Jussie Smollett, an actor known for playing Jamal Lyon in US hip-hop drama Empire, has been catapulted to an international platform after his claims of being a victim of a racist and homophobic attack have turned into one of Hollywood’s most baffling mysteries.
Smollett, who is black, openly gay and a vociferous detractor of Trump’s America, has now handed himself in on accusation of making a false police report, weeks after went to hospital with injuries from being physically attacked by two men who shouted homophobic and racist slurs at him. The incident has now been revealed to be a set-up.
The weeks since the attack on January 29 have seen a strange series of events take place, in which two brothers who were arrested for the attack ended up actively working with Chicago’s police force. Despite Smollett’s lawyers releasing a statement saying he was “further victimised by claims attributed to these alleged perpetrators that Jussie played a role in his own attack. Nothing is further from the truth and anyone claiming otherwise is lying”, it now seems that that is exactly what happened. Smollett himself now faces a felony charge. Here's how events have unfolded so far:
A threatening letter is sent to Smollett at the Empire production offices, which are in Chicago.
At 2am, Smollett tells the police that he has been attacked by two men, who shouted homophobic and racist abuse at him before putting a rope around his neck and covering him in a chemical substance thought to be bleach. He says he believed the attackers to be white, later adding that the attackers mentioned “MAGA country”, referring to Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again slogan. The incident, Smollett says, took place in East Lower North Water Street in Downtown Chicago.
Afterwards, he went home and his manager called the police 40 minutes after the attack. He walked into hospital and was X-rayed before being discharged.
According to Anthony Guglielmi, communications officer for the Chicago Police, Smollett had been hesitant to report the incident because he was so well-known. The police say they are treating the attack as “a possible hate crime”.
TMZ.com are the first to report the story, claiming sources confirmed that Smollett was walking home from a Subway sandwich shop when someone shouted at him: “Aren’t you that faggot Empire n-----?”
As the news breaks, Smollett receives an outpouring of support from notable public figures such as Nancy Pelosi, Ellen Degeneres, Viola Davis, Shonda Rhimes, Joe Biden and Empire co-creator Danny Strong.
Chicago police search through CCTV footage of the area but can’t see any images of the incident, causing some skepticism to begin to form on social media, as the area was one of high-traffic and there are no official witnesses. What is found, however, are two “potential persons of interest wanted for questioning” with their backs to the camera.
The FBI investigate the letter sent to the Empire office the previous week. Smollett’s manager confirms that he was on the phone to the actor during the incident and heard some of what happened.
Photos of people of interest who were in area of the alleged assault & battery of Empire cast member. While video does not capture an encounter, detectives are taking this development seriously & wish to question individuals as more cameras are being reviewed pic.twitter.com/xJDDygtocr— Anthony Guglielmi (@AJGuglielmi) January 31, 2019
Trump condemns the attack in an interview, saying it is “horrible” and “doesn’t get worse”. Smollett’s family releases a statement that reads: “Jussie was the victim of a violent and unprovoked attack. We want to be clear, this was a racial and homophobic hate crime. Jussie has told the police everything from the very beginning. His story has never changed, and we are hopeful they will find these men and bring them to justice.”
Smollett releases his first public statement since the attack. “Let me start by saying that I’m O.K. My body is strong but my soul is stronger. More importantly, I want to say thank you. The outpouring of love and support from my village has meant more than I will ever be able to truly put into words.”
He also acknowledges the rising skepticism over his story: “I am working with authorities and have been 100 per cent 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.”
Chicago police superintendent Eddie T Johnson backed Smollett up in a local television interview, saying: “We have to remember, he’s a victim. You know, so we have to treat it like he’s a victim. We have no reason to think that he’s not being genuine with us.”
Smollett performs at a concert in West Hollywood. He thanked the crowd and said that he was OK, adding: “I have so many words on my heart that I want to say.” He went on to say that although he wasn’t yet completely healed (he had a small mark underneath his eye, but showed no other signs of injury), he “had to be here tonight” so as not to let his attackers win.
A week after the police say the suspects haven’t been identified, though they are still following leads, the department say that Smollett refused to give full access to his phone. Guglielmi said Smollett handed in a PDF file that included records of phone calls from an hour before the attack (according to Smollett’s manager, the pair were having a conversation when he was attacked) but that the redactions were “extreme”, and needed additional information as to corroborate the investigative timeline, as what was offered did “not meet the burden for a criminal investigation.”
Smollett’s spokesperson says that the files were redacted to “protect the privacy of personal contacts or high-profile individuals not relevant to the attack”.
Two brothers, Obabinjo Osundairo and Abimbola Osundairo, are detained by the Chicago police after arriving in the city’s airport from Nigeria. They are of Nigerian descent. When police raid their family home in Chicago, they remove an Empire script, two hats (one red) and one face mask.
The brothers’ attorney, Gloria Schmidt, tells CBS that the brothers were mystified by the police interest in them, and that they know Smollett professionally: “When they first learned about what happened to him they were horrified. This is someone they know. This is someone they’ve worked with, so they don’t want to see somebody go through that,” she said.
“They’re really baffled why they are people of interest. They really don’t understand how they even got information that linked them to this horrific crime. But they’re not guilty of it. They know that the evidence is going to prove them innocent. They send their best to Jussie.”
Smollett, meanwhile, gives his first interview about the incident to Good Morning America. In it, he recounted the events of the incident and tearfully addresses the rising doubt over his claims. “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,” he told ABC’s Robin Roberts. “A lot more.”
Smollett also explained that, while the incident took place beneath a CCTV camera, the camera was facing north – away from the attack – when it happened, meaning that none of it was captured. “That was disappointing,” he said.
He was also quizzed about the lack of phone accounts. Smollett said he was asked to hand his phone over to the police “for three to four hours”, but refused, telling Roberts: “I’m sorry, but I’m not going to do that. I have private pictures and videos and numbers, my partner’s number, my family’s number, my castmates’ numbers, my friends’ numbers, my private emails, my private songs. I don’t know what that’s going to be to hand over my phone.”
The speculation that has been bubbling up on social media also starts to appear in the press. ABC 7 Eyewitness News’s Chicago branch report that “multiple sources” have said “police are investigating whether Smollett and the two men staged the attack allegedly because Smollett was being written [out] of Empire.
Century Fox TV and Fox Entertainment, the studios behind Empire, release a statement denying any plans to remove Smollett from the show: “The idea that Jussie Smollett has been, or would be, written [out] of Empire is patently ridiculous. He remains a core player on this very successful series and we continue to stand behind him.”
Guglielmi posts on Twitter to say that the notion of Smollett’s attack being a hoax is unconfirmed by Chicago detectives.
Media reports anout the Empire incident being a hoax are unconfirmed by case detectives. Supt Eddie Johnson has contacted @ABC7Chicago to state on the record that we have no evidence to support their reporting and their supposed CPD sources are uninformed and inaccurate. pic.twitter.com/iSO5YFv452— Anthony Guglielmi (@AJGuglielmi) February 15, 2019
The Chicago police arrest and investigate Obabinjo Osundairo and Abimbola Osundairo, but later that day, release both brothers without charging them. A statement released by Guglielmi said: “The individuals questioned by police in the Empire case have now been released without charging and detectives have additional investigative work to complete.”
CBS Chicago add that “two sources with intimate knowledge of the investigation tell CBS 2 Investigator Brad Edwards the attack on Smollett was potentially orchestrated by the actor himself, and involved two other men.” The report adds that “police said while there is no evidence documenting the alleged attack, there is also no evidence to say it is a hoax. They said Smollett is being co-operative at this time and continues to be treated as a victim, not a suspect.”
A new CBS report from an anonymous source claims that the Osundairo brothers “told detectives Smollett paid them to participate in the alleged attack on January 29 and that they purchased the rope – which was found around Smollett’s neck — at a nearby hardware store. The source said detectives have evidence to corroborate the sale, something the men's attorney alluded to Friday night.”
The sources said that the brothers were paid $3,500 before leaving for Nigeria on January 29 and were promised a further $500 upon their return. The pair also rehearsed the attack three days before it took place.
For the first time in the incident, Smollett’s response comes via two lawyers, Todd S Pugh and Victor P Henderson. They release a statement: “Smollett is angered and devastated by recent reports that the perpetrators are individuals he is familiar with. He has now been further victimised by claims attributed to these alleged perpetrators that Jussie played a role in his own attack. Nothing is further from the truth and anyone claiming otherwise is lying.
“One of these purported suspects was Jussie’s personal trainer who he hired to ready him physically for a music video. It is impossible to believe that this person could have played a role in the crime against Jussie or would falsely claim Jussie’s complicity.
“Jussie and his attorneys anticipate being further updated by the Chicago Police Department on the status of the investigation and will continue to cooperate. At the present time, Jussie and his attorneys have no inclination to respond to “unnamed” sources inside of the investigation, but will continue discussions through official channels.”
Chicago police confirm to EW that the investigation has changed, and they will be doing another interview with Smollett: “We can confirm that the information received from the individuals questioned by police earlier in the Empire case has in fact shifted the trajectory of the investigation. We’ve reached out to the Empire cast member’s attorney to request a follow-up interview.”
A source told Deadline, meanwhile: “The new direction of the investigation is now based on the premise that Mr Smollett was an active participant in the incident.”
Guglielmi confirms that the follow-up interview with Smollett had not yet been conducted, and declined to comment on reports that the police believed Smollett staged the attack or that evidence may be presented to a grand jury.
“We’re not confirming, denying or commenting on anything until we can talk to him and we can corroborate some information that we’ve gotten,” Guglielmi said.
A law enforcement source tells Deadline that there is a “sense of frustration” over the lack of formal response from Smollett’s team regarding a further interview to go over new evidence.
The Chicago police are still keen to meet with Smollett, but, a spokesperson for Smollett’s lawyers said: “There are no plans for Jussie Smollett to meet with Chicago police today.
“Smollett’s attorneys will keep an active dialogue going with Chicago police on his behalf. We have no further comment today.”
Chicago police confirm that they and prosecutors have spoken again with the Osundairo brothers at a courthouse. After receiving a tip that Smollett was seen in a lift with the pair shortly before the attack, Chicago police investigate, but confirm in a statement that they do not believe the report is credible.
Guglielmi announces that the local attorney's office has approved felony charges against Smollett for “Disorderly Conduct / Filing a False Police Report”. The police spokesman writes on Twitter: “Detectives will make contact with his legal team to negotiate a reasonable surrender for his arrest.”
Smollett’s lawyers said that they would “conduct a thorough investigation and mount an aggressive defence”.
Smollett turns himself in on the charge of making a false police report. Variety report that Fox is considering removing Smollett from Empire, with producers “weighing whether to suspend the actor” after his arrest.
A spokesperson for 20th Century Fox Television, which produces the series, declines to comment.
The Chicago police hold a press conference, which is streamed live online. During it, Superintendent Eddie Johnson and Commander of Area Central Detectives Edward Wodnicki explains that Smollett now faces a maximum of three years in prison if found guilty.
They added that Smollett planned the attack because he was “dissatisfied with his salary” on Empire and “took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career”. His lawyers did not comment on the conference.
Meanwhile, Trump lambasts Smollett on Twitter, posting: “what about MAGA and the tens of millions of people you insulted with your racist and dangerous comments!?”
Later in the day, Smollett makes his first court appearance as a Chicago judge set a $100,000 bond. The prosecutor reads from a bond proffer that included extensive evidence against Smollett, including text messages and witness statements. Smollett was revealed to have been close friends with Abel Osundairo, who, the chief of criminal prosecutions bureau said, had allegedly been providing Smollett with designer drugs since spring 2018. Smollett denies involvement in the attack.
Reports then emerge that, having posted bail, Smollett returned to the Empire set. He allegedly told his cast mates: “I’m sorry I’ve put you all through this and not answered any calls. I wanted to say I’m sorry and, you know me, I would never do this to any of you, you are my family. I swear to God, I did not do this.”
Smollett’s legal team issue a statement saying that Smollett was ‘a young man of impeccable character and integrity who fiercely and solemnly maintains his innocence.’
They say: “Today we witnessed an organized law enforcement spectacle that has no place in the American legal system. The presumption of innocence, a bedrock in the search for justice, was trampled upon at the expense of Mr Smollett and notably, on the eve of a Mayoral election.
“Mr Smollett is a young man of impeccable character and integrity who fiercely and solemnly maintains his innocence and feels betrayed by a system that apparently wants to skip due process and proceed directly to sentencing.”
Smollett is suspended from the final two episodes of the current series of Empire. In a statement, the show’s producers say that the allegations against him are “disturbing”, and that the atmosphere on set has been “incredibly emotional”.
Smollett is charged by a Chicago grand jury on 16 counts of disorderly conduct. He is to appear in court on March 16, and denies all the charges. In a statement, his lawyers refer to him as “a young man of impeccable character”, and say that they plan to mount an “aggressive defence”.
In a move that barely anybody saw coming, the Cook County State's Attorney's Office announces that they have dropped all charges against Smollett. They did not explain why, but said that the decision was reached after reviewing all of the facts after – crucially – Smollett agreed to donate his $10,000 bond to the city, which has never happened before (usually the bond money is refunded to the defendant when charges are dropped).
“After reviewing all of the facts and circumstances of the case,” the state’s attorney’s office said in a statement, “including Mr Smollett’s volunteer service in the community, and agreement to forfeit his bond to the City of Chicago, we believe this outcome is a just disposition and appropriate resolution to this case.”
Smollett will no longer face trial, and is, once again, a free man with a clean record.
After the announcement, Smollett made a statement outside the courthouse in which he said:
I’ve been truthful and consistent on every single level since day one. … This has been an incredibly difficult time. Honestly, one of the worst of my entire life. But I am a man of faith and a man who has knowledge of my history and would not bring my family, our lives and the movement through a fire like this. I just wouldn’t.
His lawyers read a statement that declared the situation to be “a reminder that there should never be an attempt to prove a case in the court of public opinion. That is wrong. It is a reminder that a victim, in this case, Jussie, deserves dignity and respect. Dismissal of charges against the victim in this case was the only just result.”
Smollett said that he was looking forward to returning to his career. While it's not yet clear if his role in Empire will be re-instated (his character was cut from the final two episodes of the most recent series), a spokesperson for Empire's studio said in a statement, “Jussie Smollett has always maintained his innocence and we are gratified that all charges against him have been dismissed.”