CHICAGO — Jussie Smollett paid two brothers $3,500 to stage an attack on him last month, taking “advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career,” Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson alleged Thursday.
The revelations necessary to charge Smollett came during the 47th hour of a 48-hour holding period for the brothers, who eventually confessed to the alleged plot, Johnson said. Had they waited another hour, the superintendent said, authorities would have been forced to release them.
“We just didn’t have the total package to support that it was a hoax,” he said. “This investigation didn’t turn in the direction of Mr. Smollett being a defendant until the 47th hour that we had those two individuals in custody.”
The “Empire” actor was arrested Thursday morning on suspicion of filing a false report about the January 29 incident and appeared in court in the afternoon.
With his family members standing throughout the proceeding, Smollett wore the same puffer jacket he wore in his police mugshot. He shook his head and closed his eyes as prosecutors outlined their case against him: that the actor directed the brothers on what to say and do — including uttering a racial slur, employing a noose and making a reference to “Make America Great Again.”
He also gave the brothers $100 bill to buy rope for a noose and clothing, prosecutors allege.
Smollett spoke only to confirm his name to the judge.
The defense team told the court that Smollett was not a flight risk and cited his philanthropic work in making his case for bail. The judge granted a $100,000 bail, and Smollett paid a $10,000 bond. He was ordered to give up his passport and will remain under supervision until his case is adjudicated.
Smollett faces a felony charge of disorderly conduct for falsely claiming he was attacked by two men on January 29 in Chicago, police say. The attackers yelled racist and homophobic slurs, tied a rope around his neck and poured an unknown substance on him, Smollett alleged.
Smollett’s camp has released no statements since he turned himself in, but his attorneys previously promised an “aggressive defense.”
“Mr. 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,” they said in a statement.
Flipping the brothers
The attack took place but was staged, Johnson said. The brothers punched Smollett a little, wearing gloves, according to Johnson.
“As far as we can tell, the scratching and bruising that you saw on his face were most likely self-inflicted,” said Johnson.
Investigators believe Smollett staged the attack “because he was dissatisfied with his salary,” Johnson said, citing information that the brothers gave to police.
Police initially treated the attack as a hate crime and were able to track down the men, in part, through cabs and rideshares that they took after the attack, Cmdr. Edward Wodnicki told reporters. By the time police identified the men, they had hopped on a plane to Nigeria, but their itinerary said they were returning February 13.
Investigators continued their investigation — obtaining phone and social media records, among other evidence — and met the brothers at customs when they returned to the country, Wodnicki said. Phone records indicate Smollett talked to the brothers about an hour before the alleged attack, an hour afterward and while they were in Nigeria, police say.
According to Johnson, the brothers — identified as Olabinjo and Abimbola Osundairo — asked for an attorney once in custody. After their lawyer explained to police that “something smelled fishy,” the men told officers that Smollett, who is black and gay, first “attempted to gain attention by sending a false letter that relied on racial, homophobic and political language. When that didn’t work, Smollett paid $3,500 to stage this attack,” he said.
Seven days before the alleged attack, a letter was sent to the Chicago set of “Empire.” It contained white powder and a drawing of a “stick figure hanging from a tree,” police have said. Authorities determined the powder to be aspirin, police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said. It’s not clear if this is the same letter that police now accuse Smollett of sending.
Investigators have the check Smollett used to pay the men, the superintendent said. Though Johnson said the payment was $3,500, he also said Smollett agreed to pay the men $500 when they returned from Nigeria. It isn’t clear if that sum is included in the $3,500. The brothers’ motive for helping was money, Johnson said.
“There was never a thought in their mind that we would be able to track them down,” he said.
After cooperating with police, the Osundairo brothers were released without being charged last week and went before a grand jury Tuesday, Johnson said.
At one point, Smollett’s legal team asked that the grand jury proceeding be postponed so he could provide new details, but “essentially they gave us no new information,” Wodnicki said.
The grand jury heard the evidence, and on Wednesday, police said, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office approved a felony disorderly conduct charge against the actor.
Under Illinois law, filing a false police report is disorderly conduct and punishable by one to three years in prison.
Brothers no longer suspects
During Thursday’s news conference, Johnson repeatedly chastised the media for devoting more attention to the Smollett case than to other alleged victims of violence in the city.
“I am offended by what’s happened and I’m also angry,” Johnson said. “Bogus police reports cause real harm. They do harm to every legitimate victim.”
The superintendent said, however, that Smollett was given no more attention than any other alleged crime victim, but he lamented that resources devoted to the Smollett investigation could have been deployed elsewhere. According to the Chicago Tribune’s crime-tracking website, there have been eight homicides and 67 shootings since Smollett reported the attack.
In the weeks since the alleged attack, there have been numerous twists in the narrative, transforming Smollett from victim to suspect. Smollett has stood by his initial claims that he was attacked. Celebrities and politicians lent their fervent support, but there were doubters. The backlash grew louder as social media users questioned the actor’s claims after police said they could not find video of the incident from surveillance cameras in the area.
As details emerged, police said they wanted to conduct a followup interview with the actor based on “some developments.”
They did not elaborate, but surveillance video from a beauty supply store captured the day before the assault, appears to show the brothers purchasing a ski mask, sunglasses, a red hat and other items. They paid for the items in cash, according to the owner.
The two are no longer suspects, Chicago police say. The brothers’ attorney, Gloria Schmidt, told reporters Wednesday that her clients had not accepted a plea deal.
“You don’t need immunity when you have the truth,” she said.
Asked why Smollett chose the brothers, who prosecutors say both appeared as extras on “Empire,” Johnson said it was probably because he had a previous relationship with them and “knew that he needed somebody with some bulk.” Selfies posted on Instagram showed the muscular brothers with their shirts off, flexing, and prosecutors allege that Abimbola Osundairo had previously provided recreational drugs for Smollett.
Smollett angered by allegations, lawyers say
Smollett, who plays a gay character on the Fox drama “Empire,” told detectives two men attacked him near the lower entrance of a Loews hotel in Chicago, police said. The men yelled, ” ‘Empire’ fa***t” and ” ‘Empire’ n***er,’ ” while striking him, police were told.
The actor also confirmed reports that one of the men shouted, “This is MAGA country,” a reference to President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan, police said.
After the brothers were released from custody, Smollett’s attorneys maintained their client was the victim of a hate crime and said he was cooperating with police.
“Jussie Smollett is angered and devastated by recent reports that the perpetrators are individuals he is familiar with,” their statement said. “He has now been further victimized by claims attributed to these alleged perpetrators that Jussie played a role in his own attack.”
The company behind “Empire,” 20th Century Fox Television, has previously backed the actor. After Thursday’s news conference, it issued a statement saying, “We understand the seriousness of this matter and we respect the legal process. We are evaluating the situation and we are considering our options.”
More than a decade ago, Smollett pleaded no contest to providing false information to law enforcement in a 2007 misdemeanor case, according to Frank Mateljan, a spokesman for the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office.
The case stemmed from a DUI stop in which Smollett gave police the wrong name. He also pleaded no contest to driving with a blood alcohol level over the legal limit and driving without a valid driver’s license. He was sentenced to two years of probation and paid a fine.
Asked what he’d like to see from Smollett, Johnson told reporters Thursday, “Absolute justice would be an apology to this city that he smeared, admitting 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.”