While Darling escorts a reporter out of the surprisingly Martha Stewart-esque, Southern-style condo he shares with his wife and two children — from which he has battled eviction for more than a year — he brags about the television crews he expects will crowd the next court hearing.

Then he makes one of those comments that causes judges to boil in their robes.

"I may not win this case," he says cheerily, holding open the door. "But I will ruin Shaq."

In late summer 2009, one year after the Alexis Miller debacle inspired his alleged lake-littering episode, O'Neal found himself in a remarkably similar predicament. This time, his desperation was preserved on Darling's email server.

Vanessa Lopez claims that for five years, she and O'Neal met for sex, usually at a local Ritz-Carlton. When she told him she was pregnant — with a child she eventually aborted, according to the ongoing civil lawsuit she would file in Orlando court — Shaq entered vendetta mode.

He dispatched his six-foot-six and six-foot-eight sisters, Ayesha and Lateefah, to confront Lopez and make "verbal and physical threats" against her. At one point, Lopez would claim in the later lawsuit, O'Neal flew a "henchman" to Orlando to stalk her. And then there were the alleged heavy-breathing phone calls.

Lopez declined to comment for this story. Like many of O'Neal's accusers, she has credibility issues. Previous run-ins with NBA players — refusing to leave Boston Celtics guard Delonte West's hotel room, allegedly stealing Denver Nuggets forward Kenyon Martin's credit card information, filing a stalking complaint against Orlando Magic guard J.J. Redick — are documented in police reports.

That September 30, O'Neal appeared fairly eager to retrieve any text messages he might have sent Lopez, as suggested by an email exchange with manager Shagal and lawyer Roach.

"So I can neva get those texts aaaaaaagh," he wrote when Shagal, just off the phone with Sprint, told him the phone company wouldn't produce old texts.

Fifteen minutes later, he had an idea: "Aaaaaaaaagh what if I get a police subpoena ask that."

When Shagal relayed that O'Neal could obtain a police subpoena only "incident to a legal action," another light bulb went off: "Well have dennis [Roach] file a lawsuit against me then lol."

If O'Neal was joking, Roach didn't take it that way. He hatched a legal plan involving O'Neal's personal management company, Mine O'Mine. "We can file a 'John Doe' complaint with Mine O'Mine as the plaintiff and then serve a subpoena," the lawyer wrote to Shagal. "Can I have Shaquille's approval to proceed."

Shaq never did sue himself. But as frantically as he tried to spool his life back into place, his wily nemesis was busy covertly unwinding it again.

Darling had already sent his first text message to Vanessa Lopez. It read, "Do you want help with your 7'02" problem?" Then, more sleazily: "Don't you want to get paid?"

They began corresponding, with Darling masquerading as a private investigator named — aptly, considering the Goliath he was undermining — David. He sent her emails allegedly from O'Neal's account that then found their way into her lawsuit against Shaq, which she filed in January 2010.

One read, "Dis da numba shut dat bitch up!" It was from O'Neal to his accused henchman and contained Lopez's cell phone number.

Meanwhile, "David" played the same game with Shaunie, leaking information to her that, Darling boasts, helped her get a "fair" divorce settlement.

Darling can't explain — not convincingly, at least — why he started meddling. He claims it was something like a moral stand.

He had watched — and helped — O'Neal plant GPS trackers on Shaunie's car and hack into her and Lopez's voicemail. When Shaunie and their children refused to move from Orlando to Cleveland, "Shaq went ballistic," Darling says, and cut them off financially.

So, having grown platonically close to Shaunie, he decided to launch a counterstrike against her husband.

But Darling's rap sheet doesn't scream Good Samaritan. A decade ago, he was convicted of scamming a string of banks out of roughly $47,000 through the use of a bogus social security number and counterfeit cashier's checks in Illinois and Wisconsin. Nearly a dozen other criminal charges from the '90s — including forgery, fraud, and grand theft — suggest he's a man who knows his way around an intricate scheme.

One wonders if access to O'Neal's email didn't send those old impulses flaring, if he somehow planned this from the moment he met the filthy-rich star, if something his own mom wrote to a Midwestern sentencing judge might have more bearing on the motivation of Shawn Darling.

"Shawn is a highly intelligent individual," Brenda Darling lamented in 1998, "who has misdirected his intelligence up to this point."

This time, though, Darling's machinations might have caught him in a showdown against the wrong sheriff.

When O'Neal was traded from the Lakers to the Heat in 2004, he had already been sworn in as an L.A. Port Police officer. The Miami Police Department clamored for his contribution to "publicity and morale," says department spokesman Delrish Moss, but instead he chose Miami Beach, a relatively tiny force beset by scandal.

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