Jussie Smollett Rehearsed His Own Assault, Prosecutors Say
CHICAGO — Jussie Smollett, upset by his salary and seeking publicity, staged a fake assault a week after writing himself a threatening letter, the Chicago police said Thursday after the “Empire” actor surrendered to face a felony charge of filing a false police report.
The Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie T. Johnson, visibly angry at a morning news conference, said Mr. Smollett had taken advantage of the pain and anger of racism, draining resources that could have been used to investigate other crimes for which people were actually suffering.
“I just wish that the families of gun violence in this city got this much attention,” he said, referring to the news media.
At an afternoon bail hearing, a judge set Mr. Smollett’s bond at $100,000. He was released late Thursday afternoon after posting bond and returned to the “Empire” set in Chicago where the show is being shot.
In Thursday’s proceedings, members of Mr. Smollett’s family were in the courtroom with him as the judge, John Fitzgerald Lyke Jr., said that he found the investigators’ account of the incident disturbing, particularly the assertion that Mr. Smollett had used a rope around his neck to heighten outrage.
“We live in a country where you are presumed innocent,” the judge said. “However, if these allegations are true, I find them utterly outrageous. Especially the violent, despicable use of a noose, which conjures such evil in our country.”
Mr. Smollett, wearing a black puffer jacket, did not react, though occasionally he whispered to his legal team during the 25-minute proceeding. One of the lawyers, Jack Prior, agreed that the police account was outrageous, but he said it also was not true.
“He wants nothing more than to clear his name,” Mr. Prior said of his client.
The police say Mr. Smollett hired two brothers to carry out the assault and paid them $3,500. They have a copy of the check used to pay them, the police said. Also recovered, they said, were phone records that showed Mr. Smollett speaking to the brothers an hour before the incident took place, and then an hour after.
In a document prepared for the bail hearing, prosecutors said they had video of the brothers at the scene, text messages they shared with Mr. Smollett and their testimony as to how Mr. Smollett had recruited them for the plan. He even had them visit the scene of what investigators contend was the fake attack, a spot near his home, on an earlier night to prepare, prosecutors said.
But, the prosecutor’s document said, a video camera at the spot that Mr. Smollett had hoped would capture a phony attack was pointed in the wrong direction.
Superintendent Johnson declined to indicate why investigators now believe that Mr. Smollett had also played the chief role in mailing himself a threatening letter. The letter, which arrived a week before the reported assault, contained a white powder (crushed ibuprofen) and a sketch of what appeared to be a man being hanged and phrases, including “You will die.” The return address said “MAGA,” a reference to a slogan from the Trump campaign.
Mr. Johnson referred further comment about the letter to the F.B.I., which is investigating that part of the case. The agency declined to comment.
The actor, who surrendered to the authorities on Thursday morning, has insisted the attack occurred and that he has not done anything wrong. The felony disorderly conduct charge he faces carries a maximum sentence of three years in prison.
After his arrest, the reversal in public opinion for Mr. Smollett was quick and damaging. The report of the attack spurred a national outpouring of support, including from Democratic presidential candidates and President Trump, who called the incident “horrible.”
[Read more about Jussie Smollett’s life and career.]
On Thursday, some of the celebrities who had initially supported Mr. Smollett, began taking down their social media posts from the aftermath of the attack.
Mr. Trump said in a post on Twitter, “.@JussieSmollett – what about MAGA and the tens of millions of people you insulted with your racist and dangerous comments!? #MAGA.”
Fox, the network that airs “Empire,” released a statement Thursday saying it was evaluating the situation and the network’s options. “We understand the seriousness of this matter and we respect the legal process,” the statement said. Network executives later confirmed that among those options was that he return to the set and resume work as Jamal Lyon.
Mr. Smollett’s official salary has not been made public, but he reportedly earned between $65,000 and $100,000 an episode on “Empire.” It was not immediately apparent whether he has had any clashes with executives at Fox, who, as recently as Wednesday, issued a statement highly supportive of the actor, calling him a “consummate professional.”
At their news conference and the bail hearing, police and prosecutors unveiled much of what they had uncovered about the reported attack. Mr. Smollett, 36, who is black and openly gay, had told the police that at roughly 2 a.m. on Jan. 29, two masked men attacked him on the 300 block of Lower East North Water Street in downtown Chicago. He said his assailants directed homophobic and racial slurs at him, put a rope around his neck and poured a chemical substance on him. Mr. Smollett said the assault occurred after he went to pick up food.
A detective commander, Edward Wodnicki, said at the news conference that investigators interviewed Mr. Smollett at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and found he had scratches on his face, some bruising, but no serious injuries.
The investigators approached the case as a possible hate crime, but had difficulty finding evidence to match Mr. Smollett’s account. The attack itself was not visible on surveillance cameras.
Days into their inquiry, investigators released a surveillance image of two men thought to be potential persons of interest, now known to be the two brothers who have said they helped stage a fake attack.
Police said they had spotted the brothers on surveillance footage that showed them taking a cab from the area of the reported assault. Investigators tracked the cab, interviewed the driver, and identified the passengers as Olabinjo and Abimbola Osundairo, associates of Mr. Smollett’s.
Both had worked as extras on “Empire” and Mr. Smollett later acknowledged that he had paid to have one of them train him for a music video. Prosecutors said one of the brothers had sometimes supplied him with designer drugs.
The men flew to Nigeria soon after the incident, the police said, and spoke on the phone with Mr. Smollett while they were away. Upon their return to Chicago on Feb. 13, they were met by investigators and detained for two days.
Commander Wodnicki said that a lawyer for the brothers, Gloria Schmidt, came to him and said: “You really need to talk to these guys. I’m going to allow them to give you a video interview with us present and we’re going to have you hear their story. They are not offenders. They are victims.”
The men acknowledged being paid to participate in the reported assault, the investigators said. They said Mr. Smollet had been upset that people he worked with had not taken the threatening letter he received seriously. In addition they said, according to the investigators’ account, Mr. Smollett had given them $100 to buy supplies for the attack, including the rope and a red hat that would resemble one worn by Trump supporters.
While the brothers seemed to have punched Mr. Smollett, Superintendent Johnson said, “As far as we can tell, the scratches and bruising that you saw in his face was most likely self-inflicted.”
After the interview with the brothers, the detectives released them without charges. Asked about that decision, Superintendent Johnson said: “Mr. Smollett is the one who orchestrated this crime. They became cooperating witnesses.”
Almost from the beginning there was some skepticism about Mr. Smollett’s account. It grew as time progressed, though the police for weeks insisted that the actor was being viewed as a victim. Mr. Smollett acknowledged the suspicions in his first public statement about the incident, on Feb. 1, when he said, through his publicist: “I am working with authorities and have been 100 percent factual and consistent on every level. Despite my frustrations and deep concern with certain inaccuracies and misrepresentations that have been spread, I still believe that justice will be served.”
In a “Good Morning America” interview, broadcast on Feb. 14, Mr. Smollett said: “It feels like if I had said it was a Muslim, or a Mexican, or someone black, I feel like the doubters would have supported me much more.”
[Read more about the “Good Morning America” interview.]
Those kinds of appeals for public sympathy appeared to particularly irk Superintendent Johnson.
“Absolute justice would be an apology to this city that he smeared,” he said at the news conference.
Correction: Feb. 21, 2019
An earlier version of this article misquoted Jack Prior, a lawyer for Jussie Smollett. Mr. Prior said, “He wants nothing more than to clear his name,” not “He wants nothing more than for the truth to come out.”