Sopan Deb and Jack Healy
c.2019 New York Times News Service
CHICAGO — Jussie Smollett, upset by his salary and seeking publicity, staged a fake assault on himself a week after writing himself a threatening letter, Chicago police said Thursday after the “Empire” actor surrendered to face a charge of filing a false police report.
A visibly angry Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie T. Johnson said 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 at a news conference in Chicago.
The superintendent seemed particularly upset by the fact that Smollett, he said, had arranged a fake assault that featured a noose hung around his neck. Police say the staged assault was carried out by two brothers to whom the actor had paid $3,500.
“Why would anyone — especially an African-American man — use the symbolism of a noose to make false accusations?” he asked. “How could someone look at the hatred and suffering associated with that symbol and see an opportunity to manipulate that symbol to further his own public profile?”
A representative for Smollett did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday. The actor has maintained that he did not do anything wrong.
The attack was reported to have occurred on Jan. 29. Smollett, who is black and openly gay, told police that at roughly 2 a.m., two masked men attacked him on the 300 block of East Lower 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. Smollett said the assault occurred after he went to a Subway restaurant to pick up food. When police arrived at Smollett’s apartment, he was still wearing the rope.
Smollett also told police that as the attack occurred, he was on the phone with his manager, Brandon Z. Moore, who later corroborated the phone call to Variety. The actor was initially hesitant to inform police because of his high-profile status, according to law enforcement. It was his friend, choreographer Frank Gatson, who initially made the call.
But a team of investigators, looking at the case as a possible hate crime, could not find evidence to match Smollett’s story. The attack was not visible on surveillance cameras and there were no witnesses.
The report of Smollett’s being attacked spread quickly and a national outpouring of support quickly followed. Multiple 2020 Democratic presidential candidates weighed in to condemn Smollett’s purported assailants, as did President Donald Trump, who called the incident “horrible,” and several advocacy groups offered aid.
In the days after Smollett reported his attack, police released a surveillance image of two men thought to be potential persons of interest. The actor would later say in an interview broadcast on “Good Morning America” that he was convinced that these two were the men who attacked him.
On Feb. 13, police detained Olabinjo and Abimbola Osundairo, two brothers and associates of Smollett’s, believing them to be the men in the images. Their home was raided by law enforcement. Through their lawyer, the brothers initially said they didn’t know why they were of interest to police, but investigators changed their status from persons of interest to potential suspects publicly. But the story took another twist: The brothers told police that they had been paid by Smollett to stage the attack, and detectives released them without charges.
Skepticism over the story existed from the beginning — particularly from conservative commentators who found Smollett’s story implausible — because of the lack of evidence. Outwardly, police repeatedly said they were treating Smollett as a victim and that they had no reason to doubt his story. Smollett acknowledged the suspicion in some corners in his first public statement about the incident, which came 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 the “Good Morning America” interview, which was broadcast on Feb. 14, Smollett said to Robin Roberts, “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.”
Even so, the Chicago Police Department was still investigating the case as a possible hate crime until late last week, when, Johnson said, police began considering Smollett as possibly culpable. Smollett was charged on Wednesday.