Cops are looking to make a stronger criminal case against Michael Phelps by cracking down on the people who partied with the Olympic champion when he was photographed smoking a bong, a defense attorney charged.
The arrests of eight people linked to the now-infamous party where Phelps was photographed was the first step in compiling evidence against the record-breaking swimmer as cops seek to make the criminal case against him, a lawyer for one arrested person said Thursday.
Seven people were arrested for marijuana possession and one for distributing -- including the bong's owner, who tried to hawk the paraphernalia for $100,000 on eBay.
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"All these people have been asked the same questions," attorney Dick Harpootlian told The State newspaper. "It's all about Michael Phelps."
Harpootlian said he represents a 21-year-old student on leave from the University of South Carolina who was arrested during a raid over the weekend when cops busted into the student's home with guns drawn and found five or six grams of pot. The student was at the November party with Phelps.
"They were asking 'Were you at the party with Michael Phelps? Did you see him using marijuana?' It was all about Michael Phelps," Harpootlian told The State.
Deputies seized four laptops, a desktop computer and a storage drive from the student's home to find evidence against Phelps, Harpootlian said.
A second individual who was arrested for possession was also questioned about the booze-filled party, his attorney, Joseph McCulloch, said.
McCulloch did not name his client, who faces up to 30 days in jail and a $200 fine if convicted on the pending charge.
The Richland County Sheriff's Office would not comment on the lawyer's 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.
The news that cops are building a criminal case against Phelps came on the same day he issued a heartfelt apology to fans, telling them he would make them proud again in a video that was posted on a Chinese news website.
"I will ... make you proud again," Phelps said during the 50-second clip.
The video plea helped Phelps retain a major endorsement deal with Mazda, which said they would not boot the swimmer from his unprecedented seven-figure endorsement gig with the company.
"I recently engaged in behavior which was regrettable and not what people have come to expect from me, " Phelps said in the video." I will learn from these mistakes, train hard and make you proud again."
Phelps was one of about 40 party-goers gathered at the South Carolina ranch home in November where marijuana smoke clouded the rooms and about two dozen people passed around a bong, witnesses first told The State newspaper of South Carolina.
Phelps was surrounded by a gaggle of the girls at the party and even put down a $2,000 bet during a high-stakes game of beer pong, witnesses said.
Sometime after midnight, witnesses told the paper that they saw a woman snap a photo of Phelps smoking a bong with her iPhone but it is unclear if it is the same photo that was published in a British tabloid on Feb. 1. The identity of the photographer remains unknown.
After the photo was published, Sheriff Leon Lott said his office would investigate and possibly bring a charge against Phelps, though his spokesman has not specified what the offense might be.
Phelps, 23, and his team have not disputed the photo's accuracy. Phelps has issued a public apology, acknowledging "regrettable" behavior and "bad judgment" after the photo appeared.
McCulloch said his client and his roommate -- who was also arrested -- used to live at the house where the party that Phelps apparently attended took place, but they have since moved out of the city.
Richland County deputies searched the alleged party home and then searched the roommates' new home in Irmo and made the arrests, he said.
He said his client was out of town when the swimmer visited the city and said he doubted that anything the client or his roommate — who has a different lawyer — 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," he 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."
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 had been made, but did not cite a source. McCulloch said college students and lawyers have told him that about eight arrests have been made.