From the archives: Phelps escapes pot charges in Richland County

Connor Bright steals a base against Miami of Ohio on Saturday, March 7, 2015.
Connor Bright steals a base against Miami of Ohio on Saturday, March 7, 2015. dmclemore@thestate.com

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said he had no choice but to investigate suspected marijuana use by Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps.

But, in the end, deputies couldn’t find enough evidence to charge Phelps, Lott said Monday, though the winner of a record eight gold medals in the Summer Olympics admitted being pictured holding a marijuana pipe at a November party in Columbia.

“We had no physical evidence; we had a picture,” Lott told reporters. “We didn’t have enough where we could go arrest him.”

Lott rejected criticism he was grandstanding and wasting taxpayer dollars on a relatively minor drug case, explaining he has “seen people die” from smoking marijuana.

“I don’t care what a dope smoker in California says about the Richland County Sheriff’s (Department). I worry about people here in Richland County who elected me to be their sheriff to protect them.”

Lott said he hopes Phelps, who wasn’t interviewed by investigators, is “learning from this, and I hope he takes what he’s learned from it and gives it to other kids.”

“He’s got one of the most highly publicized mistakes I think you could ever make when it comes to drugs,” Lott said.

In a statement issued later Monday afternoon, Phelps said he was “glad this matter is put to rest.”

“But there are also some important lessons that I’ve learned. For me, it’s all about recognizing that I used bad judgment, and it’s a mistake I won’t make again. For young people especially — be careful about the decisions you make.”

He said he will “move forward and dive back into the pool, having put this whole thing behind me.”

Phelps had said earlier publicly he was reconsidering whether he would participate in the 2012 Olympics. He landed in hot water after the photo was published. USA Swimming suspended him from competition for three months, and cereal maker Kellogg’s said it would drop a lucrative endorsement deal.

Olympic officials said that while they were disappointed with Phelps’ behavior in Columbia, it wouldn’t affect his gold-medal status because the November party incident occurred during the competition off-season.

Phelps’ Columbia attorney, Bill Nettles, said Monday Lott “conducted a fair investigation.”

“The reason he didn’t get charged wasn’t because he is Michael Phelps,” said Nettles, a longtime criminal defense attorney who is a leading candidate to become South Carolina’s next U.S. Attorney. “The reason he didn’t get charged was because there wasn’t any evidence of wrongdoing.”

Lott said investigators interviewed some witnesses who were at the party the first week in November at a Blossom Street home, though he declined to discuss details. In an article published in The State on Feb. 8, a person who attended the party said a marijuana pipe was being passed among 15 to 20 people, though he didn’t see Phelps use it.

Lott said Monday no one else who attended the party would face charges stemming from the incident.

Lott acknowledged that even if he were able to charge Phelps, he couldn’t extradite him on simple marijuana possession under state law because the charge carries less than a year behind bars. Under state law, simple possession of marijuana carries a 30-day jail sentence or fines and assessments totaling $570.

Longtime Columbia criminal defense attorney Jack Swerling, who was not involved with the Phelps case, said he wasn’t surprised the case was dropped.

“I believe it would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, to go ahead and prove that case. They would have to have witnesses testify that Phelps was smoking marijuana, and that they (the witnesses) knew it was marijuana — presumably because they used it themselves.”

Asked whether his client used marijuana that night, Nettles replied, “I wasn’t there, but if there had been any evidence that he had been smoking pot there, Leon Lott would have charged him.”

Nettles said he met once with Lott and had as many as a dozen phone conversations with him over the past week, though he stressed, “There were no negotiations.”

Nettles said he was contacted by “Michael Phelps’ people” Jan. 31 — the day America learned the photo had been published in the British tabloid News of the World.

“They recognized there was the possibility of criminal charges,” he said.

Nettles said he first met with Phelps on Feb. 2 at the office of Phelps’ agent outside Washington, D.C., when he was in Washington on unrelated business. He said he spoke with Phelps “a lot” by phone.

Lott said after learning about the published photo, he assigned narcotics officers to the investigation Feb. 2. He rejected criticism he spent an inordinate amount of time and resources on the investigation, noting two narcotics agents spent a total of 25 hours “in the course of a little over a week” handling the case and other unrelated cases.

Deputies on Feb. 7 raided the Blossom Street home where the November party was held and another home on Lake Murray in the Ballentine area, arresting seven mostly college-age adults on simple marijuana possession charges.

Longtime Columbia defense attorneys Dick Harpootlian and Joe McCulloch, who represent three of the seven charged, contended Lott was conducting an overzealous investigation to try to build a case against Phelps. None of the charges against the seven stemmed from the November party.

Harpootlian, a former top prosecutor for Richland and Kershaw counties, said deputies who raided the Lake Murray home were mainly concerned whether his client, who formerly lived at the Blossom Street home, saw Phelps use marijuana during the November party.

Harpootlian also said 12 deputies kicked in the door to his client’s home “with guns drawn,” though they seized no more than about 6 grams of marijuana.

Lott disputed Harpootlian’s account, saying seven deputies were involved in one raid and 10 in the other, and no guns were pointed at suspects, though they were drawn for the officers’ protection.

“There was nothing done special in this investigation. This was as normal an investigation as could ever be done.”

Lott pointed out his department had evidence of drug activity at both homes before the Phelps’ photo was published.

Contacted Monday, Harpootlian said although Lott generally “does a good job, this was an aberrant exception.” He said he expects his 22-year-old client will be allowed to participate in a court-supervised diversion program that would allow the charge to be dismissed eventually.

“Now that the celebrity issues are resolved” McCulloch added, “we look forward to resolving this like we would any other similar case.”