify that they did indeed have sex," he said.
"On the way home, Mr. Pitino will testify that Karen Sypher asked for his business card as well as basketball tickets," he added.
Kuhn said Sypher later learns that she is pregnant visits "A Woman's Choice" in Louisville to enquire about getting an abortion. She later goes to Tim Sypher's condo to meet with Pitino (the time of the second alleged rape), but Tim Sypher will testify that he heard no screaming.
Kuhn said that, on Aug. 28, 2003, Pitino -- after having learned of Karen Sypher's pregnancy -- calls her from Pebble Beach, Calif. and leaves her messages indicating that the issue of whether or not to have an abortion is "her decision."
Kuhn said the jury will hear these tapes as well.
He wrapped up his opening statement by calling Karen Sypher's story a complex tangle of "contradictions" and "inconsistencies." He said that by the end of this case, jurors will know that Karen Sypher lied to the FBI, the LMPD, the court, the media, Tim Sypher, Goetzinger and others.
"I submit you will not believe a word she has to say about this," he said. "At the end of this case, ladies and gentlemen, we will ask you to return a guilty verdict on all six counts."
This concluded the prosecution's opening statement and court was adjourned for lunch until 1:30 p.m.
Opening Arguments (Part 1)
As the Karen Sypher trial progresses, what we hope to give you with this blog is an in-depth look at what was said during the proceedings. We can't give you a complete transcript to be sure, but what we can do is provide the highlights of what is said during the trial, along with some narrative.
First, some random thoughts:
Where is everyone? There aren't a lot of people inside -- at least not as many as we in the media expected. Honestly, we thought the courtroom would be packed, but I counted 43 people total inside when I first arrived this morning. Perhaps the public isn't as interested in this case as we were led to believe.
I DO see a few people in the aisles who are obviously not with the media. They seem to be in the back rows and I don't think they're family members. Mostly older folks -- I suspect these are the Sypher "groupies" who are here just for the "entertainment value" of the trial. In 2006, I helped cover the second David Camm trial in Boonville, Ind. Camm had groupies. In fact, I talked to a couple of high school girls who cut class and drove almost 100 miles just to sit in on the trial. Anytime there is a high profile trial like this, there are always groupies.
The jurors seem attentive but one man in the pews isn't. He actually fell asleep and started snoring during opening arguments. Security had to shake him and wake him up. Don't do that again -- you know who you are.
Assistant U.S. Attorney John Kuhn delivered the prosecution's opening statements. As the jurors watched -- attentive, from what I could tell -- Kuhn painted a picture of a woman who used sex to manipulate and extort Rick Pitino.
He went through the charges, one-by-one. Here are some of the highlights:
To explain the second extortion charge against Sypher, Kuhn describes how, in 2009, Karen Sypher, and then-husband Tim Sypher, drew up a list of things Karen wanted from Pitino in exchange for her silence related to their sexual relationship. Kuhn said Sypher was furious that she had not received anything from Pitino.
"Why hasn't Rick Pitino given me my house?" Kuhn said, citing an alleged rant by Karen Sypher.
Kuhn said Karen Sypher created a list of things she wanted from Pitino (because her then-husband Tim couldn't remember it all) and the list is eventually delivered to Rick Pitino.
Kuhn not only places a photograph of the list up on television screens for the jurors to see, he also waves the actual list in front of them. In it, he says Sypher demands several things from Pitino, including: 1) College education for her children, 2) A car, 3) A home that is paid off, 4) $3,000 cash a month for five years -- all to begin immediately starting on March 6, 2009.
She also demands that, in the event that Pitino leaves his coaching position at the University of Louisville, she be receive a cash payment of $75,000.
"If all is accepted, I will protect Rick Pitino's name for life," Kuhn says, reading the final line of the letter.
To explain the third and final extortion charge against Sypher, Kuhn says explains that, in March 2009, Karen Sypher visited the home of Dana Kolter, a Louisville attorney. While there, Kuhn says Sypher engaged in oral sex with Kolter, then told him that she had been raped by Rick Pitino twice -- and forced to have an abortion.
Kolter then brought up a number of phone calls that had been made, threatening Pitino. Kuhn says Kolter told Sypher that if she knew anything about these phone calls, she would be charged with extortion.
At this time, unbeknownst to Kolter, Sypher is recording the conversation.
She asks him, and reluctantly, he agrees to represent her.
On March 22, 2009, Kuhn says Sypher and Kolter wrote a letter to Rick Pitino in which the supposed rapes are described in great detail. It also accuses Pitino of forcing Sypher to get an abortion. That letter states that if this matter isn't settled, Sypher will file a lawsuit. It is signed by both Kolter and Sypher.
Kuhn reads some of the letter, expressing what he sees as fiery language, calling Pitino a "master gamer" and saying that "you have the audacity" to accuse Sypher of setting up the threatening phone calls.
He adds that this is enough to warrant the third extortion charge.
"The cell phone pile"
As I mentioned earlier today, Federal laws prohibit anyone from bringing any type of electronics into the courtroom. This includes laptops, cell phones, iPhones, Blackberrys, cameras, tape recorders, digital recorders, etc.
When it comes to journalists, the only friend you have in the courtroom is a legal pad and a pencil.
Just down the hall from the courtroom on the second floor is the metal detector -- the last of two you have to walk through to get to the courtroom. Already my digital camera and camcorder have been confiscated by the folks on the first floor near the main door. I also left my laptop and iPhone in the media room.
But it is here that some die-hard holdouts finally have to relinquish their cell phones. Next to the metal detector is a pile of -- I would guess -- 20 or so cellular phones of all makes and models: iPhones, BlackBerrys, anything you can think of.
"You got a cell phone?" security asks.
I assure him that I left mine back on the first floor, when I finished my earlier blog update. He smiles and nod toward the pile.
"You want a new one?" he asks, jokingly. "There are a lot to choose from!"
I laugh, tell him I don't (but that I might reconsider later), then head into the courtroom. As I walk inside, I consider that the feds have accomplished an incredible feat: separating 21st Century journalists from their cell phones. Incredible.
Opening arguments have already begun.
It's 11:20 now.
This is the latest entry in a blog that we hope will not just tell you the nuts-and-bolts of what is happening in the courtroom (for that, see Chris Turner and Katie Delaune's excellent reports in our regular newscasts, as well as here on Fox41.com), but also give you a behind-the-scenes picture of what it's like reporting from inside U.S. District Court. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me at my e-mail address at email@example.com.
It's time for me to go. Gotta get back to work.
I left the courtroom 30 minutes ago. Here's what I saw:
The courtroom for the U.S. District Court is on the second floor of the building -- and it pretty much blows away anything you might see in the Hall of Justice at 6th and Jefferson. The courtroom is huge...I'm no architect, but I'm guessing the ceilings are about 25 feet tall and the room about 50 feet wide. It has dark scarlet carpet with hard wooden benches. The walls are a mixture of marble (red and green) and stone.
On the walls, seven portraits stare down at us -- watching over justice, I presume. Some of those portraits include those of Boyce E. Martin Jr. (U.S. Circuit Judge in 1979, Chief Judge 1996-2003) and Charles I. Dawson (seat on U.S. District Court, 1925-1935.)
This courtroom screams "Federal," from the vaulted ceilings ornately carved in green and gold, to the enormous American flag near the judge's bench (there is a distinct lack of any state flag), to the U.S. District Court seal located in various places throughout the courtroom. The huge windows are covered with blinds, as well as greenish-blue curtains speckled with the fleur-de-lis symbol.
I counted 43 people in the courtroom when I first walked in -- about 30 observers I didn't recognize and 14 media members. It wasn't full by any means, but I would guess that about 15 more people stepped in after I counted. There were folks from the four big local stations, as well as the Courier-Journal.
Fox 41's very own Chris Turner and Katie Delaune were in the second row. David Beyer, of the FBI was there too. We know him as the guy who heads up the police-media meetings, when we meet once a month over snacks with members of law enforcement in order to help improve our relationship. There are no snacks today, and I'm sure Beyer is here to help represent the FBI's interest in prosecuting Sypher (she did allegedly lie to them, after all.)
And that reminds me: I saw Sypher.
She was wearing a pinkish skirt, with a black long-sleeved blouse. She also has what appears to be a heavy crucifix around her neck -- it must be about 2-3 inches in length, and appeared to be made of crystal or diamonds. She moves fast -- I saw her walk in and out of the courtroom several times, apologizing once to a security guard as she brushed pass him to take her seat at the defendant's table.
That was at 10:30. At that time, nothing was happening, and we in the media were talking amongst ourselves waiting for proceedings to begin.
Karen Cunagin Sypher.
If you go simply by public opinion, the name draws ire and criticism from all sides -- she has been vilified and branded as a liar, a criminal, and worse by everyone from news commentators to Fox 41 News Facebook fans. Hers is a tale of sex, alleged extortion, accusations and FBI interviews.
Her supporters say she is a woman who dared to challenge the powerful -- and is now a victim of lies and cover-ups.
It's unlikely any of us would have ever known the name "Karen Sypher," had her alleged extortion plot not involved one of the biggest names in basketball -- certainly locally, quite possibly nationally. Coach Rick Pitino is probably most widely known for leading the UK basketball team to an NCAA championship, circa 1996, then leaving that team, later to return to the Bluegrass State to coach the University of Louisville men's basketball team. (A move some UK fans might jokingly term "traitorous.") A married man with five children, Pitino has been a coach, a motivational speaker (he's written a book and appeared onstage with Zig Ziglar multiple times -- I've seen him) and a lover of thoroughbred horse racing.
Later this week, he is likely to be a witness.
As I said, we likely would not even know Sypher's name, had it not been intertwined with the name "Pitino." As it stands, a quick Google search reveals 36,300 Web pages that contain the name "Karen Sypher."
And starting today, there are going to be a lot more.
Today marks the beginning of the Karen Sypher Federal extortion trial. If you've followed this case, you probably already know her story. If not, some quick background:
Karen Sypher has been in the limelight since April of last year, when Rick Pitino announced that he was the victim of an alleged extortion attempt. Less than a week later, Sypher was charged with extortion and lying to the FBI -- a Federal offense. In July 2009, she claimed that she had been raped twice by Pitino, but charges were never filed.
In August 2009, Pitino went before the media during a press conference and admitted that he had consensual sex with Sypher during an encounter underneath the table of a local restaurant. This alleged encounter took place in 2003. Sypher later claimed that she had become pregnant and that Pitino put up the $3,000 for her to get an abortion.
All of that comes -- is coming to a head -- starting today.
The cone of silence
If you're a news junkie like me, you've probably seen your share of local trials. You may have recently watched the Lloyd Hammond trial -- a triple murder trial of a man facing the death penalty that took place last month. If you did, you probably saw a lot of courtroom video -- including images of the accused with his attorneys, jurors shot from the chest down, the judge, the prosecutor, etc.
You won't see much of that in the Karen Sypher case.
The rules for Federal court are much, much different than the rules for Jefferson County Circuit Court -- where the Hammond trial took place. In Circuit court, the television news media is allowed one camera inside the courtroom. We've nicknamed this camera the "pool camera" and the big four (Fox 41, WHAS-11, WLKY-32 and WAVE-3) share it, usually taking turns having one of our photographers act as the "pool" photog.
In Federal court, NO cameras are allowed inside the courtroom. You know what else they don't allow? Cell phones. Laptops. Pagers. Digital cameras. Tape recorders. In short, we as journalists pretty much getting nothing other than a legal pad and a Number Two pencil to cover the case.
I'm banging this out right now on a laptop in the media room, one floor down from the courtroom. The Feds are merciful -- they at least let us have laptops in the building.
But I'm looking at the clock and I've been down here way too long. Gotta get back upstairs in the courtroom so I don't miss anything.