Actor Jussie Smollett faked hate crime attack over salary spat: Chicago Police

Compensation issues take centre stage in drama that has made international headlines for star of hit TV show Empire
By Cynthia Littleton
|hrreporter.com|Last Updated: 02/25/2019
Jussie Smollett booking photo
Actor Jussie Smollett, 36, appears in a booking photo provided by the Chicago Police Department. Courtesy Chicago Police Department/Handout via REUTERS

LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) — In a scathing rebuke, Chicago Police officials asserted Thursday that actor Jussie Smollett set up a hate crime hoax on Jan. 29 because he was "dissatisfied with his salary" on the Fox series "Empire."

Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson presided over a press conference Thursday morning after Smollett turned himself in to police to face a charge of filing a false police report. Johnson told reporters he was angered by what he described as Smollett's "smear" of the city where "Empire" is filmed by claiming he was the victim of a vicious hate crime spurred by racism and homophobia.

Johnson called Smollett's actions "shameful" and accused him of hurting the entire city with a stunt planned for his own self-interest. He also criticized the actor for forcing the city to spend time and resources on an investigation when Smollett knew there was no crime. Smollett is to be formally charged and face a bond hearing today at 1:30 p.m. CT.

Smollett has maintained his innocence, vehemently denying that he had any connection with the attack. Police made it clear on Thursday that they have no doubt that he orchestrated the incident. Representatives for Smollett could not be reached for comment.

"It painted this city that we all love and work hard in a negative connotation," Johnson said during the roughly 25-minute news conference. "To insinuate and stage a hate crime of this nature -- it's just despicable. It makes you wonder what's going through someone's mind to do something like that."

Smollett has been staunchly backed by "Empire" producer 20th Century Fox TV and Fox. As late as Wednesday night, knowledgable sources said that while Fox was considering suspending Smollett from the show, the expectation was still that he would eventually finish his work on the show's fifth season, which is still in production. But on Thursday the studio's tone shifted.

"We understand the seriousness of this matter and we respect the legal process," 20th Century Fox TV and Fox Entertainment said in a statement. "We are evaluating the situation and we are considering our options."

Johnson and Chicago Police commander Edward Wodnicki offered a detailed timeline of the case and the investigation that has unfolded during the past three weeks. Smollett is accused of playing two brothers, Olabinjo and Abimbola Osundairo, to physically attack him and yell racist and homophobic slurs in the early hours of Jan. 29. Police said Smollett paid the brothers $3,500 by check and promised to pay them an addition $500 after the incident.

The brothers were taken in to custody on Feb. 13. After two days of questioning, the pair broke down and confessed to being paid by Smollett to stage the attack. Johnson said police didn't secure confirmation that the incident was a hoax "until the 47th hour" of the 48-hour period in which police could hold them without formal charges.

Johnson said police went into the investigation treating Smollett as a victim although there was some skepticism about his account of the incident. Smollett told police that the attackers poured bleach on him and slipped a noose around his neck. He also reported that the attackers yelled "MAGA," a reference to President Donald Trump's "Make America Great Again" campaign slogan.

"From the very beginning we had some questions about it," Johnson said. "We gave Mr. Smollett the benefit of the doubt until the 47th hour of the 48 hours we could hold those two individuals." Johnson and Wodnicki said the dynamic changed after the brothers hired a lawyer to represent them.

"At the 47th hour, the two brothers decided with the help of their lawyer to confess to the entirety of what the plot was," Johnson said.

Of the attack itself, Johnson said flatly: "It was staged. The brothers had on gloves during the staged attack. They punched him a little bit. The scratching and bruising we saw on (Smollett's) face was most likely self-inflicted." Johnson said telephone records also point to Smollett's connection with the brothers, who left the country for Nigeria immediately following the attack, police said.

"We have the phone records that clearly indicate that they talked to each other quite a bit before the incident, after the incident and while they were out of the country," Johnson said.

As it became clear to investigators that the alleged crime had been orchestrated, "quite frankly it pissed everybody off," Johnson said. Police said they interviewed more than 100 people and executed more than 50 search warrants and subpoenas in the course of the investigation. All of that amounted to a waste of time and money, Johnson stressed.

"This shouldn't have garnered the attention that it did, but it did because of his celebrity status," Johnson said.

Police said the key break in the case came as they traced the steps of the Osundairo brothers through surveillance cameras active throughout the city, including 35 cameras controlled by the Chicago PD and 20 privte sector surveillance cameras.

Surveillance video caught the image of the two men leaving the area where Smollett was attacked. The pair was identified after police discovered they had taken a ride in a cab and also traveled in what Johnson called a "ride-share" car. Interviews with the drivers of the cab and the ride-share car led police to discover that the brothers had traveled to Chicago's O'Hare Airport after the incident and boarded a flight for Nigeria. When the Osundairos returned to Chicago on Feb. 13, police took them into custody at the airport.

The brothers provided police with the information that Smollett set up the faux attack because he was unhappy with this salary, Johnson said.

When asked why it took investigators three weeks to determine that Smollett's story was untrue, Johnson said police wanted to be thorough if they were to accuse Smollett of faking.

"These things take time. This isn't TV. This is real life," Johnson said. "It takes time."

Johnson concluded the news conference by suggesting that Smollett apologize to "the city that he smeared" and reimburse the city of the funds devoted to the investigation.

Smollet should "be man enough to offer what he should offer up in terms of all the resources that were put into this," Johnson said.

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