Even as he zeroed in on Shawn Darling as the rat, he apparently didn't realize his email had been compromised. He fired off mysterious cloak-and-dagger messages to Alessandri and contacts at a Miami security company called Verasys — later renamed Anders International — where former Miami Beach top cop Don DeLucca had become executive vice president since retiring from the department.

One message contains only Darling's social security number and birth date. In another, O'Neal and Alessandri discuss buying cell phones to be used only by them, DeLucca, and a mysterious fourth party named "Sherman" so that, Alessandri wrote, "we can email you and call you with no issues."

Then there's the email reading only, "Go," which O'Neal sent to Verasys. And on December 15, there was the odd missive that Mattlin sent to O'Neal detailing how to remotely detect child porn using a police computer program called GnuWatch. What's unclear is how O'Neal would have placed the smut on Darling's computer in the first place.

A recent investigation into the email concluded it was an "appropriate information exchange between two police detectives," Tempe Police Sgt. Joey Brudnock says.

Mattlin believed O'Neal was requesting information as a law enforcement agent. At the time, though, the new Clevelander O'Neal was not an active cop in any state.

Miami Beach Police spokesman Juan Sanchez says his department has no internal investigation concerning the emails sent to and from Detective Alessandri. Don DeLucca, who was recently named chief of the Golden Beach Police force, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Shawn Darling says he pieced together the mysterious emails between O'Neal and cronies soon after his computer was besieged. To him, the evidence of a conspiracy to frame him is as clear as day.

But O'Neal's attorneys maintain that their client is the true victim of a plot. To prove it, prosecutors were ready to wire a purported mistress for sound.

Two days before Valentine's Day 2010 and a month after filing her lawsuit against O'Neal, Vanessa Lopez — svelte, bleach-blond, and primly dressed — met with two assistant state attorneys inside a drab government building in downtown Miami.

She told prosecutors, according to a Florida Department of Law Enforcement report about the meeting, that Shawn Darling, who had not yet filed suit against O'Neal, was dispensing the superstar's emails as if from his own personal gold mine.

He had tried to sell her — for the low, low price of $100,000 — information to help her case against O'Neal. And for a third of any settlement she might garner from O'Neal, Darling had said he'd fork over the entire stash of emails.

The prosecutors were investigating Darling and Lopez at the behest of O'Neal's attorneys. In December 2009, both enemies of Shaq had been briefly represented by the same lawyer — Orlando's Lafe Purcell. He had sent O'Neal's attorneys a letter offering them a chance to settle with the two potential plaintiffs before they filed their lawsuits. 

Darling's "bottom number" for a settlement, according to the December 2009 missive: $12 million. Lopez's "fair starting point": $4.2 million.

In an apparent intimidation technique, Purcell had also forwarded an email showcasing his client's unhinged state. "I am ready to proceed with filing the complaint against Shaq," Darling had frothed in the email. "I want him to understand that I am NOT FUCKING playing around... I have enough proof that I don't need to play around."

Both Darling and Lopez ditched Purcell — who didn't respond to New Times' request for comment — soon after the letter was sent, and Darling claims the attorney demanded the settlements on his own.

But O'Neal's lawyers had filed a criminal complaint claiming an "on-going criminal conspiracy to extort in excess of 16 million dollars," resulting in Lopez being summoned to the interrogation in downtown Miami.

She agreed to a "controlled meeting" with Darling to draw out evidence of an extortion conspiracy while investigators' tape rolled.

The sting never went down. The investigators doubted Lopez's credibility. Specifically, she never told them about her affair with NBA player Delonte West.

In May 2010, according to a Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office spokesman Ed Griffith, his office decided Shaq's dilemma was a "civil matter."

Two months later, Darling filed suit against O'Neal. A judge ordered that Darling could not enter the emails into the public record. But this past August, he filed about three dozen of them with an amended complaint anyway — claiming them as evidence of the plot to frame him — sending O'Neal's attorneys racing to seal them again.

Before a recent court hearing, in which a judge would decide whether Shaq's former computer guy could enter his entire stash of thousands of emails into the public record, Darling vowed he would unleash his inner Al Sharpton if the ruling didn't go his way.

He said he would pose on the courtroom steps in front of a swath of news cameras. "I'm going to make a statement," he promised. "I'm going to blow the lid off this whole thing."

Fast-forward to August 26, and Darling is wearing a slightly baggy gray suit as he sits at a desk in court. Making his case is attorney Menachem Mayberg, who might be Darling's litigious soul mate. A young and zealous lawyer, he makes several salacious, if not terribly relevant, implications in court — including a $3 million settlement between O'Neal and Alexis Miller — over the beleaguered objections of the basketball star's stodgy, white-haired barrister, Benjamine Reid.

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