COLUMBIA, S.C. – Police 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.
Attorneys Joseph McCulloch and Dick Harpootlian told The Associated Press they each represent a client charged with possession of marijuana who were 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, although they were not at the party. 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 Office would not comment on the lawyers’ remarks.
“As soon as we’re ready to release information on this case we will and we’re still in the middle of this investigation,” said Lt. Chris Cowan.
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.
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.
The lawyers said their clients were not at the party. McCulloch, who said his client was out of town at the time, doubted that anything they told police 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.”
On a “Good Morning America” broadcast Thursday, McCulloch characterized the arrests as “a fascination, if not an effort, to destroy a public hero.”
Lott has said Phelps should not get a break because of his fame. Harpootlian told The Associated Press 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.
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.