A triumphant U.S. swimming performance at the Olympic Games was tarnished Thursday when the police chief accused four American swimmers of lying about being robbed, apparently to cover up their vandalizing of a service station restroom.
Fernando Veloso, chief of Rio de Janeiro’s civil police, said the swimmers, including 12-time medalist Ryan Lochte, were apparently intoxicated when they damaged a mirror and other bathroom accessories at the station at about 6 a.m. Sunday.
Confronted by service station workers, they attempted to flee, he said, but were prevented from leaving when an off-duty police officer working as a security guard pointed his pistol in their direction and ordered them to sit down while police were called. The police never came.
Veloso said the swimmers – Lochte, Gunnar Bentz, Jack Conger and James Feigen – could be charged with filing a false police report and for damaging personal property, crimes that carry jail terms in Brazil.
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But U.S. Olympic Committee said in a statement late Thursday that Bentz and Conger had been allow to board a plane for the United States and that Feigen, under questioning, had revised his account of what took place “with the hope of securing the release of his passport as soon as possible.”
Veloso said Brazil has asked for FBI assistance in questioning Lochte, who had returned to the U.S. before a judge’s order to seize his passport could be executed.
“There is nothing that justifies this confusion that they were victims of a violent crime,” Veloso told a news conference.
The U.S. committee called the swimmers’ behavior “not acceptable.”
“We will further review the matter, and any potential consequences for the athletes, when we return to the United States,” the statement said. “On behalf of the United States Olympic Committee, we apologize to our hosts in Rio and the people of Brazil for this distracting ordeal in the midst of what should rightly be a celebration of excellence.”
The swimmers’ claim of being victims of an armed robbery in Rio made news the world over because the city had already seen a number of high-profile muggings and hold-ups. It undid much of the marketing efforts Brazil had made for the famed city.
The revelation that they had fabricated the incident drew harsh criticism and demands for an apology from Rio residents and took the focus off of what had been U.S. dominance of swimming events, led by Michael Phelps, whose 23 gold medals make him the most decorated athlete in the Olympic Games’ 2,000-year history.
Lochte was a member of the men’s 4 x 200-meter freestyle team that Phelps anchored to win a gold. Bentz, while he didn’t swim in the final, will receive a gold medal because he had been a member of the relay team in earlier heats.
“I think it’s disrespectful to Brazilians . . . I adore the United States but the American government should apologize to the people of Brazil,” said Renier Acevedo, who lives near the police station where two of the swimmers were questioned Thursday afternoon.
David Marsh, who has served as Lochte’s personal coach for the past three years, said he had not talked to Lochte, but that he imagines the swimmer “feels terrible” for drawing attention “away from the amazing Olympic athletes competing in Rio.”
Late Thursday, USA Swimming Executive Director Chuck Wielgus issued a statement that said, “The last five days have been difficult for our USA Swimming and United States Olympic families. While we are thankful our athletes are safe, we do not condone the lapse in judgment and conduct that led us to this point. It is not representative of what is expected as Olympians, as Americans, as swimmers and as individuals.”
The statement went on to say, “USA Swimming will undergo a thorough review of the incident and determine any further actions, per our Code of Conduct.”
Veloso’s account of what took place at a Shell gas station in Rio’s Barra da Tijuca neighborhood was backed up by security camera video. The video showed showed Lochte, Bentz, Conger, and Feigen staggering out of the gas station at around 6:07 a.m.
Gas station attendants can be seen running toward a bathroom, apparently after hearing a crash. The swimmers, noticeably impaired, try to get into the wrong cab before walking across the pumps to their proper cab that had stopped so they could use the facilities.
In the tape, the cab driver appears to refuse to drive away, and one of two off-duty cops working security for the gas station approach the driver and tells him to stay put. After several minutes the swimmers get out and walk away.
A second security surveillance video showed the security guard pointing a weapon at the swimmers, and three slowly sit down with their arms raised. Several minutes go by and one swimmer stands up, while the other swimmers appear to signal that he’s not trying to flee.
“Once they sat down, the firearm was put away,” said Veloso, who did not say whether one or both officers pointed their weapons.
The two officers were authorized to carry weapons, Veloso said, and their names won’t be released for their protection. In Rio and many parts of Brazil, police don’t tell friends and neighbors what they do because they are often subject to summary executions by drug gangs.
Veloso said the taxi driver and both guards gave testimony earlier in the week, prompting police to check the surveillance video.
The guards described the swimmers as drunk and aggressive, offering a $20 bill for trashing the bathroom. They eventually left that bill and the equivalent of about $32 in Brazilian currency.
Patrick Sandusky, the chief spokesman for the U.S. Olympic Committee, said Bentz, Conger and Feigen were cooperating with Brazilian authorities. “All are represented by counsel and being appropriately supported by the USOC and the U.S. Consulate in Rio,” he said.
Mario Andrada, the spokesman for the Rio 2016 Games, told reporters Thursday that being caught in a lie was “sufficient” punishment for the American athletes.
But the decision of whether charges will eventually be pressed belongs to police here, who want to hear from all four swimmers before making their recommendation to prosecutors.
It was clear from Veloso’s news conference that he believed the others were offering incriminating testimony against Lochte’s version of events. Lochte told NBC’s Today Show that armed robbers posing as police put a gun to his head and cocked the trigger.
“There was no physical violence . . . you can see they were sitting on the ground,” said Veloso.
Judge Keyla Blanc De Cnop issued a surprise order Wednesday to search for and seize Lochte and Feigen’s passports in order to prevent them from leaving Brazil. She publicly questioned their allegations, based on security camera footage that shows them joking as they arrive at the Olympic Village minutes before 7 a.m. Sunday.
For average Brazilians, the swimmers’ tale of armed robbery seemed strange. Their American cellphones, prized in the black market here, were inexplicably not taken. In fact, news reports told of German and Bulgarian athletes having iPhones and iPads stolen from their rooms in the Olympic village.
From the moment news first broke about the apparent robbery, the story began evolving into one that raised more questions. Lochte first denied that he’d been robbed, and the International Olympic Committee denied it had happened.
Then he admitted it happened and said he had lied because he was afraid the group of swimmers would get in trouble.
Ileana Lochte, his protective Cuban-American mother, was at times contradicting her son, saying that he was indeed robbed. Her story changed, as did what the U.S. Olympic Committee was saying.
Lochte even described in gripping detail to NBC how he’d resisted the demand to lie down on the ground and got a pistol barrel pressed against his forehead.
The story unraveled in pieces. The British newspaper Daily Mail on Wednesday published security surveillance screen shots of Lochte and fellow swimmers, in which they appear to have their wallets and cellphones in hand.
Scott Fowler of the Charlotte Observer contributed to this report.