The Chicago prosecutor assigned to the ongoing Jussie Smollett investigation recused herself from the case abruptly on Tuesday night and offered little explanation beyond her concerns over “potential questions of impartiality based on familiarity with potential witnesses in the case.”
The recusal by Cook County prosecutor Kim Foxx is the most recent twist in an increasingly bizarre case that stems from Smollett, a black and gay actor known for his role in the TV series “Empire,” alleging that he was brutally attacked on a street in Chicago around 2 a.m. on Jan. 29.
Chicago police initially said this week that they were looking into a tip that claimed Smollett was seen riding the elevator in his apartment building the night of the attack with the two men arrested (and then released) as his suspected assailants. But officers later said the tip was unfounded.
The developments in the case come amid mounting suspicion — much of which has been fueled by media reports citing unnamed police sources — that Smollett paid his alleged assailants to stage the attack. The FBI and United Postal Service are also reportedly looking into allegations that Smollett sent a threatening letter containing crushed up Advil to himself.
Smollett, 36, said he was out getting something to eat at around 2 a.m. on Jan. 29, when two masked men hurled homophobic and racial slurs at him, beat him up, shouted “MAGA Country,” threw a chemical substance on him, and placed a noose around his neck. Smollett returned to his apartment after the attack and then called the police, who took his report and suggested he take himself to hospital for evaluation.
Days later, Smollett appeared on stage for a sold-out concert in Los Angeles with no visible injuries apart from a small mark under one eye. “I had to be here tonight,” he told his fans.
The brutal nature of the allegations against a backdrop of rising hate crimes nationwide thrust the case into the national spotlight and generated an outpouring of support from prominent lawmakers, including 2020 contenders Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and former Vice President Joe Biden. (Harris and Booker have declined to comment further on the case pending the outcome of the investigation).
But in the days immediately following the alleged attack, Chicago Police said they were struggling to locate evidence that could help them identify Smollett’s assailants, which only fueled speculation — mostly from the right — that the whole situation could be a hoax. Even Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, jumped in and retweeted posts promoting the theory that Smollett had faked his own attack.
Weeks later, the skepticism has now started moving across party lines. Cardi B said on Instagram Live Monday that she was “really disappointed” in him. “I feel like he fucked up Black History Month, bro,” Cardi said.
For his part, Smollett has vehemently denied any suggestion that he was complicit in his own attack. “Nothing is further from the truth, and anyone claiming otherwise is lying,” his lawyer said.
Police sources told NBC News that, if Smollett was found to be lying, he could face criminal charges and possibly even jail time. Falsification of police reports in Illinois is a Class 4 felony and carries a prison sentence of one to three years.
On Jan. 31, after scouring “hundreds of hours of surveillance video,” Chicago police published a grainy image taken from an overhead camera showing “persons of interest,” two individuals in the approximate place and time where Smollett said he was attacked.
Nearly two weeks later, on Feb. 13, police took two brothers, Abimbola Osundairo and Olabinjo Osundairo, into custody after they arrived at Chicago O’Hare airport. According to CBS News, the brothers had left for Nigeria the day after the alleged attack. Police had also raided their home in Chicago and removed bleach, a red hat, black masks, and an “Empire” script, among other items that lined up with Smollett’s accusations.
In an emotional appearance on ABC’s "Good Morning America" on Feb. 14, Smollett discussed the alleged attack and said he believed he’d been targeted because of his outspoken criticism of the Trump administration.
Later that day, citing “sources familiar with the investigation,” ABC-7 and CBS Chicago reported that Chicago Police were looking into whether the two men they’d taken into custody had colluded with Smollett to stage the attack. Their motive for staging the attack, sources told ABC-7, was because Smollett was being written off "Empire." (Twentieth Century Fox Television and Fox Entertainment released a statement saying the idea that Smollett would be written off the show was “patently ridiculous.”)
In response, Chicago Police Department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi wrote in a statement on Twitter that such reports describing the attack as a “hoax” were unconfirmed by case detectives. “We have no evidence to support their reporting and their supposed [Chicago Police Department] sources are uninformed and inaccurate” he tweeted.
But on Friday, Feb. 15, the Osundairo brothers were released without charges “due to new evidence as a result of today’s interrogations,” Guglielmi wrote on Twitter.
The next day, Smollett’s lawyer released a statement denying his client’s complicity in the attack and said one of the brothers was “Jussie’s personal trainer who he hired to ready him physically for a music video.” He added that it was “impossible to believe that this person could have played a role in the crime against Jussie.”
That same day, CBS reported — once again citing unnamed police sources — that the Osundairo brothers told police that Smollett had paid them to stage the attack and fessed up after detectives confronted them with evidence linking them to the rope that was tied around the actor's neck in a noose.
CBS also reported, via anonymous sources, that Smollett paid the Osundairo brothers $3,500 before they left for Nigeria on Jan. 29 and promised them $500 more upon their return. CNN, also citing unnamed police sources, reported that Smollett paid the brothers to “orchestrate the assault.”
In a statement that evening, Chicago police said that information they learned from the Osundairo brothers during questioning had “shifted the trajectory of the investigation,” adding that they’d reached out to Smollett’s lawyer to request a follow-up interview.
On Monday Feb. 19, Smollett’s lawyer released a statement that any reports of his client planning to meet with police for a second interview that day were false.
By that point, conservative media and pundits that had labeled the case a hoax from the beginning were claiming victory. Donald Trump Jr. shared an article on Twitter by the Daily Wire, a conservative publication, with the headline “The Jussie Smollett Hoax Is What Happens When A Culture Fetishizes Victimhood.”
The next day, according to the Associated Press, Chicago police were following up on a tip from someone who lives in Smollett’s apartment building that they saw him riding the elevator with the Osundairo brothers the same day of the attack. Police later found out the tip didn’t square with video surveillance footage taken from the building.
CBS Chicago, again citing unnamed police sources, reported Tuesday that Smollett orchestrated the attack because he was upset that a threatening letter sent to Fox Studios and addressed to him last month “didn’t get enough attention.” CBS also reported that Chicago police are no longer referring to Smollett as a “victim,” and now refer to him as “the individual who reported the incident.”
And according to Deadline, Fox is taking steps to minimize Smollett’s role in "Empire" and cutting some of his scenes, in response to the controversy.
The Chicago Police did not respond to VICE News' request for comment.
Editor's note: This story was updated 2/20 at 10:10 a.m.
Cover image: FJurnee Smollett-Bell and Jussie Smollett at the 2018 Kingdom Day Parade in honoring the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Baldwin Hills in Los Angeles, California on January 15, 2018. Credit: Faye Sadou/MediaPunch /IPX