Like a shady character out of an Elmore Leonard book, Darling reinvented himself as an IT whiz in prison and hooked up with O'Neal on a piecework basis, originally to upgrade computer systems and other hardware in the superstar's luxurious digs.

In February 2008, the Miami Heat sent O'Neal to the Phoenix Suns in a controversial blockbuster trade.

O'Neal found a house in Scottsdale, and Darling says he was summoned there a few times to do IT work. (Invoices filed in Darling's civil suit show that O'Neal paid him almost $12,000 over a three-year period that ended in late 2009.)

Kiddy porn convict Christopher Youngs, a onetime target of Detective Shaq
Kiddy porn convict Christopher Youngs, a onetime target of Detective Shaq
Shaq and Shaunie O'Neal in 2007, before their divorce
SJ WEISS/SARA JAYE WEISS/NEWSCOM
Shaq and Shaunie O'Neal in 2007, before their divorce

As had been the norm since his days with the Los Angeles Lakers, O'Neal connected with local law enforcement soon after moving to Arizona.

Actually, O'Neal had hooked up with Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio a few years before the trade, becoming a "special deputy colonel" with the MCSO's posse — a ceremonial position that provided an occasional media opportunity for the ever-pandering sheriff.

But O'Neal wanted more than just playing at being a cop.

In March 2008, he filled out applications with AZPOST and with the Tempe Police Department, hoping to become a full-fledged peace officer.

Among other references, O'Neal listed former Miami Beach Police Chief Don DeLucca, a friend who also is pals with Tempe Police Chief Tom Ryff.

Concurrently, he applied with AZPOST for a waiver from many of the usual requirements needed to earn certification — including hundreds of hours of classroom and fieldwork — because of his previous stints with other police agencies. Those included the Miami Beach and the Los Angeles Port Police departments. (AZPOST officials say such waivers are not unusual.)

In 2004, O'Neal responded on an application with the Miami Beach PD about special skills and equipment he might possess: "Laptop computer, binnochulars, master of surveillance."

O'Neal forged friendships in Miami Beach with then-chief DeLucca — a flashy character referred to inside his department as "The Don" — and Nevin Shapiro, the former University of Miami football booster now imprisoned for running a $1 billion Ponzi scheme.

By then, he was developing a passion: undercover work targeting online sexual predators.

The U.S. Marshals Service deputized O'Neal in 2005, and he later told reporters that his work posing online as a child had resulted in 30 arrests of sexual predators. (A U.S. Marshals Service spokeswoman tells New Times that she cannot confirm the claim.)

O'Neal also found time to become a reserve deputy for the Bedford County Sheriff's Office in central Virginia. Life in the rural county, dotted with tobacco farms, is far removed from that in Miami and Los Angeles.

In August 2006, a caravan of police in SWAT gear swooped down onto A.J. Nuckols' pumpkin farm there, including the largest man that the father of three had ever seen up close.

News accounts said Nuckols claimed that the cops shoved him up against his Ford truck and told him he was suspected of possessing child porn.

According to Nuckols' account, Shaquille O'Neal reached into Nuckols' pickup and yanked a rifle off the rack.

"We've got a gun!" he boomed.

"Are you Shaquille O'Neal?" Nuckols asked him.

"No," the self-described master of surveillance replied. "My name's Tony."

As it turns out, Nuckols was innocent.

The Bedford County sheriff later said his anti-child-porn unit had erred while tracing a computer address and sent the SWAT team to the wrong location.

Undeterred by the miscarriage of justice, O'Neal told Tempe Chief Tom Ryff — who assumed the helm in 2006 — that he really wanted to work cases involving computers and child-pornography suspects.

Mark Salem, a former Scottsdale police officer who has operated Salem Boys Auto in Tempe for 26 years, tells New Times that Chief Ryff visited him at his shop shortly before O'Neal came on board.

"He said he had a really good friend who was a police chief in Florida [who] wanted him to take on Shaq as an officer," Salem says. "The chief out there supposedly said that Shaq could be a big pain in the ass because he would just show up and butt in whenever he could, but he was asking Ryff for a favor."

Ryff needed Salem's help in securing a van or motor home. The vehicle would pull up at a public school, and Tempe officers would set up a computer and large screen somewhere.

Selected students then logged in to a chat room and typed messages. The cops asked them to guess at the age and gender of whoever was on the end.

At that point, Shaquille O'Neal — he was that other person — popped out of the vehicle. It was the Big Cactus doing his anti-kiddy-porn thing.

Salem says he agreed to solicit local car dealers and to put in funds himself for the project. But none of it ever happened.

The Phoenix Suns' season ended on April 29, 2008, with a first-round loss to the San Antonio Spurs.

A few weeks later, O'Neal was scheduled to take a multiple-choice test for AZPOST certification about Arizona laws and basic techniques common to police work.

Tempe police at that time had invited the news media to join O'Neal and Chief Ryff at the Pascua Yaqui Reservation near Tucson.

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