Actor Jussie Smollett paid two men $3,500 to fake a hate crime because he was upset that he wasn’t getting paid enough in his role on the TV show “Empire,” Chicago police said Thursday.
Smollett, who’s black and gay, turned himself in to Chicago authorities in the early hours on Thursday and now faces felony charges for falsifying a police report and disorderly conduct. Smollett had alleged he was attacked Jan. 29 on a Chicago street by two masked men, who shouted “MAGA country” and homophobic and racial slurs, beat him, poured bleach on him, and placed a noose around his neck.
The alleged attack came a week after Smollett sent himself a threatening letter full of racial slurs and a white powder, later discovered to be crushed up Advil, according to police. In a press conference Thursday morning, Chicago Superintendent Eddie Johnson gave a fiery rebuke of Smollett’s alleged actions.
“This stunt was orchestrated by Smollett because he was dissatisfied with his salary,” Johnson said. “I’m left hanging my head asking why, why would anyone, especially an African-American man, use the symbolism of a noose to make false accusations."
The brutality of the allegation against a backdrop of rising hate crimes nationwide thrust the case into the national spotlight and prompted an outpouring of support from prominent lawmakers, celebrities, and the public.
“This publicity stunt was a scar that Chicago didn’t earn and didn’t deserve,” Johnson said. “The accusations received national attention for weeks. Celebrities, news commentators, and even presidential candidates, weighed in on something that was choreographed by an actor.”
In the days immediately following the alleged attack, Chicago police were having difficulty locating evidence to corroborate Smollett’s claims and help them find his assailants, which fueled skepticism about his case. Weeks later, and following the arrest of two brothers, Smollett’s story began falling apart. One of the brothers turned out to be Smollett’s personal trainer, and both were eventually released from police custody without charges.
Police had tracked the brothers, Olabinjo and Abimbola Osundairo, after finding surveillance footage showing them walking down a street at approximately the same time and in the same area that Smollett alleged he was attacked. Detective Edward Wodnicki said they executed over 50 search warrants and subpoenas, went through social media, and combed phone records to help them identify the brothers.
After that, police took the brothers into custody on Feb. 13 at Chicago O’Hare airport after they returned from Nigeria. They had left the country within 24 hours of staging the attack on Smollett, police said.
Wodnicki said their lawyer, Gloria Schmidt, said that something “smelled fishy” and agreed to allow police to carry out a video recorded interview. The brothers were then released on Feb. 15 because the information they provided had “shifted the trajectory of the investigation,” according to police. Wodnicki said that police were able to substantiate the timeline and details that the brothers gave them in the interview.
“As superintendent — and also as a black man who lives in the city of Chicago — I know the racial divides, I know the disparities, and I know the history,” Johnson said. “This announcement today recognizes that ‘Empire’ actor Jussie Smollett took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career.”
Johnson also expressed dismay about the attention that Smollett’s case received, compared to the routine gun violence that plagues Chicago, and expressed concerns about the possible repercussions of the hoax.
“I wish that the families of gun violence in this city got this much attention. Because that’s who really deserves the amount of attention this particular incident received,” said Johnson. “I’m concerned what this means moving forwards for hate crimes. Of course, Chicago will continue to investigate reports with the same about of vigor. Hate crimes could now be met with a level of skepticism that they weren’t before.”
President Donald Trump responded to the developments in Smollett’s case shortly after the press conference.
Cover image: In this May 20, 2016 file photo, actor and singer Jussie Smollett attends the "Empire" FYC Event in Los Angeles. (Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP, File)