Pubdate: Thu, 12 Feb 2009
Source: State, The (SC)
Copyright: 2009 The State
Author: Rick Brundrett
Cited: Richland County sheriff


As many as eight people have been arrested on drug charges in an
effort to build a marijuana possession case against Olympic swimming
champion Michael Phelps, an attorney for one of the defendants
confirmed this morning.

Longtime Columbia attorney Dick Harpootlian said Richland County
Sheriff's deputies arrested his client - whom he declined to identify
- -- in a raid Saturday at his Lake Murray-area home after seizing a
small amount of marijuana.

"He's sitting there on Saturday, and 12 cops kick in the door with
guns drawn, search his house and find 5, maybe 6, grams of pot,"
Harpootlian said."They never asked him, 'Who sold you the pot?' ...
They were asking, 'Were you at the party with Michael Phelps? Did you
see him using marijuana?' It was all about Michael Phelps."

Local defense attorney Joseph McCulloch also said he is representing
someone in the case.

Harpootlian, a former solicitor for Richland and Kershaw counties,
said in his entire legal career he had "never seen a search warrant
executed for simple possession of marijuana."

Harpootlian said deputies arrested another person who was with his
client, adding the pair were roommates at the Blossom Street home
where Phelps attended a November party. As many as six other people
have been charged connection with the Richland County Sheriff's
Department investigation, several of whom were charged after deputies
recently raided the Blossom Street home, he said.

"All these people have been asked the same questions," Harpootlian
said. "It's all about Michael Phelps."

Phelps has publicly confirmed he was pictured holding a bong at the
party, though he hasn't admitted specifically using marijuana.

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott has said he would charge Phelps if
there is evidence a crime was committed, though no charges have been

Harpootlian said his client - a 21-year-old currently on leave from
USC - was with Phelps at the November party but told investigators he
didn't see Phelps using marijuana.

Still, deputies seized four laptop computers, a desktop computer and a
computer storage drive from his client's home -- supposedly to try to
find evidence against Phelps, Harpootlian said, adding they refused
his request Wednesday to return the items to his client.

"I don't think they had the authority to seize them to begin with," he

Harpootlian said his client was taken to jail but was released later
on a personal recognizance bond, which means he didn't have to put up
any bail money. He said he is trying to get his client into a
"conditional discharge" program that would allow the possession charge
to be eventually dismissed, noting that in his experience, "99
percent" of first-time marijuana possession cases are handled that

Harpootlian questioned why Lott is devoting large amount of resources
on simple marijuana possession cases against his client and others to
try to implicate Phelps.

"This is marijuana -- 50 percent of all Americans have smoked
marijuana at one time or another," Harpootlian said. "A college kid
smoking pot -- I don't endorse it ... but should you be committing
very important resources to it?"

Lott was out of town this morning and could not be reached for
comment. He previously has declined to discuss the case against
Harpootlian's client with The State.

"As soon as we're ready to release information on this case we will
and we're still in the middle of this investigation," Lt. Chris Cowan,
sheriff's department spokesman, told the Associated Press.

McCulloch said his client and the roommate 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 room-mates' 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

On a "Good Morning America" broadcast this morning, McCulloch
characterized the arrests as "a fascination, if not an effort, to
destroy a public hero."

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.

The photo and Lott's vow to investigate Phelps have been hotly debated
in the media here and abroad. There have been op-ed columns in, among
others, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington
Post and on, some criticizing Phelps and some, Lott.

The notorious photo of the champion Olympic swimmer appears to have
been taken at the house at 2201 Blossom St., where five witnesses
interviewed by The State say Phelps partied.

The house, which sits on a hill, has a wraparound porch that early
last week was littered with pizza boxes, broken beer bottles and a
keg. Pictures of scantily clad women were taped to the front door.

Two security cameras guard the porch, sending a live stream to a
flat-screen television just inside the front door.
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake