Whatever the truth, doing business with Shawn Darling turned out to be a Shaq-size mistake.

Shaquille O'Neal returned to Arizona for the 2008-09 season, before which diehard Phoenix fans held out hope for an elusive NBA championship.

Jamie Peachey
O'Neal in 2003 with the Port of Los Angeles Police
Photo by Robert Mora/Getty Images
O'Neal in 2003 with the Port of Los Angeles Police


Miami New Times staff writer Gus Garcia-Roberts collaborated on this story.

O'Neal soon reconnected with his colleagues at the Tempe PD, and he spent hours at the main station near Sun Devil Stadium on his days off.

He performed occasional community service for the cops, one day handing out 200 pairs of Nike sneakers for underprivileged children at a Tempe neighborhood center.

O'Neal made one appearance with Chief Ryff at the Tempe Boys and Girls Club, where he enjoyed a hero's welcome and fluffy media coverage.

"In spirit, he is a big kid with giant shoes," wrote Arizona Republic sport columnist Dan Bickley of the gregarious character.

But O'Neal craved real police action, a chance to bust a bona fide pervert or two — maybe even a guilty one this time, after the Virginia fiasco.

He almost got his chance on December 19, 2008, the day after returning from Portland, where he scored 19 points in a losing effort against the Trail Blazers.

Tempe police reports show that O'Neal and Detective Mattlin drove to a mobile-home park in Casa Grande that day in search of a suspected child molester and purveyor of child porn.

His name was Christopher Youngs, a 58-year-old New Zealand native whose Internet handle in chat rooms frequented by perverts was "Iamthecumster."

The men searched for their suspect in the Fiesta Grande mobile-home park, off Interstate 10 west of exit 194. But no one recognized Youngs in a photo (though they certainly recognized Deputy O'Neal), so they drove to an address in Tucson that had turned up on a thumb drive recovered from the suspect's most recent lodging, a Tempe motel room.

No luck there, either, so the pair returned to Tempe without Youngs in tow. So much for a glorious arrest, though Youngs later was captured in New Mexico and extradited to Arizona for prosecution. He was sentenced earlier this year to life in prison.

Like a superhero changing identities, "Detective" O'Neal donned his Suns jersey the next night, as Phoenix beat the Denver Nuggets at US Airways Center.

But the 2008-09 season proved a disappointment when the Suns failed to even make the playoffs in O'Neal's first full season with the team.

By the time the Suns had traded O'Neal to the Cleveland Cavaliers in June 2009, O'Neal's tenure with the Tempe PD had ended.

Under the law, O'Neal retained his Arizona certification for three years after leaving Tempe (it still is intact), but he never completed the certification process in Ohio after volunteering with Cuyahoga County's Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force .

On October 3, 2009, Shaquille O'Neal prepared to play his first preseason game for Cleveland, alongside Cavs star LeBron James.

O'Neal was up to his usual high-jinks in the locker room before the game, quizzing charmed reporters on what he should be for Halloween, grabbing a portly writer's gut with both hands and shaking it, and hyping his "challenge" to South Korean giant Choi Hong-man in a mixed-martial-arts ring.

But O'Neal's personal life was in shambles. His marriage to Shaunie was kaput — this time for keeps — though the paperwork wouldn't be filed for about another month. Shaunie and the kids stayed home in Orlando as O'Neal moved to Cleveland.

O'Neal was quite aware that Vanessa Lopez, another of his purported mistresses, was threatening to go public after he allegedly had reacted negatively to the news of her supposed pregnancy in late September.

"I won't keep quiet," Lopez vowed that month in an e-mail to O'Neal that Shawn Darling later intercepted and turned over to her lawyers. "So you might want to tell your wife everything before she hears it elsewhere."

Like most of O'Neal's accusers in this story, Lopez has serious credibility issues, including separate run-ins involving three other NBA players, though she filed no criminal charges in connection with the incidents.

Still, Lopez has claimed in a lawsuit filed in Orange County, Florida, in January that O'Neal went after her hard when she'd told him about the pregnancy.

It includes an allegation that O'Neal sent a henchman to her hometown of Orlando to intimidate her and also had his Amazonian sisters, Ayesha and Lateefa, harass her in person and by phone.

"O'Neal is a large, powerful, wealthy man and a professional athlete," Lopez's lawsuit says. "O'Neal has connections inside law enforcement, having served as an auxiliary police officer with various police departments . . . Lopez is in fear of her safety."

O'Neal has rejected all of Lopez's allegations in court documents. Lopez declined to comment for this story. (She has said in public records that she aborted Shaquille O'Neal's child in late 2009.)

Whether O'Neal told Shaunie anything about the nature of his relationship with Vanessa Lopez is uncertain. But O'Neal knew by October 2009 that someone from inside his camp was providing dirt about him to his estranged wife that threatened to cut into his fortune and public image.

Just hours before the Cavaliers' first exhibition game that October 3, Shaquille O'Neal accused one of his managers and his lawyer in e-mails of leaking the information to Shaunie.

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