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the plot becomes thicker than water ...
RIO DE JANEIRO – Seven days after an incident that will in part define the Rio Olympics, details are becoming clearer about what happened during a gas station encounter between four U.S. swimmers and security guards, and not everyone has concluded Ryan Lochte and his teammates are entirely in the wrong or that the account offered by Rio authorities is entirely accurate.
Lochte has admitted he exaggerated his initial description of how the four men were stopped in their taxi and robbed by men who flashed badges, as well as his sensational allegation of a gun being held to his forehead.
But a narrative of the night’s events – constructed by USA TODAY Sports from witness statements, official investigations, surveillance videos and media reports – supports Lochte’s later account in which he said he thought the swimmers were being robbed when they were approached at a gas station by armed men who flashed badges, pointed guns at them and demanded money.
A Brazilian judge says police might have been hasty in determining the security guards, by how they dealt with the swimmers, did not commit a robbery. A lawyer who has practiced in Brazil for 25 years says she does not think the actions of Lochte and teammate Jimmy Feigen constitute the filing of a false police report as defined under Brazilian law.
An extensive review of surveillance footage by a USA TODAY Sports videographer who also visited the gas station supports swimmer Gunnar Bentz’s claim that he did not see anyone vandalize the restroom, an allegation that in particular heightened media portrayals of the four as obnoxious Americans behaving recklessly in a foreign country. Meanwhile, Rio authorities have declined to identify the guards or offer any details beyond confirming they are members of law enforcement who were working a private security detail.
As the Rio Games closing ceremony was held Sunday night, all four swimmers had left Brazil. Two of them, Bentz and Jack Conger, face no charges. Feigen paid a settlement to avoid charges and returned home.
The case against Lochte, who has been pilloried around the world for his embellished initial account and blamed for offending an entire country as it proudly hosted the Summer Olympics, has yet to proceed.
It is clear from all accounts that a Portuguese-English language barrier played a major role in the incident and that a bilingual Brazilian witness who stepped forward at the scene was critical in preventing a tense situation from escalating.
The witness, Fernando Deluz, says he got involved after one of the guards pulled a gun on the men.
"As soon as they drew their weapon, that's when I got worried,” Deluz, a disc jockey, told USA TODAY Sports on Saturday.
“It was also so fast, and what I wanted was to resolve the situation,” says Deluz, who days later talked to police. “If it hadn't been for wanting to resolve that, if I hadn't involved myself, I thought – the police chief told me, ‘Man, if you hadn't gone there in that moment, a tragedy could have occurred.’ ”
Lochte was contrite about his erroneous original account in an interview that aired Saturday on NBC.
“That’s why I’m taking full responsibility for it, because I overexaggerated that story,” Lochte told Matt Lauer. “And if I’d never done that, we wouldn’t be in this mess. … None of this would have happened, and it was my immature behavior.’’
In a statement released Friday, Bentz confirmed police accounts that indicated Lochte damaged a sign during the incident and got into a “heated exchange” with the guards. But Bentz, who said authorities viewed him as a witness and never a suspect in the case, offered a narrative that closely matches Lochte’s revised account that he gave to Lauer three days after the incident. Bentz said his recollection was that money was demanded from the Americans by armed men in order for the swimmers to be allowed to leave.
While bystander Deluz and the police said the amount paid was for property vandalized, it is unclear whether the swimmers understood the situation.
Bentz, 20, is emphatic that his account is accurate: “I never made a false statement to anyone at any time,” he said.
The swimmers, who were returning to the Olympic Village from a party and stopped at the gas station to use the restroom, acknowledge they had been drinking. Using a Portuguese word that broadly refers to someone under the influence of a substance, Deluz describes them as “very altered. I can't tell you if it was drinking or drugs.” He describes Lochte as “the very blond one. He was the one who was most altered."
The statement from Bentz and the narrative offered by Brazilian authorities agree that the swimmers entered a narrow walkway and urinated behind the gas station. The accounts also agree that, at some point, Lochte pulled what Bentz described as a “loosely attached” advertising sign from a wall. Deluz described it as a framed canvas that was torn as Lochte pulled it to the ground.
At a news conference Thursday, Rio police chief Fernando Veloso characterized the athletes' actions at the gas station as vandalism. He said they also had broken a soap dispenser and mirror inside the restroom. Reports quickly grew that the Americans had trashed the restroom.
A USA TODAY Sports videographer who visited the bathroom Thursday found no damage to soap dispensers and mirrors and said none of those items appeared to be new. Some media accounts suggested the men had broken down a door, which USA TODAY Sports also did not observe.
Bentz said in his statement that he believes there are surveillance videos shot from different angles that have not been released. He also said he did not see anyone damage the bathroom or even enter it.
Of the videos available, including footage from a camera trained on the restroom doors, a review by USA TODAY Sports does not find any showing the swimmers going near the bathrooms. They are not seen entering or coming out of them on those recordings.
Deluz said it never came up that night: In the negotiations he brokered between the swimmers and the guards, the only damage mentioned was the sign Lochte tore down.
There is no indication in the videos released to date or in the statements that the other three swimmers did anything beyond urinate behind the building.
ROBBERY OR ‘PAYMENT’?
Deluz said the main point of contention was the swimmers trying to "flee" after Lochte damaged the sign.
"What happened really – it's not even the issue of knocking down and breaking the sign," Deluz said. "It was the attitude of the guys of messing up the place and then wanting to leave without a satisfactory resolution." He said if the men had even said they had no money to pay for the damages but had apologized, he thinks all parties involved would have been understanding.
That does not match the account of Bentz, who said the swimmers were held at gunpoint until they paid.
“I gave them what I had in my wallet, which was a $20 bill, and Jimmy gave them 100 reais, which is about $50 in total. They lowered the guns, and I used hand gestures to ask if it was OK to leave, and they said yes,” he said in his statement.
In the NBC interview that aired Saturday, Lochte said, “It’s how you want to make it look like. Whether you call it a robbery, whether you call it extortion or us just paying for the damages. Like, we don’t know. All we know is there was a gun pointed in our direction and we were demanded to give money.’’
Some local observers following the drama have begun to question the police's quick characterization of the story as a false police report lodged by the swimmers to cover up acts of vandalism or possibly calm a female romantic interest who would be angry about their night of partying.
João Batista Damasceno, a Rio judge, does not discard the possibility that the guards' actions could be rightly interpreted as a robbery.
"If they only asked for the amount of the damage, it may not be a robbery," Damasceno said in a message to USA TODAY Sports. "But if the amount taken is higher than the value of the damages, with the use of a weapon by the 'security,' this is robbery."
Damasceno added that even if someone has the right to receive compensation, that does not mean they can determine the amount on their own and take actions such as drawing guns to collect. Brazilian law rarely allows for a person to obtain such a payment through the use of their own force – such disputes should be mediated by the state, he said.
Deluz said a station employee had established the cost of the damage at 100 reais, but the swimmers paid about 160 reais, – 100 reais plus a $20 bill.
Jeffrey Ostrow, Lochte’s attorney, steadfastly maintains the men were robbed.
“That part of the story will never change,'' Ostrow told USA TODAY Sports in a telephone interview. "We stand behind that."
Lochte initially claimed that he was robbed of $400 and has yet to say if that was another embellishment.
Deluz thinks the men understood they were detained because of the damaged sign, as the broken advertisement was shown to them. An athlete even asked him how much he needed to pay, Deluz says. The disc jockey said he conferred with an employee and responded, "One hundred money." When one swimmer finally opened his wallet, it had plenty of cash in it beyond that amount. Had the armed men been robbers, Deluz reasoned, they would have taken all the money.
Conger, in his statement, acknowledged Deluz tied the payment to the damaged poster.
"Eventually, a man appeared who was able to translate for us, helping to defuse the situation," Conger said. "We paid some money to compensate them for the torn poster, and returned to the Village in a different taxi."
After the payment was made, Deluz said, everyone calmed down and understood the meaning of the transaction. Deluz said to the athletes, according to his signed testimony to police, “Bye bye friends! That’s OK?” and they responded to him, “Thank you!”
A BADGE FLASHED
Lochte has asserted that one of the guards flashed a police badge at the swimmers. In the surveillance videos, the swimmers initially attempt to leave after they relieved themselves, but a man approaches and stops the cabbie. He appeared to have something in his hand as he briefly reached inside the cab.
Deluz said he thought one of the guards did flash a badge when he “first approached them.”
Lochte is correct that the men, who were working a private security detail, are members of law enforcement. Veloso admitted during a Thursday news conference the men are state agents – it is common for Brazilian law enforcement to carry out private security on their off hours, though in some instances it is illegal.
Veloso declined to identify the guards or give more details, saying they feared retaliation for their role in the incident. Local news outlets that claim to have spoken with the security guards have identified them as prison guards from the neighboring state of Minas Gerais.
Police have not accounted for why the guards allegedly showed their law enforcement badges while they were working private security. But Veloso defended the guards drawing their weapons.
"Right now we have the testimony of the security guards about the extreme action of four young men with strong physiques and an attitude that is, at least, inappropriate," Veloso said.
Video also supports Lochte’s contention that one of the guards prevented the cabbie from driving off.
What happened next could be attributed to cultural and linguistic clumsiness or to the swimmers allegedly being inebriated.
"Two men, whom I believe to have been security guards, then instructed us to exit the vehicle. No guns were drawn during this exchange, but we did see a gun tucked into one of the guard's waistband,” Bentz said. “As Jimmy (Feigen) and Jack (Conger) were walking away from the vehicle, the first security guard held up a badge to me and drew his handgun. I yelled to them to come back toward us, and they complied. Then the second guard drew his weapon and both guards pointed their guns at us and yelled at us to sit on a nearby sidewalk.”
Bystander Deluz described the drawing of the weapons by the two guards as a reaction to the athletes' attempt to leave the scene.
LACK OF TRANSPARENCY
When approached on Tuesday by a USA TODAY Sports reporter who asked to see witness testimony related to the incident, the Rio de Janeiro civil police declined to give any information, saying the investigation was confidential.
By Thursday, after police had pulled Bentz and Conger off their U.S.-bound flight and detained them for questioning, police welcomed dozens of camera crews that squeezed into the station to film the men as they were escorted by cops into the office. Immediately after their interviews, police called a news conference – in a nearby theater – to announce the official version of events.
Shortly afterward the police released their reports of testimony given by Conger and Bentz that included statements casting doubt on Lochte's version of events. However, that testimony was missing a portion of the men's story – their interactions with armed security guards.
Rio's civil police declined to provide the testimony in its entirety when requested by USA TODAY Sports. By late Friday, even the partial testimony had been removed from the police's social media site.
Police accused Lochte and Feigen of filing a false police report, a crime punishable by a fine and up to six months in prison. Feigen paid $11,000 to be donated to a charity in order to not face charges.
Deborah Srour, an attorney who has practiced in Brazil for 25 years, said the two swimmers’ actions do not constitute a crime based on a strict reading of the Brazilian penal code.
“This crime only happens when you go to the police and you make a report, you file a report,’’ said Srour, who added that she has represented Americans arrested in Brazil. “This did not happen.’’
She said any case against Lochte could very well be dismissed with the help of a local attorney. But she also said Brazilian courts are notorious for pursuing cases such as Lochte’s if charges are filed and that authorities could use Interpol and other international organizations to complicate his overseas travel.
“I’m not saying his travel is going to be hindered right now or anything,’’ she said. “But it’s just going to be a nuisance for him. So he should just apologize and pay the fine and that’s it.’’
USA TODAY Sports investigation raises questions about Rio cops, Lochte incident
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