One sunny afternoon in summer 2008, Miami computer consultant Shawn Darling was summoned to the 64,000-square-foot Orlando palace of his boss, basketball star Shaquille O'Neal.
When Darling arrived at the mansion, he recalls, the 36-year-old, seven-foot-one, 330-pound colossus was dropping big beads of panicky sweat.
With his wife and kids away, the future Hall of Fame NBA center, who had recently been traded from the Miami Heat to the Phoenix Suns, explained his dilemma.
An Atlanta woman had just claimed in court that O'Neal was stalking her. A potential civil lawsuit hinged on threatening emails she said he had sent.
In a restraining order obtained in Georgia court, 23-year-old Alexis Miller claimed that since they had broken up, O'Neal enjoyed calling her and breathing Darth Vader-style into the phone. When she demanded that he identify himself, he would instead mutter in his recognizable basso: "Bitch. Ho."
Miller, a budding rapper with the stage name Maryjane, also claimed O'Neal had threatened to pay other recording artists $50,000 each to stop working with her.
Then there were the emails O'Neal allegedly wrote. "I dnt no who the fuk u think u dealin wit u will neva be heard from one phone call is all I gotta make now try me," he steamed before adding enigmatically: "Sho me."
Attached to one of the emails, she added, was a crude illustration of "a man physically restraining a woman while forcing her to engage in sexual intercourse."
So Shawn Darling, who sports a scraped-clean dome and a slightly leery perma-grin, got to work at his boss's behest. He perched himself like a pygmy at O'Neal's sprawling desk, which the giant had custom-built to make himself feel even smaller than a regular person.
He scoured O'Neal's Macintosh hard drive seven times so that no subpoena would ever get at any digital evidence once stored there.
Darling also made a suggestion. "Why you using AOL for email anyway?" he scoffed at his boss. "Why don't you have me set you up on your own server so that you can always have access to your old emails?"
O'Neal agreed to the plan. But he wasn't quite satisfied with the clean hard drive, Darling would later claim in a civil complaint. The superstar boxed up the computer and headed out to the small pleasure craft docked behind his mansion. Joe, O'Neal's "houseboy" — a position that, as gleaned from an email filed in court, paid $155,000 a year — played first mate.
When they returned from their lake expedition, Darling recalls, the houseboy was holding a soaked, empty computer box. The Styrofoam had made the box float, the lake-faring duo explained to Darling. So they had to take the computer out and toss it into the depths.
Darling says he sat shotgun while O'Neal then spent hours hunched over a laptop in his Mercedes-Benz in the parking lot of a local Barnes & Noble. Afraid to use his own internet connection, he anonymously called Miller a "gold digger" in the comments sections of blogs that reported the restraining order.
At the time O'Neal agreed to use Darling's server, the latter was roughly five years removed from a two-year prison stint. He had scammed banks by using fake cashier's checks after racking up 11 other criminal charges involving fraud or forgery in the Chicago area in the '90s.
Warned by one Illinois judge to no longer associate with a cadre called the Gangster Disciples, Darling is the sort of character rarely seen outside of Generation X cinema: a badass computer geek.
Putting his digital life in this man's hands, it turns out, was a Shaq-size mistake.
It would lead — according to emails, court files, and law enforcement investigations in Florida and Arizona — to a bizarre game of spy versus spy featuring claims of espionage, extortion, and the accusation that Shaquille O'Neal, a longtime police groupie with ties to a half-dozen agencies across the country, used those connections to try to frame Darling for a heinous crime.
The saga has seen a desperate O'Neal contemplating filing a lawsuit against himself and cops plotting to put a wire on one of his alleged mistresses, and has culminated in an ongoing civil lawsuit filed July 2010 by Darling against the superstar in local court.
The ex-con computer geek is holding hostage a cache of thousands of emails ripped from O'Neal's personal account. With the 39-year-old, freshly retired, and newly eligible bachelor set to join TNT's NBA broadcast team with the upcoming season — barring an extended lockout — the emails could napalm Kazaam's precious public image.
The concept of Shaq — one of the most gregarious and goofy stars in NBA history — as no-goodnik is tough to fathom. A man who break dances with the Jabberwockees and poses as a seven-foot "statue" in Harvard Square does not fit the profile of a nefarious mastermind. But Alexis Miller's restraining order was not the first time allegations of strange, scheming, and sometimes even criminal behavior have been leveled at O'Neal in the public record.