By Rodrigo Viga and Jeb Blount
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Brazilian police are considering charging a group of U.S. Olympic swimmers with vandalism and giving false testimony, including gold medalist Ryan Lochte, after accusing them of lying about an incident that marred South America's first Games.
During the two weeks of the Rio Games, the sporting action has been competing for headlines against a series of muggings and armed robberies of high-profile athletes and visitors in Rio de Janeiro, including two government ministers.
Lochte, one of America's most decorated swimmers, and three team mates were involved in the incident at a Rio gas station where Lochte said they had been robbed at gunpoint - a version that was denounced on Thursday by Rio de Janeiro's police chief.
"There was no robbery as the swimmers described it," civil police chief Fernando Veloso told a news conference, adding that it would be noble and dignified if the swimmers were to apologize to the people of Rio.
Brazil's Presidential Chief of Staff, Eliseu Padilha, chimed in, saying the swimmers should be held accountable.
GloboNews reported that police were recommending prosecutors charge Lochte and fellow gold medalist Jimmy Feigen with falsely reporting a crime, but a police source later said this had not yet happened.
Neither Lochte nor Feigen could be immediately contacted for comment. The other two swimmers involved, Gunnar Bentz and Jack Conger, gave testimony at a Rio police on Thursday and later walked from the building to the jeers of a waiting crowd who shouted "Liars" and "Fakes".
GloboNews said Bentz and Conger were leaving Brazil on Thursday after their passports were released. The pair had been pulled off a U.S.-bound flight in Rio international airport on Wednesday.
Police began investigating the incident after Lochte told U.S. television the four had been robbed by gunmen impersonating police officers who pulled over their taxi in the early hours of Sunday, as they returned to the Athletes' Village from a party.
Their swimming competition had finished.
Veloso said there was no robbery as described by the swimmers and that investigations instead revealed that the swimmers' taxi had pulled into the station where they behaved in a hot-tempered way and damaged the station's bathroom.
They broke a mirror and a soap-holder, he said, adding that they then handed over a total of 100 reais ($31) and $20 in U.S. currency as compensation.
According to Lochte's account, $400 was stolen from them.
At one point, a security guard pulled a firearm after one swimmer behaved erratically, Veloso said, adding that the guard had not over-reacted: "From the moment the gun was pulled out, they calmed down. Once they were calm, the gun was lowered."
HANDS IN THE AIR
Earlier, Brazilian TV aired security-camera videos appearing to show the swimmers in a dispute with staff at the gas station, a fact police say they did not mention in their accounts.
The video does not show them causing any breakage, but only being hustled out of the bathroom by uniformed employees. Security guards then prevent the swimmers from leaving in a taxi and the Americans appear to offer them money from their wallets.
Three of the swimmers are made to sit on the ground with their hands in the air. At one point, Lochte stands and appears to argue with the guards but is made to sit down again.
On Sunday, Lochte had told NBC that the taxi he was traveling in with his three team mates was flagged down by robbers posing as police and they held a gun to his head during a robbery. He made no mention of stopping at a gas station.
NBC host Matt Lauer said late on Wednesday that Lochte repeated a slightly modified version to NBC in an interview not yet aired, saying the swimmers had stopped at a gas station and that a gun was pointed in his direction during the robbery.
'GIVE THESE KIDS A BREAK'
The Shell gas station is near Olympic Park where sporting action has been overshadowed by reports of street crime outside.
On Thursday, Australia's Olympic team said swimmer Josh Palmer was out drinking this week when he was forced by a thief to withdraw $1,000 from a cash machine. He was later found disorientated but unharmed. The Guardian newspaper said a British athlete had been robbed at gunpoint early on Tuesday.
Staff at the gas station said on Thursday that the U.S. swimmers ripped an advertising plaque off a wall while they urinated on a wall. Security was called and an argument ensued, said one employee who declined to give his name.
A sign on one of the bathrooms read: "Please Do Not Enter".
A spokesperson for the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) declined to comment on the video footage.
The USOC said on Thursday that the three swimmers who remain in Brazil would be helping police with their investigation.
Rio Games organizers on Thursday defended the four swimmers, saying they were just kids who made a mistake.
"They competed under gigantic pressure. Let's give these kids a break. Sometime you take actions that you later regret. They had fun, they made a mistake, life goes on," Rio 2016 spokesman Mario Andrada told reporters.
(Additional reporting by Daniel Flynn, Brad Brooks and Andrew Downie; Editing by Mark Bendeich and Meredith Mazzilli)