MIAMI, Fla. - Two American Olympic swimmers returned to the United States Friday morning after being pulled off a plane a day earlier to testify about an alleged robbery at the Rio Olympics that Brazilian police said was made up.
University of Georgia swimmer Gunnar Bentz and fellow U.S. Olympic swimmer Jack Conger arrived in Miami before going to their final destinations. Bentz released a statement Friday evening through the University of Georgia about the incident reading:
“I want to offer a sincere apology to the United States Olympic Committee, USA Swimming, the extraordinary women and men of Team USA, and the University of Georgia. Being a member of the Olympic Swimming Team was an honor and a dream come true. The accomplishments of my teammates were awe-inspiring and I’m so pleased I got to see them up close. I regret this situation has drawn attention away from the Olympics, which have been hosted so incredibly well by Brazil and its citizens.
“While I am anxious to put this matter behind me and rejoin my Georgia teammates in classes, practices and competitions, I feel compelled to stress several key points.
1. I was never a suspect in the case from the beginning (Brazilian law enforcement officials saw me only as a witness).
2. I never made a false statement to anyone at any time.
“I also want to be forthright about the details of what transpired last Sunday. What follows is consistent with the account I gave to the Brazilian authorities when I was interviewed for the first and only time on Thursday in Rio de Janeiro:
“After attending an event with several swimmers from different nations, I left in a taxicab along with U.S. swimmers Jack Conger, Jimmy Feigen and Ryan Lochte around 6 a.m. On the way back to the Olympic Village, we pulled into a convenience store to use the restroom. There was no restroom inside, so we foolishly relieved ourselves on the backside of the building behind some bushes. There was a locked door out back and I did not witness anyone breaking it open. I am unsure why, but while we were in that area, Ryan pulled to the ground a framed metal advertisement that was loosely anchored to the brick wall. I then suggested to everyone that we needed to leave the area and we returned to the taxi.
“Two men, whom I believe to have been security guards, then instructed us to exit the vehicle. No guns were drawn during this exchange, but we did see a gun tucked into one of the guard’s waistband. As Jimmy and Jack were walking away from the vehicle, the first security guard held up a badge to me and drew his handgun. I yelled to them to come back toward us and they complied. Then the second guard drew his weapon and both guards pointed their guns at us and yelled at us to sit on a nearby sidewalk.
“Again, I cannot speak to his actions, but Ryan stood up and began to yell at the guards. After Jack and I both tugged at him in an attempt to get him to sit back down, Ryan and the security guards had a heated verbal exchange, but no physical contact was made.
“A man that I believe to be a customer approached us and offered to help as he spoke both English and Portuguese. Understandably, we were frightened and confused during this time. Through the interpreter, one of the guards said that we needed to pay them in order to leave. I gave them what I had in my wallet, which was a $20 bill, and Jimmy gave them 100 Reals, which is about $50 in total. They lowered the guns and I used hand gestures to ask if it was okay to leave and they said yes. We walked about a block down the street and hailed another taxi to return to the Village.
“Videos of this situation have been emerging the last several days. However, I am confident that some video angles have not been shown that would further substantiate my account. I also believe some scenes have been skipped over. Additionally, I would like to stress that our original taxi was not pulled over; the only occupants of the taxi were the four of us and the driver; and to my knowledge, there was no damage done to the door or the inside of the restroom.
“I am so thankful for the love and support of my family, my friends and my teammates during this time. Without question, I am taking away a valuable life lesson from this situation. In everything I do, I am representing my family, my country and my school. I will not take that responsibility lightly.”
Bentz arrived at Hartsfield Jackson International Airport around 11:15 a.m. FOX 5 caught Bentz's family grabbing his luggage from baggage claim, but Bentz was nowhere to be found.
FOX affiliate WSVN in Miami shot video of Bentz and Conger going through customs at the Miami airport Friday morning.
The drama surrounding the alleged robbery of American swimmers — and their ever-changing descriptions of it — has shocked and deeply angered Brazilians, who said it cast a false negative shadow on their city and their Olympics. The story has also dominated Olympic headlines, overshadowing the worthy accomplishments of athletes who had trained for years just to get to Rio and set records during their performances at these Olympics.
The rapid-fire developments early Friday came hours after police announced that Ryan Lochte and three of his teammates had not been held at gunpoint after a night of partying, as he claimed. Instead, Brazilian police said the men, while intoxicated, vandalized a gas station bathroom and were questioned by armed guards before they paid for the damage and left.
The saga was an enormous embarrassment for the U.S. Olympic team, which had otherwise dominated the games. It also deeply wounded a country eager to prove it could host the first games in Latin America despite concerns it could not keep athletes and spectators safe from rampant street crime.
"No robbery was committed against these athletes. They were not victims of the crimes they claimed," Civil Police Chief Fernando Veloso told a news conference.
As Bentz and Conger were whisked through airport security and onto a plane home Thursday night, their attorney insisted they had nothing to do with Lochte's story. Lochte himself left the country earlier this week.
Bentz and Conger "were heard only as witnesses. This has to be made very, very clear," lawyer Sergio Riera told The Associated Press. "They did not make any untruthful testimony. They did not lie in their statements."
A lawyer for another swimmer, James Feigen, said early Friday that the athlete had reached an agreement with a judge in which he planned to donate 35,000 Brazilian reals ($10,800) to an "institution" and leave the country later in the day.
Attorney Breno Melaragno said under the agreement, Feigen will make the donation, get his passport back and depart.
Melaragno did not specify where the money will go, but his use of the term "institution" can be taken to mean a charity. He said that under Brazilian law, a donation can be made to avoid criminal prosecution for minor offenses, but did not say what charge was being contemplated.
Though police appear mostly finished with their probe, the case may be far from settled. Police have said they are considering charges of falsely reporting a crime and destruction of property, both of which can carry up to six months in jail or a fine.
Lochte's attorney has insisted the story wasn't made up — but neither he nor Lochte commented on the police account after it unfolded.
The saga began when Lochte said he and Conger, Bentz and Feigen were held at gunpoint and robbed several hours after the last Olympic swimming races ended. That claim began to unravel when police said that investigators could not find evidence to substantiate it.
Then security video reviewed by police confirmed the athletes vandalized parts of the gas station, leading to an encounter with station employees.
The video shows one of the swimmers pulling a sign off of a wall and dropping it onto the ground. A gas station worker arrives, and other workers inspect the damage. Veloso said the swimmers broke a door, a soap dispenser and a mirror.
The swimmers eventually talk with station workers and their cab leaves. In another sequence, the swimmers appear to briefly raise their hands while talking to someone and sit down on a curb.
After a few minutes, the swimmers stand up and appear to exchange something — perhaps cash, as police said — with one of the men.
The footage doesn't show a weapon, but a police official speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation was ongoing said two guards pointed guns at the swimmers. Veloso said the guards did not use excessive force and would have been justified in drawing their weapons because the athletes "were conducting themselves in a violent way."
A station employee called police, and the guards and employees tried to get the swimmers and the taxi driver to stay until authorities arrived, some even offering to help interpret between English and Portuguese, Veloso said. But he said the athletes wanted to leave, so they paid 100 Brazilian reals (about US $33) and $20 in U.S. currency and left.
Police said the swimmers had been unable to provide key details in early interviews, saying they had been intoxicated. The police official said officers grew suspicious when security video showed the swimmers returning to the athletes’ village wearing watches, which would have likely been taken in a robbery.
Bentz and Conger told police that they felt Lochte had lied about the situation in media interviews, according to text of the statements released by Rio police.
"We got pulled over, in the taxi, and these guys came out with a badge, a police badge, no lights, no nothing just a police badge and they pulled us over," Lochte told NBC's "Today" the morning after the incident. "They pulled out their guns, they told the other swimmers to get down on the ground — they got down on the ground. I refused, I was like we didn't do anything wrong, so — I'm not getting down on the ground.
"And then the guy pulled out his gun, he cocked it, put it to my forehead and he said, 'Get down,' and I put my hands up, I was like 'whatever.' He took our money, he took my wallet — he left my cellphone, he left my credentials."
The debacle prompted both wild speculation and social media mockery, which quickly turned to scorn after the official account went public. #LochteGate trended on Twitter, with users sharing video footage and posting comments about white privilege and rude Americans.
David Fleischer, a political scientist at the University of Brasilia, said the incident touched a nerve in Brazil because of the country's history and cases of people committing crimes while impersonating police.
"The story did have some sense of validity but it didn't bear out and it made them look bad worldwide," he said.
That outrage was evident Thursday, as onlookers shouted "liars" and "shameful" at Bentz and Conger as they left a police station where they gave statements.
While he's medaled often, Lochte's accomplishments have long been overshadowed by teammate Michael Phelps — the most decorated Olympian in history. Lochte, a 12-time medalist, won a gold in Rio in a relay race alongside Phelps.
Lochte and the other swimmers could face sanctions from USA Swimming, including fines or suspension. The group, as well as Olympic officials, publicly expressed disappointment and said they would further examine the matter.
"We apologize to our hosts in Rio and the people of Brazil for this distracting ordeal in the midst of what should rightly be a celebration of excellence," the U.S. Olympic Committee said.
It’s a story that had the UGA campus buzzing Thursday about Bentz’s involvement.
“We were all proud of him, just for our school in general, our athletes that made it,” said student Jaylen Black. “You just expect your students to do a little better, but I hope it all works out for him.”
Some students said they were disappointed a fellow student was accused of being involved in an incident like this one.
“I like to think we are being represented across the country and I want the people out there representing me to be a good reflection of what a good UGA student is,” said student Amelia Phillips.
An employee at Bentz’s father’s business in Tucker told FOX 5 Thursday he would not be speaking to anyone until his son was back on U.S. soil.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.