S.C. sheriff says no pot charge for Phelps after photo

Michael Phelps
Michael Phelps

COLUMBIA -- Michael Phelps will not be charged with marijuana possession, though the Olympic champion swimmer admitted to being pictured holding a marijuana pipe at a Columbia house party in November, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott announced Monday.

Lott, speaking during a 3 p.m. press conference at the Sheriff's Department headquarters, said he couldn't ignore the photo but defended his investigation.

"Michael Phelps is truly an American hero ... but even with his star status, he is still obligated to obey the laws of our state," Lott said.

"By ignoring the November incident, I would have been sending a message of tolerance and condoning the use of illegal drugs. I could not do that, nor have I ever done that," he said in a statement.

Lott said his investigators couldn't find enough evidence to charge anyone -- including Phelps -- who attended the party.

Local attorney Bill Nettles, however, had been hired to represent Phelps.

The investigation began Feb. 2, the Monday after the Super Bowl, Lott said. He said he decided during that game that if it happened in Richland County, "We've got to do something about it."

Lott said the photo that led to the investigation was sold for $100,000 and that officers have a good idea who might have sold it.

Lott had declined to say in recent days whether he would press charges, although legal observers interviewed by The State said charges were unlikely because Phelps was not caught by authorities committing a crime and that credible witness would be difficult to find, making a court case difficult to prove under S.C. law.

Also, state law doesn't allow extradition of suspects charged with crimes carrying sentences of less than one year, including simple possession of marijuana, lawyers say.

Lott has been a focus of international media attention after he said he would charge Phelps if there was evidence that the winner of a record eight gold medals at the summer Olympics in Beijing had committed a crime.

A photo published Feb. 1 in the British tabloid News of the World showed Phelps holding a marijuana pipe. Phelps has publicly confirmed the picture -- taken at a party he attended the first week in November at a Blossom Street home near Five Points -- although he hasn't specifically admitted to using marijuana.

In South Carolina, simple possession of marijuana carries a 30-day jail sentence or $570 in fines and assessments. Defense lawyers said in many first-offense cases, charges are dismissed if offenders successfully complete diversion programs.

Lott has been held up for ridicule in his handling of the Phelps investigation in the national media. His critics have accused him of grandstanding and wasting taxpayer dollars on a relatively minor drug case.

Those allegations took on heightened interest last week after it was learned deputies charged seven people with simple marijuana possession on Feb. 7 after raiding the Blossom Street home where the November party was held and a Ballentine-area home.

"The house of the November party had previously been the subject of a drug case and other crimes. The related house in Irmo had been the subject of a previous drug case," Lott said Monday.

"The charges of those arrested in this investigation will be handled as we do in other similar type arrests," he added.

Attorneys for several of the defendants claimed Lott ordered the raids primarily to try to build a case against Phelps. Two defendants lived at the Blossom Street home when the November party was held, though one was out of town then. The other told investigators he didn't see Phelps smoke marijuana, the lawyers said.

Lott's supporters have said the longtime sheriff and former narcotics officer had a obligation once Phelps confirmed the published picture to investigate the matter to see if Phelps or anyone else at the November party had committed a crime. 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.

Phelps' admission that he was pictured holding the marijuana pipe landed him in hot water- USA Swimming announced he was being suspended from competition for three months, and cereal maker Kellogg's said it would drop a lucrative endorsement deal with him.

Olympic officials said Phelps' behavior in Columbia wouldn't affect his gold-medal status because the November party incident occurred in the competition off-season. Phelps publicly said the ordeal is causing him to reconsider whether he will participate in the 2012 Olympics.

Other developments and video from today's press conference will be posted as soon as they become available.