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Police never pursued criminal charges after the woman stopped cooperating.
Five years later, O'Neal's then-Los Angeles Lakers teammate and longtime nemesis Kobe Bryant told Colorado police, who were investigating his own sexual assault case, about "hush money" he said O'Neal paid his mistresses. "I should have done what Shaq does," Bryant ruminated, according to a police report. "Shaq gives them money or buys them cars, he has already spent one million dollars."
Darling's lawsuit isn't the only front on which O'Neal has battled accusations of conniving behavior in the past year. An Orlando woman — who, his attorneys contend, was in criminal cahoots with Darling — claims in an ongoing lawsuit that after a five-year romantic relationship, O'Neal dispatched goons, including his two Amazonian sisters, to bully her.
And in Los Angeles, a criminal case against seven members of the Main Street Crips hinged on O'Neal keeping an ex-gangster in his inner circle: a notorious flimflam man named Robert Ross. The hoods were accused of kidnapping and torturing Ross for a mythical O'Neal sex tape. The prosecution was recently dismissed — though a related civil lawsuit continues — and O'Neal's attorneys have claimed his association with Ross was only to help the ex-con bust into the music business.
Wealth and celebrity make O'Neal a target for scam artists. But a tendency to document his infidelity in monosyllabic, typo-laden emails — the Big Nixon tape-recording his own Watergate conspiracy — makes him probably the easiest target on the planet.
Shawn Darling filed roughly 30 emails — a fraction of the total cache — in court as evidence in the lawsuit against O'Neal. Decried by O'Neal's attorneys as "stolen," the messages were briefly available in the public record before a judge sealed them.
The emails expose O'Neal as a digital Don Juan with other women when he was married to Shaunie Nelson. In one of the conversations, Newsweek reporter Allison Samuels, who helped O'Neal's mother write an autobiography, appears to play a game of pick-a-mistress with the basketball star while attempting to set him up with various models and actresses.
"I want u or rihanna," O'Neal demurs, referring to the singer.
In another email exchange, he bluntly asks a Swedish model: "Where can I cum at when I c u."
After she replies, "All over me, where do you wanna cum," Shaq waxes poetic: "In u foreva."
In response to this story, O'Neal's attorney Michael J. Kump said in a statement: "Shawn Darling is a convicted felon who has attempted to extort millions of dollars from Shaquille O'Neal, and he must be delighted that he has found a willing accomplice in New Times. The allegations in his lawsuit are false. A judge already has dismissed the original complaint. Shaquille is kindhearted and generous, but he won't be intimidated by people like Shawn Darling."
Shaunie, who has since divorced O'Neal, turned down New Times' request for an interview involving her ex-husband and Shawn Darling: "I'm not interested in talking about either of those guys."
O'Neal spent his only season with the Cleveland Cavaliers as an aging behemoth straying toward pudgy, groggily slapping at the basketball, wreaking his usual 50 percent havoc at the free-throw line, and resting injuries on the bench.
On October 3, 2009, though, the regular-season opener was a month away. The 37-year-old future Hall of Fame center was still a monument of hope and excitement for the Rust Belt. That was the day Shaq played his first preseason exhibition alongside then-Cleveland demigod LeBron James.
O'Neal was up to his usual antics that first day of camp in Akron, Ohio. He quizzed reporters about what he should be for Halloween, grabbed one portly writer's gut with both hands and shook it, and hyped his challenge to South Korean giant Choi Hong-man to fight him in a mixed martial arts ring.
Unbeknownst to beat hacks, though, O'Neal's personal life had devolved into panic and paranoia. His relationship with his wife Shaunie had turned to war. She and their four children hadn't made the move north from their mansion in Orlando. The couple had filed for divorce two years earlier but then reconciled. This time, the rift was for good.
O'Neal had written an officious email to his business manager, listing the pink slips to be given to family employees.
"I'm about to get another divorce these are. The things that must get done," he wrote before launching into a list of employees to fire: "Terminate will, cut mrs marys salary off, no more mrs veronica, terminate the two nannies, and keep [Shaunie's] credit card at 20."
Complicating matters, Vanessa Lopez, Shaq's purported longtime mistress, was threatening to go public with claims he had sent henchmen (and henchwomen, O'Neal's sisters) to harass her after she became pregnant with his baby.
"I won't keep quiet," Lopez, a notorious NBA groupie, vowed in a text to O'Neal, "so you might want to tell your wife everything before she hears it elsewhere."
In matters of his entourage, O'Neal, who uses the online chat handle "King of Diesel Dog Mafia," carries himself like the Tony Soprano of a subservient crew. Now he realized there was a rat among them. Somebody was feeding information about his goomahs to his wife, and about his wife to his goomahs, in a game that threatened to implode O'Neal's fortune and his cherished public image.