Pubdate: Fri, 13 Feb 2009
Source: State, The (SC)
Copyright: 2009 The State
Author: Rick Brundrett, and Lee Higgins


The Michael Phelps investigation intensified Saturday morning with
armed deputies raiding a Lake Murray home, then proceeding to a Five
Points-area party house where the Olympic champion was pictured in
November holding a marijuana pipe, lawyers involved in the case say.

Before the day was over, seven people were charged with misdemeanor
marijuana charges.

Three people were charged with simple marijuana possession after a
small amount was seized in the raid at the home in a lakefront
neighborhood. Four others were charged with simple marijuana
possession in the second raid, longtime Columbia attorneys Dick
Harpootlian and Joe McCulloch told The State on Thursday.

"He's sitting there on Saturday, and 12 cops kick in the door with
guns drawn, search the house, and find 5, maybe 6 grams of pot,"
Harpootlian said about his client, who was arrested in the first raid
at the Wells Point Drive home near Ballentine.

"They never asked him, 'Who sold you the pot?'" Harpootlian continued.
"They were asking, 'Were you at the party with Michael Phelps? Did you
see him using marijuana?' It was all about Michael Phelps." The
charges resulted from Saturday's raids and are not connected to the
November party that Phelps attended.

Harpootlian, the former top prosecutor for Richland and Kershaw
counties, and McCulloch contend Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott is
conducting an overzealous investigation of their clients to try to get
evidence against Phelps. "The sheriff's department is deploying
resources they are normally reserving for major drug dealers and major
criminals," said McCulloch, also a former prosecutor.

Lott, who was in Washington, D.C., on Thursday testifying in Congress
for early childhood education funding, declined to respond to the
attorneys' allegations Thursday night.

"Our comment is the same comment we had last week, and it's not going
to change until we get through with everything," he said. Lott has
said he would charge Phelps if he found evidence the superstar swimmer
had committed a crime.

Phelps, who won a record eight gold medals in the Summer Olympics in
China, has publicly confirmed he was pictured holding a marijuana pipe
during an early November party at the Blossom Street house, though he
hasn't specifically admitted using marijuana.

On Saturday, deputies seized four laptop computers, a desktop
computer, a computer storage drive and a cell phone in the raid at the
lake home - supposedly looking for pictures of Phelps, Harpootlian and
McCulloch said. Harpootlian said investigators agreed Thursday to
return the computers. The lawyers said their clients are roommates at
the lake house but were living at the Blossom Street home in November
when Phelps attended a party there. Harpootlian said his 22-year-old
client saw Phelps at the party but told investigators he didn't see
Phelps using marijuana. McCulloch said his 23-year-old client was not
at the party.

Records show the two were booked Saturday at the Alvin S. Glenn
Detention Center on simple marijuana possession charges. They were
released on $570 personal recognizance bonds, which means they didn't
have to put up any money. The State doesn't normally identify people
charged with misdemeanors. McCulloch confirmed he also is representing
a 17-year-old who was arrested in the raid Saturday at the Blossom
Street home. He was charged with simple marijuana possession and
possession of a fake identification, and was released from jail after
posting $832 bail, records show. Contacted Thursday, the teen's father
questioned why his son was charged. "My kid wasn't at the Michael
Phelps party," he said. "My kid never met Michael Phelps. My kid was
spending the night at his friend's house." Harpootlian and McCulloch
said they plan to try to get their clients into diversion programs,
which would allow their charges to be dismissed if they successfully
complete the programs. According to jail records, all are scheduled to
appear in court March 26.

Simple possession of marijuana carries a sentence of 30 days in jail
or $570 in fines and assessments.

Deputies obtained a search warrant for the Wells Point Drive home
after observing a large party there Jan. 10 and seizing a bag of
marijuana, according to the search warrant affidavit obtained by The
State. On Feb. 6, investigators seized trash set outside the home and
found the "tobacco filler portion of four cigars," according to the
affidavit. Sgt. M.A. Poole in his affidavit said it is "common
practice" of marijuana users to strip the tobacco out of cigars and
use the binder and outer wrappers for marijuana.

Harpootlian said deputies raided the lakefront home about 8 a.m.
Saturday. Besides the two male roommates, a girlfriend of
Harpootlian's client also was charged with simple marijuana
possession, though she was not booked at the jail, Harpootlian said.

Jail records indicate McCulloch's 17-year-old client was arrested
about 9:45 a.m. Saturday in the raid at the Blossom Street home.
Harpootlian said another young man and two women also were charged in
that raid. Harpootlian said his client, whom he noted is on leave from
USC, is "scared" because of the enormous publicity surrounding Phelps.
"He's being treated more harshly than any kid anywhere in the
country," Harpootlian said. "The only reefer madness is being done at
the sheriff's department."
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