Lawyers: Arrests made in Phelps case

Updated: February 13, 2009, 12:51 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Authorities in the South Carolina county where Michael Phelps was photographed smoking from a marijuana pipe have been arresting people as they seek to make a case against the superstar swimmer, lawyers for two arrested people said Thursday.

After they arrested him, they didn't ask him, 'Where did you get the marijuana?' or 'Who sold it to you?' Almost all the questions they asked him were about Michael Phelps.

-- Defense attorney Dick Harpootlian

Attorneys Joseph McCulloch and Dick Harpootlian told The Associated Press they each represent a client charged with possession of marijuana who was questioned about the party Phelps attended near the University of South Carolina campus in November.

The lawyers said the two clients were renters at the house where the party apparently took place. Harpootlian said his client was at the party, but didn't see Phelps smoke marijuana, while McCulloch said his client wasn't there. The two have since moved and were arrested after police executed a search warrant at their new home and accused them of having a small amount of marijuana there.

"After they arrested him, they didn't ask him, 'Where did you get the marijuana?' or 'Who sold it to you?' Almost all the questions they asked him were about Michael Phelps," Harpootlian said.

The lawyers would not name their clients, who each face up to 30 days in jail and a $200 fine if convicted on the pending charges.

The Richland County Sheriff's Department would not comment on the lawyers' remarks.

"As soon as we're ready to release information on this case, we will [comment], and we're still in the middle of this investigation," Lt. Chris Cowan said.

Authorities haven't contacted the swimmer, who issued an apology for his behavior earlier this month, one of his agents said.

"Michael has not been contacted and we are not going to speculate," agent Drew Johnson said.

After the photo was published Feb. 1, Sheriff Leon Lott said his office would investigate and possibly charge Phelps, though officials have not specified what the offense might be.

The effort to prosecute Phelps seems extreme compared to similar cases, lawyers said, and have led some to question whether the sheriff is being overzealous because he's dealing with a celebrity.

"The efforts that are being made here are unlike anything I've ever seen before," said Jack Swerling, a defense attorney in South Carolina. "I know Leon Lott, I know him to be an honorable guy. I've known him for 30 something years. But the efforts here are extraordinary on simple possession cases."

Phelps, 23, and his representatives have not disputed the photo's accuracy. Phelps has issued a public apology, acknowledging "regrettable" behavior and "bad judgment" after the photo appeared. USA Swimming has suspended Phelps for three months and the Kellogg Co. has cut ties with him, although other sponsors are sticking with the swimmer.

McCulloch, who said his client was out of town at the time, doubted that anything his client told authorities would assist them in the case against Phelps.

"Our clients answered questions but I don't know that their information would be helpful to law enforcement," McCulloch said. "It seems to me that Richland County has a host of its own crime problems much more serious than a kid featured in a photograph with a bong in his hand."

Lott has said Phelps should not get a break because of his fame. Harpootlian said that he believes police are being overzealous.

"I find it amazing the justification is they don't want to treat him any differently just because he is a celebrity, and he is being treated far differently than any other Joe Blow who might have smoked marijuana four or five months ago."

Under South Carolina law, possession of one ounce or less of marijuana is a misdemeanor that carries a fine up to $200 and 30 days in jail for the first offense. Possession of drug paraphernalia is a $500 fine.

Columbia television station WIS-TV was first to report earlier this week that eight arrests related to the party had been made, but did not name a source. McCulloch said college students and lawyers have told him that about eight arrests have been made.

However, although the Richland County Sheriff's Department did execute search warrants last weekend on a couple locations at the University of South Carolina, the charges the eight people face are from last weekend and not from the November incident involving Phelps. A source told ESPN that those charged were mostly college students.

Lott has made fighting drug crimes a central plank of his career. He rose from patrol officer to captain of the narcotics division in the early 1990s. He was first elected sheriff in 1996 and has held the post since.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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