Actor Jussie Smollett, who was hospitalized late last month after an apparent racist, homophobic hate crime, has turned himself into the police and faces felony charges for allegedly orchestrating his own assault.
Smollett was arrested by the Chicago Police Department on Wednesday night, less than a month after he told police he’d been assaulted by two men who shouted slurs at him, doused him with bleach, beat him, and left a rope hanging around his neck like a noose. The men yelled “this is MAGA country” as they fled the scene, Smollett told detectives, who announced that they were treating the attack as “a possible hate crime.”
The Jan. 28 attack came eight days after a letter addressed to Smollett was sent to Fox Studios in Chicago — Smollett is a star on Fox’s hit show “Empire” — which had “You will die black fag” written ransom-style, in letters cut out from a magazine. The letter also had “MAGA” in red marker where the return address would be.
Now, Smollett is officially a suspect. He has been charged with making a false police report and, if convicted, faces up to three years in prison and up to a $25,000 fine.
Following Smollett’s arrest, his attorneys Todd Pugh and Victor Henderson released a statement saying their client “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.”
But at a scathing CPD press conference on Thursday morning, CPD Superintendent Eddie T. Johnson expressed disgust, rage, and horror at what he called a “hoax” by Smollett. Johnson said Smollett “took advantage of the pain and anger of racism” when he both sent the letter to Fox and paid $3,500 to stage the assault, “a stunt,” because “he was dissatisfied with his salary” on Empire.
The CPD has the check Smollett used to pay his “attackers,” Johnson said; those men also told the police that Smollett was motivated by his salary frustrations.
“I come to you not only as the superintendent of the Chicago police department, but also as a black man who spent his entire life living in the city of Chicago,” Johnson said. “I know the racial divide that exists here. I know how hard it has been for our city and our nation to come together. And I also know the disparities and I know the history. This announcement today recognizes that Empire actor Jussie Smollett took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career.”
“I’m left hanging my head and asking why,” Johnson went on. “Why would anyone, especially an African American man, use the symbolism of a noose to make false accusations? How could someone look at the hatred and suffering associated with that symbol and see an opportunity to manipulate that symbol to further his own public profile?”
Eddie Johnson says Smollett "took advantage of the pain and anger of racism… I'm left hanging my head and asking why." pic.twitter.com/Kivg3BhmBN
— Jessica Goldstein (@jessicagolds) February 21, 2019
Though the city of Chicago has its troubles, Johnson said, “to put the national spotlight on Chicago for something that is both egregious and untrue is just shameful. He added that he was also concerned about what this would mean for future victims of hate crimes, who “will now be met with a degree of public skepticism” greater than before the Smollett incident.
“I am offended by what happened, and I’m also angry,” Johnson said.
Within days of the apparent hate crime on Smollett, the CPD had identified two persons of interest, and on Feb. 13, those men are arrested: Nigerian brothers Olabinjo Osundairo, who was an extra on Empire in 2015, and Abimbola Osundairo, who Smollett’s attorneys identified as Smollett’s personal trainer. Two days later, the brothers were released from police custody and the charges against them were dropped, “due to new evidence,” according to the CPD. Both brothers testified before a grand jury to, as a police spokesperson put it, “lock in their testimony.”
Though initially the police had said there was “no evidence” to indicate Smollett had fabricated any part of his story, two law-enforcement sources told CNN that CPD now, in fact, believed Smollett may have paid the Osundairos to stage the attack.
In a statement, the CPD confirmed that information from the Osundairo brothers “shifted the trajectory of the investigation.” The CPD had records of the Osundairos, who were now cooperating with the police, buying the rope from the attack.
By the time Smollett gave his first interview after the attack to Good Morning America, reports that the attack may have been staged were already swirling in the press. Speaking with Robin Roberts, Smollett did not waver from his version of events. He explained away the phone records by saying he had privacy concerns — personal pictures and videos, contact information for his family and castmates — and said he believed he was targeted because of his criticism of President Trump.
“I come really, really hard against 45. I come really, really hard against his administration, and I don’t hold my tongue,” he said.
“I could only go off of their words. I mean, who says ‘faggot Empire nigger,’ ‘This is MAGA country, nigger,’ ties a noose around your neck, and pours bleach on you? And this is just a friendly fight?” he went on. “It’s unbelievable to me that any of this has come to this. That every single thing that I have done, every single thing that I have cooperated with, somehow has gotten twisted into being some bull that it’s not.”
In March 2017, Smollett released a self-directed music video for his song “F.U.W. (Fucked Up World)” to protest the “race-baiting, bigotry and xenophobia of the current administration,” as he put it in a press release. In one scene, a mask of President Donald Trump’s face is crushed by a man in a wheelchair. In an interview with the Associated Press, Smollett described the mask as “a representation of this false idea of patriotism [and] this idea of white male privilege.”
Days after Smollett was hospitalized, Trump did tell reporters at the White House that the reports of the attack on Smollett were “horrible. It doesn’t get worse, as far as I’m concerned.”
Fueling doubt was Smollett’s refusal to hand over his complete phone records to the police. Though he submitted phone records from the hour surrounding the alleged attack, which occurred at 2:00 a.m., Chicago police described Smollett’s records as “limited and heavily redacted.” Some of Smollett’s high-profile supporters, including Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, walked back their initial statements and said they’d be withholding judgment until an investigation is complete.
Smollett is a black, gay, Jewish actor who got his start as a child star alongside equally precocious-in-Hollywood siblings. His family has been politically engaged for his entire life; as the New York Times wrote in a 2016 story on the Smollett siblings, they’ve long been “devoted to causes live H.I.V./AIDS prevention and ending apartheid. They were raised in the orbit of the Black Panthers and, lately, have lent their voices to the Black Lives Matter movement. Their trajectory, from child stars to successful adults, is born of their family and its history of activism.”
As civil rights attorney Areva Martin said on CNN Newsroom just before the CPD presser began, Smollett is “a well-known and recognized activist in the social justice community and the LGBT community. I know he has been active in the Time’s Up movement, advocating on behalf of women who have been the victims of sexual assault or sexual harassment claims. Why would he orchestrate this hate crime, or alleged hate crime, knowing that if it is revealed, he would not only jeopardize his job, jeopardize his freedom and his reputation, [but that] this really will make it so much more difficult for any victim of a hate crime to come forward and to be believed? I think for all of us the big question is why.”
Smollett has been among Empire’s stars since its premiere. As the narrative surrounding Smollett’s attack grew murkier, the show’s producers have denied rumors that Smollett’s character was going to be written off the show. Two days before Smollett’s arrest, Fox released a statement confirming that point, adding that Smollett “continues to be a consummate professional on set.”
Smollett’s bail hearing is will to take place at 1:30 p.m. CST.
At the end of the CPD press conference, asked what justice would be in this case, Johnson said, “Absolute justice would be an apology to this city that he smeared, admitting what he did, and then be man enough to offer up what he should offer up in terms of all the resources that were put into this.”