CHICAGO – Actor Jussie Smollett faked a threatening letter and then, a week later, staged a racist, anti-gay attack in downtown Chicago because he was “dissatisfied with his salary” on the “Empire” television show, Chicago police superintendent Eddie Johnson said Thursday morning.
Smollett paid two brothers he knew $3,500 to fake the attack in the 300 block of East North Water Street around 2 a.m. Jan. 29, Johnson said. The superintendent called the scheme “shameful” and wondered how an African-American could set up a racist attack for a “publicity stunt.”
When investigators figured out the real motive behind the attack, “quite frankly, it pissed everybody off,” Johnson said. “Empire actor Jussie Smollett took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career.”
Looking out at a crowded room of reporters at police headquarters, Johnson said: “I just wish that the families of gun violence in this city got this much attention.”
Smollett surrendered to Chicago police earlier Thursday morning on a felony charge of disorderly conduct for allegedly making a false police report. Smollett, 36, turned himself in around 5 a.m. Thursday at the Central District police station at 1718 S. State St., flanked by four or five people, according to police spokesman Thomas Ahern, who was present during the surrender.
“He was very quiet and didn’t say anything,” Ahern said. “He went with detectives and they booked him.”
Area Central Cmdr. Edward Wodnicki, who led the investigation, said police and private surveillance cameras were critical to tracing the movements of the brothers and giving detectives a break in the case. He said the brothers’ use of a taxi and a ride-share service were tracked by detectives.
Wodnicki said about 100 subpoenas were issued. Social media and video was reviewed, and detectives learned the brothers had left for Nigeria after the reported attack and that they were coming back on Feb. 13. They were then arrested, but the probe began to “spin” in a new direction.
The two testified before a Cook County grand jury on Wednesday, hours before charges were announced against Smollett. “I’m told they did an excellent job,” he said.
Smollett was scheduled to appear for a bond hearing later in the day. If convicted, he faces up to three years in jail and could be ordered to pay for the cost of the investigation, which involved more than 20 detectives over three weeks.
Smollett, who is African-American and openly gay, has said he was walking from a Subway sandwich shop to his apartment in the 300 block of East North Water Street around 2 a.m. Jan. 29 when two men walked up, yelled racial and homophobic slurs, hit him and wrapped a noose around his neck. Smollett said they also yelled, “This is MAGA country,” referring to President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan.
Chicago police initially launched a hate crime investigation, but authorities had recently said they were looking into whether Smollett paid two brothers he knew to stage the attack. The brothers appeared before a grand jury hours before the charges were announced Wednesday evening, according to their attorney, Gloria Schmidt.
Schmidt declined to give much detail about the evidence presented to grand jurors. She did say the brothers got money from Smollett at some point, and said she believes the brothers have been in contact with the actor at least once since the attack was reported.
She urged Smollett to “unload” his conscience. “I think that Jussie’s conscience is probably not letting him sleep right now, so I think that he should unload that conscience and just come out and tell the American people what actually happened.”
Smollett’s attorneys released a statement saying “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. Given these circumstances, we intend to conduct a thorough investigation and to mount an aggressive defense.”
Smollett is represented by local attorneys Todd Pugh and Victor Henderson as well as high-profile Los Angeles-based lawyer Mark Geragos, who has represented celebrities like pop star Michael Jackson, R&B singer Chris Brown and actress Winona Ryder.
Police say the case began to close in on Smollett last week when detectives took two brothers, 25 and 27, into custody after they were captured by surveillance cameras in the area around the time of the alleged attack. The brothers were taken into custody Feb. 13 at O’Hare International Airport after returning from Nigeria. Police also raided the men’s North Side town home.
Two days later, police called them “potential suspects” but then released them 12 hours later.
The shift in the investigation’s focus came amid often bitter public debate and stinging skepticism on social media – doubts that Smollett addressed in a national TV interview and in a strongly worded statement after the brothers were released.
As many as 20 detectives were assigned to the case in the weeks following Smollett’s report, and nearly every camera in the Streeterville neighborhood was checked for video that might have shown the attack. Some police sources privately expressed doubts after finding little, if any, corroborating evidence or video of a crime.
Police did release an image of two men seen in the area of Smollett’s building around the same time, but it was blurry and dark. Smollett said his music manager was on the phone with him at the time and would support his story, but the actor refused to turn over his full phone records, instead handing police redacted records.
There is also a federal investigation that is still pending.
A week before the alleged attack, Smollett told police he received a threatening letter at work. Witnesses told police a postal worker dropped off the letter at the Chicago studio where “Empire” is filmed. It was postmarked in southwest suburban Bedford Park on Jan. 18 and bore two American flag stamps. The letters “MAGA” were written in the upper-left corner of the envelope.
Federal authorities are looking into the origin of the letter. The status of their investigation was not known Wednesday.
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