RIO DE JANEIRO – Ryan Lochte’s harrowing story of being held up at gunpoint along with three U.S. Olympic swimming teammates, which sparked global headlines and underscored the widespread perception that the Rio de Janeiro Olympics were beset by violence and crime, began to unravel Thursday.
A Brazilian police official said law enforcement authorities in Rio de Janeiro do not believe the American swimmers were robbed.
“We knew it wasn’t robbery on Sunday after talking to two of them. The stories did not match,” Officer Marcelo Carregosa, second in charge at the station dealing with tourists, told the Washington Post. “Ryan was very evasive and he did not give details.”
U.S. swimmers Gunnar Bentz and Jack Conger, who had been pulled from their U.S.-bound flight Wednesday, met with investigators Thursday and, according to the Associated Press, refuted Lochte’s claim that the group was held up by armed assailants.
While Lochte left Brazil on Tuesday, Bentz, Conger and teammate Jimmy Feigen remained behind in Rio de Janeiro, blocked from departing the country as Brazilian authorities continue to probe the alleged incident. Bentz, Conger and Feigen had legal counsel and were being supported by officials from the U.S. Olympic Committee and the U.S. consulate in Rio, according to a USOC spokesperson.
The Daily Mail, a British news outlet, reported, citing Brazilian police, that Lochte and the other swimmers damaged a gas station bathroom in the West Rio suburb of Barra de Tijuca and refused to pay for the damage until a security guard waved a gun at them and demanded payment. Brazilian news outlet O Globo reported, also citing police sources, that Lochte and his teammates urinated on the gas station’s building and vandalized the property.
A surveillance video posted on O Globo’s website appeared to show the four swimmers being led away from the bathroom by employees and then, via a different surveillance camera, forced to sit on the ground with their hands raised. But the video did not show the athletes damaging any property.
Lochte initially said that he and his teammates were robbed by a group of men posing as police officers who pulled over their taxi and demanded money.
In Brazil, however, outrage is mounting over the possibility that the American swimmers lied. The sense of indignation is heightened by the bad publicity Rio has received during the Games. The city has complex feelings about its reputation as a center for crime whose streetwise citizens are more than willing to scam each other.
“I think it is false,” said Lucas Alves, 24, an under-manager of the Ipiranga gas station in the city. “Everyone thinks of Rio as the place of robberies and this happens. People in Rio are annoyed about this. They receive visitors well and this happens. It’s a horrible thing.”
“Rio de Janeiro asks Mr. Lochte to not come back to the city,” Cpl. Anderson Valentim of the Rio Military Police said. “People with bad characters are not welcome.”
Paulo Sotero, the director of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, said that the incident “reinforces negative stereotypes on both sides.”
“The American stereotype in Brazil of arrogance, and among Americans, the stereotype of Brazil as [a place of] absolute violence and lawlessness,” he said.
Sotero said the Brazilian Embassy in Washington has been bombarded on social media with negative comments since Brazilian authorities chose to hold the swimmers in Rio.
“Making a false statement to authorities is a serious offense there or here,” Sotero said.
Lochte, 32, is the second-most-decorated male Olympic swimmer in history, behind U.S. teammate Michael Phelps. His gold medal in the 4×200-meter freestyle relay in Rio de Janeiro represented his 12th overall Olympic medal, and his sixth gold. Bentz, Conger and Feigen also won one relay gold apiece in Rio.
Lochte, who departed Rio de Janeiro on Tuesday and was safely in the United States, according to his attorney, said as recently as Wednesday night, in an off-camera interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer, that he stood by his original story.
“I wouldn’t make up a story like this nor would the others – as a matter of fact we all feel it makes us look bad,” Lochte said, according to Lauer’s account of his interview. “We’re victims in this, and we’re happy that we’re safe.”
Multiple news outlets reported Thursday that the quartet’s story was falling apart. According to the Associated Press, which cited anonymous police sources, Conger and Bentz have already told authorities that the robbery story had been fabricated.
At his daily press briefing, IOC spokesman Mario Andrada had a different take on the situation. “Let’s give these kids a break,” he said. “They had fun. They made a mistake. Life goes on.”
That attitude isn’t shared throughout Rio de Janeiro. TV Globo and the G1 news site reported Thursday that there was an incident, but not a robbery, involving the American swimmers. A security guard at the gas station in question said the four swimmers arrived in a taxi at 6 a.m. Sunday. He recognized Lochte. Security was called by the manager after he found the damage to the restroom door, soap dispenser, toilet paper holder and sign.
“According to the security, the swimmers were aggressive, altered and clearly drunk,” G1 reported. The security officer pulled a badge – it is not clear what kind, but many police officers in Brazil moonlight as security. Two of the swimmers fled into the street and the guard pointed his weapon at the other two. Helped by a person who spoke some English, the Americans offered $20 and 100 Brazilian real to repair the damage.
On Thursday at the Shell gas station near the beginning of the West Rio suburb of Barra de Tijuca, which was the site of the incident, a flimsy metal bathroom door showed signs of damage. A handwritten sign in Portuguese declared it “interditado” – closed off. “Please don’t go past,” implored a note underneath.
A manager who would only give his name as Márcio said the sudden attention to the station had taken staff aback. “The police were already here. We can’t say anything else,” he said.
Separately, British Olympic officials confirmed that one of their athletes was the victim of a robbery early Tuesday. The team did not identify the athlete, who was reported safe, or provide any details of the incident, but it prompted officials to warn team members not to go out at night in Rio or wear distinctive “Team GB” gear identifying them as British Olympians. The Guardian newspaper reported that the athlete was robbed at gunpoint.
“We can confirm there has been an incident of theft involving a Team GB athlete returning to their accommodation,” a British Olympic team spokesman said in a statement. “All members of our delegation, including the individual concerned, are accounted for, and are safe and well.”
Bentz and Conger were pictured by Brazil’s TV Globo entering a police office at Rio de Janeiro’s international airport with their carry-on luggage, but they did not comment to a reporter. The O Globo newspaper reported that the swimmers had boarded United Airlines Flight 128 to Houston and that two representatives from the U.S. Consulate and one from the USOC had arrived at the airport to accompany them.
Earlier Wednesday, a Brazilian judge ruled that the passports of Feigen and Lochte should be seized after discrepancies emerged in their accounts of what transpired in early Sunday, after the four athletes left a dance party at the Club France official Olympic hospitality venue.
Judge Keyla Blanc de Cnop, from a special magistrate court set up for big sporting events, ruled that there were “possible divergences” in the versions of the robbery that the swimmers gave police.
In a statement released on the court’s website Wednesday, Blanc de Cnop said that in Lochte’s testimony to police, he said the athletes were stopped early Sunday by one robber who demanded all their money: $400. Blanc de Cnop said that Feigen, however, told police that the athletes were surprised by multiple robbers but that only one was armed.
Security footage published Wednesday by the Daily Mail showed the men arriving at Rio de Janeiro’s Athletes’ Village appearing unfazed after the alleged incident. Brazilians have reacted with anger to what many perceived as a false account of a robbery and began conjecturing over what might have happened.
Lochte’s lawyer Jeff Ostrow told The Post that his client was already back in the United States.
“Ryan left the country after his events, after fully meeting with the Brazilian authorities, the State Department, the FBI – everybody who wanted to meet with him,” Ostrow said. “He made himself available and provided the Brazil police with a statement. He wasn’t told to stay around or that [the authorities] had other questions, but we told them we were still available if they had further questions. He was planning on leaving, and he left. I don’t know what they’re trying to do down there. If they need to get in touch with me, we have always been fully cooperating. Nobody has reached out to me. Nobody has reached out to Ryan.”
Ostrow also said that the incident happened “exactly the way Ryan described it” under oath to Brazilian police and that he believes Lochte’s account of the incident to the police was the same as the one he told on NBC’s “Today” show.
“They were robbed at gunpoint – the way he described it,” Ostrow said.
The State Department acknowledged the developments Wednesday night.
“We have seen media reports that two U.S. citizen athletes were detained,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said. “We stand ready to provide all appropriate consular assistance. Due to privacy considerations, we do not have any further information to offer. We refer you to Brazilian authorities for more information about this case.”
News of the robbery broke Sunday, and confusion soon followed. A spokesman for the International Olympic Committee initially said the report of a robbery was “absolutely not true.” The spokesman later reversed himself, apologized and attributed the erroneous denial to information the IOC had been given by the USOC.
Lochte later told USA Today that he and the other swimmers did not immediately tell the USOC about the incident because “we were afraid we’d get in trouble.”
The swimmers had been at a birthday celebration and dance party at Club France, an Olympic hospitality venue beside the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, with Thiago Pereira, a Brazilian swimmer, and Pereira’s wife, Gabriela Pauletti. Pereira and Pauletti left the party before the Americans, who told police that they caught a taxi at a nearby gas station.
Lochte told NBC that he and three other swimmers, including Feigen, were robbed when their taxi was stopped. The others were made to lie on the ground, but Lochte said he refused.
“And then the guy pulled out his gun, he cocked it, put it to my forehead, and he said, ‘Get down,’ and I put my hands up. I was like, ‘Whatever,’ ” he said.
Another doubt highlighted by the Brazilian judge concerns the time at which the swimmers reached the Athletes’ Village. The footage obtained by the Daily Mail shows them passing through a security check just before 7 a.m. – at least four hours after they were supposed to have left the party. In the footage, Lochte jokingly hits Feigen over the head with his Olympic credential.
“It was perceived that the supposed victims arrived with their physical and psychological integrity unshaken, even making jokes with each other,” the judge said, according to the court statement.
The San Antonio Express-News reported that Feigen, still in Brazil, declined to comment when contacted by the newspaper.
“I can’t talk right now,” Feigen said. “I’m still in Brazil, and [an interview] is going to have to wait.”
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Carol Morello in Washington contributed to this report.
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Video: Brazilian authorities removed two U.S. swimmers, Jack Conger and Gunnar Bentz, from their flight home on Aug. 17 and prevented them from leaving the country. Here’s why. (Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)