Plot line in Brazil for Lochte, three other U.S. swimmers takes strange twist

Ryan Lochte checks his time in a men's 4x200-meter freestyle heat at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Ryan Lochte checks his time in a men's 4x200-meter freestyle heat at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. AP

Two American Olympic swimmers were removed from a flight to the United States here Wednesday night by federal police, hours after a judge had sought to seize the passports of another two swimmers in a blossoming scandal over an alleged armed robbery.

“Jack Conger and Gunnar Bentz were detained Wednesday night shortly before their flight was scheduled to depart from Rio,” said Patrick Sandusky, chief spokesman for the U.S. Olympic Committee. “They were released by local authorities with the understanding that they would continue their discussions about the incident on Thursday. James Feigen is also communicating with local authorities and intends to make further statements regarding the incident on Thursday as well. We will continue to provide updated information as it is appropriate.”

The action came hours after a special prosecutor here issued an order to seize the passports of U.S. Olympic swimmers Ryan Lochte and Feigen, under suspicion of falsely reporting a crime, a penalty carrying a sentence of up to three years here. Bentz and Conger were questioned at the airport, according to local news reports, and will not be able to leave the country until their passports are returned.

After days of official silence, Judge Keyla Blanc De Cnop issued a surprise order around midday to search for and seize Lochte and Feigen’s passports in order to prevent them from leaving Brazil. She publicly questioned their allegations that they were robbed after a party, too drunk to remember much about their cab or cabbie.

Multiple news reports said that 12-time medalist Lochte arrived back in the United States on Tuesday, some citing confirmation from Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based lawyer Jeffrey Ostrow.

Feigen is still in Brazil.

“I’m just trying to give Brazil what they need or what they want and get out of here,” Feigen told USA Today in a phone interview, his precise whereabouts unknown.

Also late Wednesday, the Brazilian online news site Extra reported that authorities had just approved an order seeking the passports of two other U.S. swimmers who were present in the alleged armed robbery — Gunner Bentz and Jack Conger — effectively blocking their exit from Brazil. Then it reported that Bentz and Conger were removed from an American Airlines flight that was bound for Atlanta.

Pointing to “divergences” in the depositions given by the swimmers as to what happened in wee hours of Sunday morning, Blanc said Feigen described several assailants, while Lochte described how a single armed robber stopped their cab and robbed them of $400.

The statement from the prosecuting judge, who has authority over cases involving victims attending large special events in Brazil, also questioned the behavior of the swimmers when they arrived back at the Olympic Village after being robbed.

“You can perceive that the supposed victims arrived with their physical and psychological state unshaken, even making jokes between themselves,” read a quote from Blanc in her court-issued statement, referencing security tape that she reviewed.

The British newspaper Daily Mail published apparent security surveillance screen shots of Lochte and fellow swimmers on Wednesday in which they appear to have their wallets and cellphones in hand.

For average Brazilians, the swimmers’ tale of armed robbery seemed strange. Their American cellphones, prized in the black market here, were inexplicably not taken. For Americans, its unfolding like a sequel to the hit movie “The Hangover.”

From the moment news first broke about the apparent robbery, the story began evolving into one that raised more questions. Lochte first denied that he’d been robbed, and the International Olympic Committee denied it had happened.

Then he admitted it happened and said he had lied because he was afraid the group of swimmers would get in trouble.

Ileana Lochte, his protective Cuban-American mother, was at times contradicting her son, saying that he was indeed robbed. Her story changed, as did what the USOC was saying.

But on Wednesday, the committee confirmed that police had indeed arrived earlier that day at Olympic Village.

“Local police arrived at the Olympic Village … and asked to meet with Ryan Lochte and James Feigen and collect their passports in order to secure further testimony from the athletes,” Sandusky said in a statement. “The swim team moved out of the village after their competition ended, so we were not able to make the athletes available.”

Sandusky also skirted the question of whether Feigen and the others remained in Brazil, noting that “we do not make athlete travel plans public and therefore cannot confirm the athletes’ current location.”

When news of Lochte’s alleged assault spread, it was a huge embarrassment to Brazil, which has struggled with negative reports of muggings and crime. Lochte even described in gripping detail to NBC’s “Today” show how he’d resisted the demand to lie down on the ground and had a pistol barrel pressed against his forehead.

But his behavior reportedly seen on the security surveillance at the Olympic Village has the Brazilian judge implying it might not have ever happened.

McClatchy attempted to call Lochte’s mother Ileana, who did not return a text message Tuesday. On Wednesday, her phone sent calls to a voicemail that said she “is not available and will not be checking messages for an extended period of time.”

The original version of Lochte’s story had the four swimmers leaving a birthday party at the French Club in Rio’s swank Lagoa neighborhood, where crime is relatively uncommon, well after midnight on Sunday morning.

A car stopped their cab, they said, and a man or men showing a police badge demanded money and pointed a gun at them. They could not remember details about the cab or the driver.

“They’ll find that out on the security cameras,” said Eduardo Henriques, a police officer stationed in front of the French House, who assumed Brazilian authorities would likely be able to identify the cabbie’s plates.

Directing traffic in front of the busy club, city worker Djaer Junior said he was working the overnight shift Sunday but did not remember anything out of the ordinary, or Lochte and his shock of dyed blond hair.

It was initially unclear whether they were stopped soon after boarding or near the Olympic Village. Later it was said to have happened in Barra da Tijuca, near the Olympic Village and also not known for street crime.

It is still not known whether the men went somewhere else or straight to the village. The security footage shown in the British paper points to a 6:56 a.m. arrival, and the judge suggested they were in good spirits.

The Extra Online report said police were also looking at surveillance-tape footage from cameras at a nearby gas station, where Lochte reportedly told police he hailed the cab.

During Olympic broadcasts Wednesday night on NBC, anchor Matt Lauer interviewed Lochte on the phone and pressed the swimmer for details. Lochte denied rumors of being with unsavory people but changed a key detail of his story, saying a gun was not put to his head but pointed at him. He otherwise stuck to the lines of the earlier story.