Shaquille O'Neal wages war against a Miami computer geek

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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.


Shaquille O'Neal

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.

In 1998, a Disney World employee filed a police report claiming that after she rebuffed the advances of O'Neal and his friends, he grabbed her from behind and wouldn't let go, booming, "I was just playing. Can't you take a joke? We are just playing."

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.

So he began probing for the mole. The day of that opening Cavaliers exhibition, O'Neal accused his manager Inna Shagal and lawyer Dennis Roach of leaking information to Shaunie.

Another manager, Lester Knispel, virtually slipped on his own sweat defending them.

"Shaquille, believe me that people most loyal to you, besides me, are Dennis and Inna," he beseeched via email that day. "They would never throw you under the bus with Shaunie. They are both in tears over this... Is it possible that Shaunie can tap into your emails and that is how she is picking up the information you are sending to Dennis and Inna?"

Knispel signed the missive "Love, Lester."

When the basketball season began a month later, O'Neal was fending off more mortar fire. He had been forwarded an email in which gossip conglomerate TMZ was offering $3,500 to another alleged mistress — a Scottsdale, Arizona woman named Christina — for proof of an affair during his year-and-a-half tenure with the Phoenix Suns.

On December 15, O'Neal forwarded the email to his personal agent, Mike Parrish.

"We dnt want them do what they r doing to tiger," he hammered with sausage-thick fingers on a BlackBerry, referring to tabloid-nuked golfer Tiger Woods. "they got him wit steroids and all dat shit."

By now, O'Neal had zeroed in on the real traitor in his crew: his IT guy, Shawn Darling.

"Boy needs to b put in jail," he told Parrish. "we have way to many law enforcement connections to let a criminal try to get over on mine o mine.

"We dnt need any distraction as we deal with our harvard guy, shoe line guy, retaraunt guy, real estate guy, and everything we are planning to do for the after basketball life," O'Neal continued. "I promised u I would stay outta trouble, I kept my word, but cannot control somebody dtealing and selling emails. Come on now protect me from this. I lost my family because of this guy, come on now."

Parrish's reply was succinct: "Got it he will be stopped n pay for this."

That day, the seven-foot police groupie, who used the email address detectiveoneal32@me.com, got a response from a real detective: Burke Mattlin, a child-porn investigator with Arizona's Tempe Police Department. Mattlin had acted as Reserve Officer O'Neal's partner during his stint with that department.

The content of the email to which Mattlin was responding is unknown — and later the Tempe Police Department was curiously unable to find their correspondence — but it contained detailed instructions on how to log as evidence child porn on a suspect's computer through the use of high-tech forensic tools.

It ended with a flourish: "Happy Hunting!"

Ping! Ping! Ping!

Like a submarine captain surveying incoming missiles on sonar, Shawn Darling says he watched a sudden barrage of virus alerts pop up on his computer screen one day in early December 2009.

"I was like, What the fuck is going on?" Darling recalls, lurching from a rolling chair as he re-creates his surprise in his immaculate home office in Homestead. "I felt like I was under attack."

Darling, who admits without shame to having routinely raided his boss's inbox and toyed with his life, had recently noticed some strange happenings in O'Neal's email, which he frequently monitored from the server on his desk.

So after the "attack," he dug through the athlete's recent messages and began to believe O'Neal was plotting to frame him with kiddie porn. Implicated in subsequent lawsuit allegations: Tempe's Mattlin, a Miami Beach Police detective, and a former chief on the Miami Beach force.

Darling's civil suit, dismissed in July, was revived after the determined techie entered new filings. O'Neal's lawyers have called Darling's allegations "baseless" and attempted, unsuccessfully, to have him indicted for theft and extortion. 

But the case, regardless of the veracity of its claims, is booby-trapped for O'Neal.

When Darling started working for the Miami Heat star, whom he had met through a mutual acquaintance, in 2007, the computer whiz was the one-man team behind Your IT Team, LLC. He specialized in late-night tech work for Miami Beach hotels.

Darling rigged the O'Neals' various homes and offices for theater and Internet. When Shaq was traded to the Phoenix Suns in 2008, he would fly Darling to Arizona just to fix his Wi-Fi signal. Invoices later filed in court show O'Neal paid him an on-the-books total of just under $12,000.

O'Neal used Darling's server for all of his electronic correspondence. Darling says he has every email his ex-boss sent or received from September 2008 through January 2010 — somewhere between 13,000 and 19,000 messages.

And now, like an employer raiding your inbox after you've been canned, the rogue IT guy claims O'Neal's messages are his property.

A local judge recently provided a de facto appraisal of the explosive potential of the email cache's content. "I can tell you that there are allegations against so many people in so many different positions in society" in O'Neal's emails, Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Marc Schumacher declared in an August 26 court ruling sealing them from the public record, "that their release would really wreck lives."

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.

Applying to be a cop there, he used Star Island neighbor Gloria Estefan as a reference, and asked about special skills and equipment, he wrote, "laptop computer, binnochulars, master of surveillance."

The department clearly didn't do much vetting of the August 2004 application, which is full of obvious untruths. O'Neal claimed he had never been the subject of a police investigation (apparently ignoring the 1998 Disney World incident), hadn't been sued (he had been named as a defendant in at least three lawsuits in Florida and California), and didn't have savings or checking accounts, any investments, or an automobile (he made $27.7 million in playing salary that year).

During an interview with officers, O'Neal yearned for "investigative work." Asked about his favorite memory, he replied, "All dreams have come true." The worst: "Messing up so much that he thought [his] parents didn't love him." 

An Army brat raised mostly in Newark, New Jersey, O'Neal confessed to the interviewers that he doesn't "express [himself] when he feels he should. His father was a drill sergeant who taught him to keep everything in."

As a Miami Beach quasi-cop, O'Neal formed a strange trio of BFFs with then-chief Donald DeLucca — a flashy character referred to in the department, somewhat derisively, as "the Don" — and since-convicted Ponzi schemer Nevin Shapiro. They even traded jewelry, with Shapiro later claiming he gave O'Neal diamond-studded handcuffs.

Quizzed about the gift by reporters, O'Neal huffed, "I had my own handcuffs." Shapiro, he said, only arranged for a bargain on the diamonds.

Officer O'Neal was developing a specialty: undercover work targeting online sexual predators. He was deputized with the U.S. Marshals and told reporters that posing as a child online had resulted in 30 arrests of sexual predators. (The agency couldn't confirm this claim to New Times.)

In August 2006 in the sticks of Virginia, one pumpkin farmer got well-acquainted with Keystone Shaq's special brand of law enforcement. That's when a cavalcade of police cars screamed onto A.J. Nuckols's farm and disgorged barking cops in SWAT gear, including the tallest man he had ever seen.

Told he was suspected of possession of child porn, Nuckols was tossed against his Ford pickup. The giant officer reached into the truck's gun rack and hoisted the rifle like it was Pablo Escobar's coke spoon, booming victoriously, "We've got a gun!"

The farmer studied the behemoth.

"Are you... Shaquille O'Neal?"

The officer grumbled, "No. My name's Tony."

Nuckols, it turns out, was innocent. Nine days later, the local sheriff, who admitted that O'Neal had accompanied the raid, attributed the blunder to faulty information from an Internet company.

The farmer angrily blames ass-kissing cops eager to give their superstar charge an adventure. "They didn't do any investigation," he says. "It was all a big show."

By the time O'Neal was traded to the Phoenix Suns in February 2008, he had already spent time romping through the Arizona desert with Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the swashbuckling and controversial border hound whose honorary posse also included Steven Segal. Now, O'Neal joined the Tempe Police force, working with the Internet Crimes Against Children initiative with veteran detective Burke Mattlin as his mentor. His one official assignment during his few months on the squad was raiding a trailer park with Mattlin in search of a suspected child molester with the Internet handle "Iamthecumster."

The perv had already skipped the state. O'Neal and Mattlin drove back to the station empty-handed.

In June 2009, O'Neal was traded to Cleveland, continuing a twilight tour that would later take him to Boston and into retirement.

Despite all the apparent shenanigans in his private life, only once did a police chief sanction him. While O'Neal was with the Suns, Sheriff Arpaio demanded that he return his honorary badges after a video circulated of Shaq freestyle-rapping at a nightclub. "If any of my deputies did something like this, they're fired," Arpaio seethed.

A sample of the offending lyrics: "Kobe ratted me out — that's why I'm getting a divorce. He said Shaq gave the bitch a mil. I don't do that, 'cause my name is Shaquille... Kobe, tell me how my ass taste."

Like old summer-camp buddies, O'Neal remained close with his law enforcement friends in Miami Beach and Maricopa County long after moving away.

A public records request involving emails sent from Miami Beach cops to O'Neal reveals a posse of supporters-with-badges forwarding news articles about him, congratulating him, and calling him "chum."

Miami Beach Internal Affairs Sgt. Jorge Alessandri was especially smitten, gushing in December 2009: "You know I first looked at you as a co-worker then as a friend and now as family. I can't put into words how proud I am of you and how proud I am to be part of your family."

Embroiled in a divorce, at war with a purported mistress, and infiltrated by his former IT guy, O'Neal turned to his cop connections for help.

When Vanessa Lopez sent the text message threatening to go public, O'Neal forwarded it to Detective Alessandri. "Det george take a look at this text and tel me what u think sir," he asked.

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.

O'Neal himself is not here. He has avoided showing up for trial. His deposition, taken in January, has been closely guarded by both sides. The craggy Judge Marc Schumacher rules Darling cannot publicize the emails. "The court must think of the public interest," he declares before adding with a knowing chuckle: "The public interest would not at all be served by the release of these emails."

This case is destined for an ugly finish. If it's dismissed, Darling believes he will no longer be constrained from sharing the thousands of emails with the world. He has even considered launching a website to broadcast them.

Despite Darling's prediction of a horde of television crews bombarding the hearing, only one broadcaster — WPLG Channel 10's ubiquitous Glenna Milberg — and her burly cameraman are here. There will be no defiant courthouse statement after all: While the crew attempts to negotiate an interview through his attorney, the plaintiff quietly slips into an elevator going down.

Darling is sporting Matrix-style black sunglasses. A New Times reporter in the elevator asks if he's disappointed with the judge's ruling.

"Not at all," he shoots back with his jackal's grin. "I just got off the phone with Shaq's people. They're running scared."

Phoenix New Times senior staff writer Paul Rubin contributed to this story.

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