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Jussie Smollett orchestrated attack, told brothers to yell: prosecutor

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Superintendent of Chicago Police, Eddie T. Johnson, describes how Jussie Smollett’s false claims were a slap in the face to Chicago.
USA TODAY

CHICAGO – “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett carefully plotted a hoax attack that was intended to make him look like the victim of a brutal anti-black, homophobic crime, prosecutors said Thursday.

He scouted out the exact location with the two brothers he paid to stage the attack, offered specific instructions on how he wanted to be beaten, and even gave them $100 to buy supplies used in the staged assault, prosecutors said.

The revelations came as Smollett made his first court appearance Thursday afternoon at a bond hearing following his early-morning arrest on charge of disorderly conduct by filing a false police report.

Judge John Fitzgerald Lyke Jr. set Smollett’s bond at $100,000 and ordered him to surrender his passport. No plea was entered and the actor said little other than giving his name. Smollett posted bond late Thursday afternoon and walked out of the Cook County Jail without making comment to a phalanx of reporters.

Smollett told investigators he was beaten by two masked men who shouted racial and homophobic slurs, wrapped a rope around his neck in the fashion of a noose and poured bleach on him. He also told investigators that the men who attacked yelled, “This is MAGA country,” a reference to President Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan.

Assistant State’s Attorney Risa Lanier said Smollett plotted the attack with the brothers, describing one of the men, Amibola “Abel” Osundairo, 25, as a close friend of the actor’s. 

Lanier said the three men met on Jan. 25 and planned the attack during a conversation in the actor’s car. The attack was originally planned for 10 p.m. CST on Jan. 28 but had to be pushed back a few hours because the actor’s flight from New York was delayed.

“Smollett also stated that he wanted the brothers to catch his attention by calling him an ‘Empire F—- Empire N—-,” Lanier said. “Smollett further detailed he wanted Abel to attack him, but not hurt him too badly and give him a chance to appear to fight back.”

Lanier said Smollett asked the other brother, Olabinjo Osundairo, to “place a rope around his neck, pour gasoline on him and yell, ‘This is MAGA country.’ ”

He also initially directed the brothers to pour gasoline on him during the attack but later suggested they use bleach, Lanier said.

Smollett and the brothers met again on Jan. 27. The actor picked the brothers up from their home on the city’s North Side and drove them to the area near his apartment where he wanted them to stage the attack, Lanier said.

The actor instructed the brothers not to bring their cell phones with them. That day he also wrote a $3,500 check to Abel Osundairo that was backdated to Jan. 23.

He also gave the brothers $100 to buy a ski mask, red hat and other supplies to be used in the attack, Lanier said.

“Smollett and Abel socialized together, exercised together, as well as worked together on the Fox television series ‘Empire,’ ” Lanier said. “Within that working relationship, Abel was a stand-in for the character ‘Kai’ who is a love interest of Defendant Smollett’s character on the ‘Empire’ TV show.”

Prosecutors say texts between Abel Osundairo and Smollett show he also provided the drug ecstasy to the actor.

Lanier said one witness, an employee for NBC News which has offices near where the alleged hoax assault took place, saw it go down.

“This witness indicated that she heard nothing at the time the staged attack was occurring, despite the fact the defendant Smollett told CPD detectives that his attackers were yelling racial and homophobic slurs at him, and he in turn was yelling back at them,” Lanier said

A half dozen people who identified to the court as family members of Smollett watched the roughly 15 minute hearing.

Smollett, wearing a light black winter court, watched intently as Lanier detailed the prosecution’s case. At moments, his mouth fell slightly agape as Lanier outlined the case.

Judge Lyke was taken aback by the allegations outlined against Smollett even as he told the actor he has the presumption of innocence.

“The most vile and despicable part of it, if it’s true, is the noose,” said Lyke, who is black. “That symbol conjures up such evil in this country’s history.”

Jack Prior, a member Smollett’s legal defense team, said his client “vehemently denies” the charges and said that the case presented by prosecutors doesn’t jive with the actor’s character.

He noted that in his five years living in Chicago Smollett has become involved in philanthropy and volunteer work, even giving song-writing classes to detainees in the Illinois correctional system.

“He’s not a flight risk,” Prior said in urging the judge to set a low bond.

At a morning press conference, police detailed how the 36-year-old actor choreographed a homophobic, racist attack against himself with the help of two brothers he knew, in an attempt to raise his profile because he was dissatisfied with the salary he was making. He is also prohibited from having contact with brothers as a condition of his bail.

Smollett, who is gay and black, staged the Jan. 29 attack to look like a hate crime, to take “advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career,” said Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, who is also African-American.

“First Smollett attempted to gain attention by sending a false letter that relied on racial homophobic and political language,” Johnson said. “When that didn’t work, Smollett paid $3,500 to stage this attack… The stunt was orchestrated by Smollett because he was dissatisfied with his salary so he concocted a story about being attacked.”

Smollett has played Jamal Lyon on “Empire” since 2015. Fox said Thursday it is weighing its options. 

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

Johnson, a black man and Chicago’s top cop, railed against Smollett, who he said was embraced by Chicago but unfairly added to the city’s image as a crime mecca.

“I am offended that this happened and I am angry,” he said. “This publicity stunt was a scar that Chicago didn’t earn and certainly didn’t deserve.”

Johnson said he was worried about how this would impact public perception of hate crimes investigations in the future.

“I’m also concerned about what this means moving forward for hate crimes,” he said. “Now, of course, the Chicago Police Department, will continue to investigate all reports of these types of incidents with the same amount of vigor that we did with this one. My concern is that hate crimes will now be publicly met with a level of skepticism that previously didn’t happen.”

Smollett was charged with disorderly conduct for filing a false police report on Wednesday, three weeks after he told police he was assaulted on the street near his home in Chicago’s Streeterville neighborhood. He could face up to one to three years in prison and substantial fines.

The charge came just hours after Smollett was officially classified as a suspect in a criminal investigation by Chicago police, who presented evidence before a Cook County grand jury. 

“I’m left hanging my head and asking, ‘Why?” Johnson said. “Why would anyone, especially an African-American man, use the symbolism of a noose to make false accusations.”

Smollett’s initial status as a crime victim began to shift last weekend after police arrested and interviewed two brothers who were originally identified as suspects after turning up in surveillance footage.

The brothers told detectives that Smollett, who employed Abel Osundairo as a personal trainer, paid them $3,500 to stage the assault, and the promise for an additional $500 each when they returned from a trip to Nigeria. A search of their home also turned up a receipt for the rope that was placed around Smollett’s neck. 

Police said Smollett‘s attorneys met with police and prosecutors Wednesday, but Commander Edward Wodnicki said the attorneys offered little of substance. At that point, Cook County prosecutors decided it was time to move forward with charges, Wodnicki said.

Soon after Smollett reported the attack, investigators reviewed surveillance video in the area and were able to quickly spot two possible assailants, later identified as the brothers, running from the area, Wodnicki said.

Through further review of surveillance cameras in the area, including 35 Chicago police cameras and 20 privately-owned systems, investigators were able to piece together the brothers’ movements after the incident, Wodnicki said.

The videos showed the brothers at one point getting into a rideshare vehicle on the night of the attack, Wodnicki said. Police were able to track down the driver, who helped them identify the brothers.

Police learned that the brothers, both U.S. citizens, had flown to Nigeria soon after the attack. They had purchased a round-trip ticket that had them returning on Feb. 13. While they awaited the brothers return, investigators issued 50 search warrants and gathered social media and phone records to bolster their case, Wodnicki said.

Police were waiting for the brothers at O’Hare International Airport when they arrived and immediately arrested them.

The brothers were initially not cooperative with investigators after their arrest. They had been in police custody nearly two full days — the maximum police could hold the suspects without charging them — when their attorney, Gloria Schmidt, told police the brothers were willing to give a video interview.

“It was at that time that this investigation began to spin in an absolutely new direction,” Wodnicki said.

Police said brothers, including one who had worked on the set of “Empire,” told them about Smollett’s unhappiness with his salary and that the actor had come up with the idea to send the threatening letter to Fox’s Chicago studio. The brothers also told police they wore gloves during the staged attack in an attempt to avoid leaving physical evidence.

“They punched him a little bit, but as far as we can tell, the scratching and bruising that you saw on his face, was most likely self-inflicted,” Johnson said.

Police are no longer treating the brothers as suspects even though they took part in the scheme. Wodnicki placed the blame on Smollett for putting the brothers in a position where they were on the cusp of being charged with a hate crime.

“The fact (is) that this was staged and that Jussie hired these two guys to stage this for his benefit, and then spin this into a criminal investigation,” Wodnicki said. “(Smollett) put them in a really tough spot as well.”

 

Smollett’s attorneys, Todd Pugh and Victor Henderson, said they will mount a vigorous defense. Police said Smollett did not provide investigators with further information after turning himself in. 

“Like any other citizen, Mr. Smollett enjoys the presumption of innocence, particularly when there has been an investigation like this one where information, both true and false, has been repeatedly leaked,” the lawyers said in a statement. “Given these circumstances, we intend to conduct a thorough investigation and to mount an aggressive defense.”

Smollett has also added Los Angeles-based celebrity defense lawyer Mark Geragos to assist with the case. (Among others, Geragos represented singer Chris Brown, who pleaded guilty to assaulting his then girlfriend, Rihanna.) 

Meanwhile, the FBI is also in preliminary stages of investigating Smollet’s role in the threatening letter sent to him at the Chicago studio where “Empire” films.

The letter was sent on Jan. 22, one week before his alleged assault. He could potentially faced federal charges as well, investigators said.

Johnson called on Smollett to come clean. Police did not immediately have an estimate for how much was spent carrying out the investigation.

“Absolute justice would be an apology to this city that he smeared, admitting what he did and then be man enough to offer what he should offer up in terms of all the resources that were put into this,” he said.

Contributing: Maria Puente

More: Don Lemon weighs in on Jussie Smollett: ‘There were credible reasons to be skeptical’

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