Empire actor Jussie Smollett staged a racist and homophobic attack because he was unhappy about his salary and wanted to promote his career, Chicago’s police superintendent said Thursday (Feb. 21).
Before the attack, Smollett also sent a threatening letter that targeted himself to the Fox studio in Chicago where Empire is filmed, Supt. Eddie Johnson said.
Smollett turned himself in and was arrested early Thursday to face accusations that he filed a false police report when he told authorities he was attacked in Chicago by two men who hurled racist and anti-gay slurs and looped a rope around his neck, police said.
“He took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career,” Johnson told reporters at a news conference. “This publicity stunt was a scar that Chicago didn’t earn and certainly didn’t deserve,” he later added.
The whispers about Smollett’s account started with reports that he had not fully cooperated with police after telling authorities he was attacked. Then detectives in a city bristling with surveillance cameras could not find video of the beating. Later, two brothers were taken into custody for questioning but were released after two days, with police saying they were no longer suspects. Johnson said Smollett paid the brothers $3,500 to stage the attack.
Following three weeks of mounting suspicions, Smollett was charged Wednesday with felony disorderly conduct, a charge that could bring up to three years in prison and force the actor, who is black and gay, to pay for the cost of the investigation into his report of a Jan. 29 beating. In less than a month, the 36-year-old changed from being the seemingly sympathetic victim of a hate crime to being accused of fabricating the entire thing.
The brothers are not considered suspects. Johnson said they wore gloves during the staged attack and “punched him a little bit.” He said scratches and brusing Smollett had on his face were “most likely self-inflicted.” In a statement Wednesday, attorneys Todd Pugh and Victor Henderson said Smollett “enjoys the presumption of innocence, particularly when there has been an investigation like this one where information, both true and false, has been repeatedly leaked.”
Smollett, who plays a gay character on the long-running hit Fox musical soap opera that is shot in Chicago said he was attacked as he was walking home from a downtown Subway sandwich shop. He said the masked men beat him, made derogatory comments and yelled “This is MAGA country” — an apparent reference to President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again” — before fleeing.
After reviewing hundreds of hours of video, detectives did find and release images of two people they said they wanted to question and last week picked up the brothers at O’Hare International Airport as they returned from Nigeria. Police questioned the men and searched their apartment. The brothers, who were identified by their attorney as Abimbola “Abel” and Olabinjo “Ola” Osundairo, were held for nearly 48 hours on suspicion of assaulting Smollett.
Chicago investigators say they used public and private surveillance footage to track the movements of the brothers, with Detective Commander Edward Wodnicki saying at the news conference that investigators were able to see the brothers flee and get into a cab and use camera footage to follow the cab to another part of the city. He says more surveillance footage showed the brothers at O’Hare International Airport, where they boarded a flight to Nigeria. Investigators determined the brothers had a roundtrip ticket and detained them for questioning when they returned to Chicago on Feb. 13.
The day after they were released, police said the men provided information that had ”shifted the trajectory of the investigation,” and detectives requested another interview with Smollett. Police said one of the men had worked on Empire, and Smollett’s attorneys said one of the men is the actor’s personal trainer, whom he hired to help get him physically ready for a music video. The actor released his debut album, Sum of My Music, last year.
Smollett was charged by prosecutors, not the grand jury. Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said the brothers appeared before the panel to “lock in their testimony.” Speaking outside the courthouse where the grand jury met, the brothers’ attorney said the two men testified for about two and a half hours.
“There was a point where this story needed to be told, and they manned up and they said we’re going to correct this,” Gloria Schmidt said. She said her clients did not care about a plea deal or immunity. “You don’t need immunity when you have the truth,” she said. She also said her clients received money from Smollett, but she did not elaborate.
Smollett has been active in LBGTQ issues, and initial reports of the assault drew outrage and support for him on social media, including from Sen. Kamala Harris of California and TV talk show host Ellen DeGeneres. Referring to a published account of the attack, President Donald Trump told reporters at the White House that “it doesn’t get worse, as far as I’m concerned.”
But several hours after Smollett was declared a suspect and the charges announced, there was little reaction from celebrities online. Former Cook County prosecutor Andrew Weisberg said judges rarely throw defendants in prison for making false reports, opting instead to place them on probation, particularly if they have no prior criminal record.
Smollett has a record — one that concerns giving false information to police when he was pulled over on suspicion of driving under the influence. According to records, he was also charged with false impersonation and driving without a license. He later pleaded no contest to a reduced charge and took an alcohol education and treatment program.
Another prospective problem is the bill someone might receive after falsely reporting a crime that prompted a nearly monthlong investigation, including the collection and review of hundreds of hours of surveillance video. The size of the tab is anyone’s guess, but given how much time the police have invested, the cost could be huge. In a statement provided shortly after Smollett’s charging, the show’s producer and studio, 20th Century Fox Television and Fox Entertainment declined a request to discuss the actor’s future on the show, stating, “We understand the seriousness of this matter and we respect the legal process. We are evaluating the situation and we are considering our options.”
Weisberg recently represented a client who was charged with making a false report after surveillance video discredited her account of being robbed by three men at O’Hare Airport. For an investigation that took a single day, his client had to split restitution of $8,400, Weisberg said. In Smollett’s case, “I can imagine that this would be easily into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Saying that the facts that emerged “pissed everybody off” who had spent countless hours investigating the case, Sup. Johnson ended Thursday’s news conference about the charges against Smollett by offering that justice would be for the actor to apologize, admit what he did and “then be man enough to offer what he should offer up in terms of all the resources that were put into this.”