Taylor Barnes and David Meeks, USA Today Sports, August 21, 2016
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.
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 that 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 that the security guards who drew guns on the swimmers and demanded money 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.
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.’ ”
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 [Matt] 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.
The statement from Bentz as well as 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 show the swimmers going near the bathrooms. They are not seen entering or coming out of them on those recordings.
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.’’
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.