By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Just after noon on December 15, 2009, a Tempe police detective sent a very specific e-mail about how to conduct a child pornography investigation to this private address: detectiveoneal32[at]ma.com.
Yes, it was the famed basketball player. O'Neal, a brand with one of the most recognizable names and faces on the planet — had worked closely with Mattlin in 2008 and into 2009 as a peace officer credentialed by AZPOST, Arizona's police-certification agency.
Specifically, O'Neal was assigned to the Tempe Police Department's new Internet Crimes Against Children unit as a volunteer detective. But AZPOST records show that Tempe PD officials informed the agency on March 16, 2009, that "Detective" O'Neal had left the department — "separation" was the official term used.
That was a few months before the Phoenix Suns traded O'Neal to Cleveland after finishing the disappointing 2008-09 season one game short of the playoffs.
Detective Mattlin's e-mail clearly was in response to an earlier communication (that never has seen the light of day) in which O'Neal apparently asked his former mentor how best to uncover "potential illegal images" (Mattlin's words) in an unspecified police investigation into child pornography in another jurisdiction.
Mattlin refers in this missive to "your agency" and explains the workings of sophisticated police-computer software designed to track down those who share kiddy porn over the Internet or who try to lure youngsters for sex by pretending in chat rooms to be much younger than they are.
The Tempe detective tells O'Neal to first identify two or three "illegal" images on a suspect's computer through the use of those new high-tech forensic tools.
Mattlin writes, "Then you've got the PC [probable cause] to get a subpoena from the Internet service provider for the subscriber information for whoever had that IP address when GnuWatch [the police software] connected to them."
The Tempe detective continues, "Once you get your subpoena back with the subscriber info, you can write up a warrant and hit the residence. Hope this helps. Get a hold of me if you have any questions."
Mattlin signs off cheerfully: "Good luck and happy hunting!"
Tempe police Sergeant Steve Carbajal says Mattlin believed O'Neal still was working as a fellow detective, possibly for the Cuyahoga County (Ohio) Sheriff's Office, where the superstar had expressed an interest in volunteering after the trade to Cleveland.
"One police detective basically sharing his knowledge with another," says Carbajal, an agency spokesman. "From what I understand, Mr. O'Neal never specifically told Detective Mattlin what agency he may have been with or what he may have been working on."
But Shaquille O'Neal was not working in an official capacity on December 15, 2009, for any police agency.
"Mr. O'Neal never has been a peace officer in the state of Ohio," says Dan Tierney, a spokesman for the Ohio Attorney General's Office.
That is critical because, under AZPOST regulations, officers who leave a department after "termination, resignation, retirement, or separation" have "no law enforcement authority" [AZPOST's italics] until another agency hires them.
Arizona's regulations also include this stern warning: "A person with inactive certification who takes action as a peace officer is committing the crime of impersonating a public servant."
This was, in effect, what O'Neal was doing — whether or not he was aware of the regulation — and Detective Mattlin was happy to accommodate him by sharing his investigative techniques via e-mail.
In December 2009, O'Neal was a private citizen who was fixated on an ex-employee whom he correctly suspected of providing damaging information concerning O'Neal's alleged extramarital dalliances to Shaq's estranged wife, Shaunie, and others.
The ex-associate, a Florida ex-con named Shawn Darling, has alleged in a lawsuit that O'Neal contacted Detective Mattlin as part of a scheme to try to frame Darling on a kiddy-porn rap because of the betrayal.
Proof of that specific scheme is lacking.
O'Neal declined through an emissary to comment for this story.
His attorneys have denied any wrongdoing by their client, and in the strongest terms.
"It is ludicrous to suggest that Mr. O'Neal would have jeopardized a pending criminal investigation [against Darling] by seeking to plant pornographic materials on Darling's computers," says O'Neal's attorney, Michael J. Kump, in a written statement.
The O'Neal camp claims that he contacted the Tempe PD innocently — just to gather some investigative techniques to pass along to Cuyahoga County sheriff's detectives.
That is one way of approaching what, at the very least, has become an embarrassment for both Shaquille O'Neal and the Tempe Police Department.
The Mattlin e-mail recently turned up in the public record when Darling — a 41-year-old computer consultant who has served prison time for committing white-collar crimes — attached it to his ongoing lawsuit against onetime employer O'Neal.
At the heart of the suit are thousands of potentially damaging e-mails that Darling pilfered from O'Neal's personal account from late 2008 until January 2010. (O'Neal's attorneys have not challenged the authenticity of the e-mails, and have sought unsuccessfully to get Darling prosecuted criminally.)
Darling shared some of those damaging e-mails with Shaunie O'Neal and with one of O'Neal's supposed mistresses for use in their respective litigation against Shaq.
The timing of Mattlin's December 2009 e-mail and other e-mails during that time dovetail with the onset of O'Neal's high-stakes divorce proceedings and other looming personal troubles, and just as Darling's role as a high-tech snitch was coming to light.
"Boy needs to b put in jail," O'Neal wrote to an associate around the time he contacted Detective Mattlin, referring to Shawn Darling. "We have way to many law enforcement connections to let a criminal try to get over on mine o mine [O'Neal's company]. I promised u I would stay outta trouble, I kept my word, but cannot control somebody [s]tealing and selling e-mails. Come on now protect me from this. I lost my family because of this guy, come on now."
The associate's reply was succinct: "Got it he will be stopped n pay for this."
O'Neal's reference to "law enforcement connections" at that time suggests that his contact with Detective Mattlin may have been directly related to his sticky situation with Darling.
Also on December 15, 2009, Shaquille O'Neal forwarded an e-mail to his personal agent. He apparently had gotten word that celebrity news TV show TMZ was offering $3,500 to one of O'Neal's supposed mistresses, a Scottsdale woman, to tell her story on camera.
This is the kind of pressured world in which this famous father of four was living at the time.
A Florida judge appraised the e-mails' in an August 26 ruling that sealed them from the public record until further notice.
Miami-Dade Circuit magistrate Marc Schumacher wrote, "I can tell you that there are allegations against so many people in so many different positions in society that their release would really wreck lives."
(New Times obtained about 30 of O'Neal's e-mails — including the missive from Mattlin — before the judge sealed the documents.)
"I want u or rihanna," O'Neal tells her, referring to the popular R&B songstress.
In another e-mail exchange, he asks a Swedish model crudely: "Where can I cum at when I c u".
"All over me, where do you wanna cum?"
"In u foreva," replies O'Neal, ever the romantic.
Shaquille O'Neal's extensive camp (lawyers, agents, public relations people) insists that its client's wealth and celebrity make him a target for scam artists of Shawn Darling's ilk.
But O'Neal's popularity among the general public continues unabated.
His sordid behind-the-scenes saga mostly has been ignored by mainstream media, which instead report on such trifles as the recently unveiled statue of Shaq at his alma mater, Louisiana State University.
But the public record provides a window into the stunning disparity between O'Neal's public persona and his dysfunctional private life.
Shawn Darling's lawsuit is not the only legal front on which O'Neal has battled accusations in recent years:
An Orlando woman claims in court that O'Neal dispatched his two sisters and an associate to intimidate her into silence in September 2009, after she threatened to expose her claimed long-term affair with him and her pregnancy, allegedly with his child.
A 23-year-old Atlanta woman won a restraining order against O'Neal in August 2008 after avowing in court that he was stalking her over the telephone after their alleged affair ended.
Finally, in Los Angeles, there was the criminal case against seven members of the Main Street Crips, charged until recently with kidnapping, assaulting, and robbing a music producer. The producer had claimed to have a sex tape of O'Neal — it never emerged — and prosecutors alleged that the gang-bangers had demanded its return. When the guy didn't produce it, the Crips allegedly beat and robbed him. O'Neal never was linked to wrongdoing, and prosecutors dismissed all charges last month.
Shawn Darling says Shaquille O'Neal is convinced that he is above the law.
"Shaquille has gotten what he wanted since he became a big star in high school," Darling tells New Times. "He figures he's untouchable because he's Shaq Daddy, the big hero. The cops love him and all that shit."
He has not been charged with any criminal wrongdoing in this case.
Shaunie (O'Neal) Nelson, whose divorce from Shaq is now final, also chose not to answer questions from New Times.
"I don't have any interest in talking about either of those guys," she says, referring to her ex-husband and Shawn Darling.
Shawn Darling says he was doing IT consulting work in early 2007 when he met Shaquille O'Neal, who was nearing the end of an eight-year run with the Miami Heat.
At the time, the smooth-talking owner of the one-man Your IT Team LLC was about five years removed from a federal prison stint, having served two years for scamming banks of about $47,000 with fake cashier's checks and a bogus Social Security number.
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.)
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.
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.
Thanks mostly to O'Neal's prominent presence at the Tempe PD, the tribe had donated $75,000 to the East Valley agency as seed money for an Internet Crimes Against Children unit, which O'Neal was about to join as a volunteer detective.
But AZPOST records show that O'Neal then flunked the parts of its multiple-choice test concerning the laws of arrest and traffic control. That meant he had to take a three-hour retest, during which AZPOST allowed him (again, the agency says he got no special treatment) to refer to the Arizona Revised Statutes.
O'Neal passed this time, a relief to the Tempe PD, which already was calling him "Detective" in its press releases.
AZPOST executive director Lyle Mann tells New Times that O'Neal also passed his physical agility test, among others, with flying colors. "I'm pretty sure Shaq was the only applicant we've ever had who basically stepped over the six-foot wall," Mann says, chuckling.
On June 14, 2008, 36-year-old Shaquille Rashaun O'Neal was sworn in as a fully certified peace officer with the Tempe Police Department.
Chief Ryff proudly told the news media that he hoped to use O'Neal's supposed expertise "as a forensic computer investigator in the crimes against children unit we're setting up."
And the fading center still was about to collect a salary of $21 million from the Suns for the 2008-09 season.
The Tempe PD limited O'Neal's authority, ordering him to work under Detective Burke Mattlin's supervision at all times.
O'Neal had been a cop for two weeks when he made news generated by master media manipulator, Joe Arpaio.
None too pleased about the big fella's defection to the Tempe PD, Sheriff Arpaio struck back after a nasty video of O'Neal rapping about former teammate Kobe Bryant from the stage of a New York City nightclub went viral.
The offending lyrics included the following: "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."
The sheriff publicly demanded the return of the two badges he had given O'Neal, and the media dutifully reported it like it was a big deal.
Someone at the Tempe PD publicly shrugged off the spat, saying it was just between good ol' Shaq and old Joe.
But O'Neal's life was about to turn upside down on more pressing fronts than Arpaio's dime-a-dozen badges.
Shaquille O'Neal returned to his family and his palatial home in Orlando during the summer of 2008.
Weeks passed, and he prepared to return to Phoenix for what would be his final season with the Phoenix Suns.
Then, in early September 2008, computer guy Shawn Darling says O'Neal asked him to come to Orlando. When he arrived at the 64,000-square-foot home, O'Neal was sitting at a huge desk in his office, worried beyond measure.
A woman had obtained a restraining order against him in an Atlanta court, claiming in elaborate detail that O'Neal was stalking her in various ways.
Alexis Miller's petition for the restraining order claimed that she had been in an affair with him for an unspecified period of time. It had ended, but O'Neal repeatedly continued to call her, allegedly breathing, Darth Vader-style, into the phone.
When the 23-year-old demanded that the caller identify himself, O'Neal, she said, would mutter in his recognizable basso: "Bitch. Ho."
Miller claimed that O'Neal also sent her menacing e-mails, including one in which he 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."
Shawn Darling says he perched himself at O'Neal's computer that September day in 2008 and scoured its hard drive, trying to ensure that no one would find any incriminating data stored there.
Darling made a suggestion.
"Why you using AOL for e-mail anyway?" he says he told O'Neal. "Why don't you have me set you up on your own server so that you can always have access to your old [e-mails]?"
Darling has claimed in his lawsuit that O'Neal agreed to the plan, though he wasn't quite buying that his computer had been wiped clean.
O'Neal allegedly then boxed up the computer and carried it out to a small boat docked behind his mansion. Another O'Neal associate joined him on the boat as Darling stayed on shore.
When the pair returned, O'Neal was holding the soaked, empty computer box. Darling says O'Neal told him that the Styrofoam in the box made the computer float, so he had taken it out and hurled it in the drink.
Darling claims O'Neal grabbed a laptop and drove with him in a Mercedes to the parking lot of a local bookstore. There, he responded anonymously (and negatively) in the comments sections of blogs reporting about Alexis Miller's restraining order.
Darling admits that he also routed all of O'Neal's e-mails from that day to his own hard drive, a safekeeping measure, he insists. He says O'Neal knew exactly what was going on and approved it, which O'Neal's legal team denies.
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.
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.
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.
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.
O'Neal's high-profile agent, Lester Knispel, vigorously defended the pair in an e-mail to the ballplayer.
"They would never throw you under the bus with Shaunie," he wrote. "They are both in tears over this . . . Is it possible that Shaunie can tap into your e-mails and that is how she is picking up the information you are sending?"
On November 10, 2009, Shaunie O'Neal filed for divorce, citing irreconcilable differences.
By then, Darling says, he had started to leak info to her from O'Neal's e-mails as divorce settlement negotiations were getting under way. He tells New Times that he simply was doing "the right thing."
"I haven't made a buck off of any of this — not a buck," Darling claims, though the evidence (and common sense) strongly suggests that money always has been his end game.
In early December 2009, O'Neal had homed in on the apparent snake in his midst — Shawn Darling.
Darling says that a barrage of virus alerts popped up on his computer screen during that time, suggesting to him that someone was trying to hack into his server.
"I knew it had to be Shaq," he says, which O'Neal's camp denies.
Darling admits he continued to surreptitiously monitor O'Neal's e-mail from his own computer — with the access he says he got after the panic over Alexis Miller's 2008 restraining order.
Now, he pored over the most recent messages, which included the December 15, 2009, e-mail from Detective Mattlin, and others from ex-"colleagues" at the Miami Beach PD.
Those e-mails, Darling says, especially the one from Mattlin, convinced him that O'Neal was devising a plot to frame him by somehow putting child porn on his computer.
The inflammatory allegation remains unproved, though the possibility that a desperate O'Neal wanted to hack into Darling's computer to see what was there cannot be ignored.
"Shaq is a smart guy in a lot of ways, very manipulative," Darling says, a description that also fits himself. "You ever hear the saying about desperate people doing desperate things?"
New Times requested an interview with Tempe Police Chief Tom Ryff to discuss the O'Neal situation — it was the chief who was responsible for bringing the superstar into his agency's fold.
Ryff declined the request through spokesman Carbajal.
Carbajal and Tempe PD legal adviser Bill Amato, however, did speak about the case, and provided several requested documents under Arizona's public-records law.
Carbajal says the agency completed an administrative review of Mattlin's December 2009 e-mail to O'Neal (almost two years after the fact) and found no wrongdoing on the part of Mattlin.
Conducted by Sergeant Joey Brudnock, the review concludes with this statement:
"I found the content of the [December 2009] e-mail to be an appropriate information exchange between two police detectives. Detective Mattlin had an expectation that his e-mail would remain a private exchange between two police detectives and thus included sensitive methodologies and practices in hopes of furthering law enforcement efforts in another state."
Sergeant Brudnock's report says Shaquille O'Neal is "still currently AZPOST certified," which technically is true.
But he fails to note that O'Neal had no law enforcement authority in December 2009.
Both Carbajal and Amato say that IT personnel at the Tempe PD curiously have been unable to locate Mattlin's e-mail or the communication from O'Neal that initiated the detective's response.
Carbajal declines to comment on the possibility that the Tempe Police Department was tooled by a sports star/wanna-be cop whose personal world was in disarray.
"Shaq did a lot of good things for our agency and our community when he was here," he tells New Times. "I would categorize it as a positive relationship overall."