The polarizing assault of Empire actor Jussie Smollett that began to captivate the nation last month is unraveling as nothing more than a “publicity stunt,” police alleged Thursday.
After weeks of investigative work to find who was responsible for what was described as a divisive, racist, and homophobic attack against Smollett, the actor was taken into police custody and released on bond Thursday, facing a felony charge of disorderly conduct in filing a false police report.
“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,” attorneys Todd Pugh and Victor Henderson, who are representing Smollett, said Wednesday, according to the Washington Post. “Given these circumstances, we intend to conduct a thorough investigation and to mount an aggressive defense.”
Here's the latest on what we know and how we got here.
Smollett told police he was attacked by two men while leaving a Subway restaurant in Chicago during the early morning hours of Jan. 29, about a week after purportedly having received a threatening letter, according to the Chicago Tribune. The two men, he told police, shouted “This is MAGA country,” a reference to President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan, as well as racial and homophobic slurs, as they wrapped a noose around his neck.
Following Smollett’s bond hearing Thursday, prosecutors read from the four-page bond proffer, laying out the movie plot-like criminal case against the actor.
The two men who Smollett said attacked him are brothers, one of whom — Abimbola “Abel” Osundairo — is a friend of Smollett’s, stand-in for his love interest on Empire, and has provided the actor with designer drugs on multiple occasions, prosecutors said.
Smollett allegedly met with the brothers to orchestrate the attack before giving them $100 for rope, gasoline, ski masks, gloves, and red baseball caps in the style of Trump’s campaign wear. Two days later, prosecutors say the trio met again, where they rehearsed the attack and Smollett wrote a backdated check to Osundairo. Days after the incident, phone records show they had further discussions, prosecutors said.
Through interviews with police and Good Morning America, Smollett also misled the public into believing his attackers, who both have dark skin and are of Nigerian descent, were white, prosecutors claim.
Smollett turned himself into police custody early Thursday to face a felony criminal charge for disorderly conduct related to falsifying a police report after a grand jury heard evidence on the case, according to Anthony Guglielmi, chief spokesperson for the Chicago police department. He was released Thursday afternoon on $100,000 bond and ordered to surrender his passport.
The Osundairo brothers were previously considered suspects in the case but later released after telling officials that Smollett paid them $3,500 to take part in the incident.
Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson did not mince words during a press conference Thursday, claiming that Smollett “took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career."
He added: “I’m left hanging my head and asking, ‘Why?’”
Johnson said Smollett allegedly staged the attack for financial reasons.
“And why? This stunt was orchestrated by Smollett because he was dissatisfied with his salary, so he concocted a story about being attacked," he said. "Now our city has problems, we know that. We have problems that have affected people from all walks of life, and we know that. But to put the national spotlight on Chicago for something that is both egregious and untrue is simply shameful.”
Smollett could face a maximum sentence of three years for the felony, said Chicago police spokesperson Tom Ahern.
Actress Ellen Page gained attention after mentioning the incident on a recent appearance of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert while discussing Vice President Mike Pence.
“That I can tell you is horrible. It doesn’t get worse,” Trump told reporters in January, according to The Hill. Conservatives remained critical as suspicion grew over the crime’s details.
On Thursday, many reacted in anger and disbelief. Trump tweeted at the actor Thursday and asked, “What about MAGA and the tens of millions of people you insulted with your racist and dangerous comments!?”
During the press conference Thursday, Johnson said he was concerned for what this would mean for those reporting legitimate hate crimes in the future.
“Why would anyone, especially an African American man, use the symbolism of a noose to make false accusations? 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?” said Johnson, who is African American. “How can an individual who has been embraced by the City of Chicago turn around and slap everyone in this city in the face by making these false claims? Bogus police reports cause real harm. They do harm to every legitimate victim who’s in need of support by police and investigators as well as the citizen of this city.”
Smollett’s role as Jamal Lyon on Empire, a drama series about the music industry on Fox, will be removed from the final two episodes of the season, the show’s executive producers said in a statement Friday.
“The events of the past few weeks have been incredibly emotional for all of us," read the statement posted on 20th Century Fox TV’s Twitter account. “Jussie has been an important member of our EMPIRE family for the past five years and we care about him deeply. While these allegations are very disturbing, we are placing our trust in the legal system as the process plays out.”
The studio had previously said it was “evaluating the situation” and “considering [its] options.”
Empire also stars Terrence Howard, Bryshere Y. Gray, and Taraji P. Henson. The show is filming its fifth season, according to the New York Times.