Outraged law enforcement officials painted a damning portrait of “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett Thursday.
The actor, according to police and prosecutors, cooked up a scheme to stage his own homophobic, racist attack as a means to garner sympathy and raise his public profile.
“When we discovered the actual motive, quite frankly, it pissed everybody off,” Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson said during a press conference Thursday.
“How can an individual who’s been embraced by the city of Chicago turn around and slap everyone in this city in the face by making these false claims?” he added.
Smollett was charged with disorderly conduct for allegedly filing a false police report — a felony punishable by up to three years in prison. At his bond hearing Thursday at the Leighton Criminal Courts Building, the 36-year-old largely stayed silent other than to greet Judge John Lyke, who imposed a $100,000 bail at the conclusion of the 10-minute hearing.
Lyke said the allegations against Smollett — if true — are “utterly outrageous.”
Risa Lanier, chief of the prosecutions bureau in the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, said in court that Smollett started concocting the plan on Jan. 25, when he contacted Abimbola “Abel” Osundairo — a friend he met from working on “Empire” who also previously sold Smollett ecstasy.
Lanier said that Smollett sent a text message to Osundairo, saying: “Might need your help on the low. You around to meet up and talk face to face?”
Soon after, Lanier said, Smollett would tell Osundairo that he was unhappy with the show’s studio’s handling of “the racist and homophobic letter he received three days prior.”
Smollett had previously reported to police that he received a threatening letter that contained a white powder, which was later determined to be crushed acetaminophen. Johnson said Thursday that police determined Smollett sent himself the letter as part of the scheme. Smollett was also unhappy with his salary on “Empire,” Johnson added.
Osundairo’s brother — Olabinjo “Ola” Osundairo — was soon pulled into the plan to stage the attack, Lanier said.
“Defendant Smollett stated that he wanted them to appear to attack him on the evening of Jan. 28, 2019 near his apartment building in Streeterville,” Lanier said. “Defendant Smollett also stated that he wanted the brothers to catch his attention by calling him an ‘Empire f—– Empire n—–. Defendant Smollett further detailed that 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 wanted Olabinjo Osundairo to put a rope around his neck, pour gasoline on him and yell “This is MAGA country” — the acronym for President Donald Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again.”
The two brothers were given $100 to buy the rope, gasoline, ski masks, gloves and red baseball caps that resembled Trump’s signature “Make America Great Again” hats.
Lanier said that Smollett ultimately gave the Osundairo brothers $3,500 — paid with a backdated personal check — to help him in the scheme.
The staged attack would have taken place on Jan. 28, but Smollett’s flight back to Chicago from New York was delayed several hours, pushing the plan to 2 a.m. on Jan. 29, according to Lanier.
Despite Smollett’s planning, the staged attack was never captured on surveillance footage, according to police.
Smollett told police that, even though his attackers were wearing masks, he could see the skin around their eyes, which he said was white. Both Osundairo brothers are African American.
Smollett, though largely silent, still showed emotion during the bond hearing. At times, he stared directly at Lanier as she detailed his alleged scheme, sometimes shaking his head in disagreement with the allegations against him, other times gazing straight ahead, taking deep breaths.
His attorney, Jack Prior, agreed with prosecutors that the allegations were indeed shocking — but said they were false.
“These are outrageous allegations, but my client vehemently denies all this,” Prior told the court. “He is not a threat to society, and is not a flight risk. He came back yesterday from out of state, knowing charges were imminent. He surrendered this morning at 5 a.m. and wants nothing more than to clear his name.”
Prior added that the charges against the actor are “entirely inconsistent with Mr. Smollett’s character.”
Opera singer Lauren Criddle — once pictured with Smollett at a Los Angeles charity event — posted Smollett’s bond at 2:55 p.m., about an hour after the actor’s hearing ended, Smollett’s bond slip shows. Criddle, who lives in suburban L.A., could not be reached for comment.He was released from custody shortly after 4 p.m. He was also ordered to turn over his passport and refrain from contacting the Osundairos.
After posting bail, Smollett walked out of the gates at the Cook County Jail encircled by law enforcement and members of his entourage, who declined to comment.
He was immediately mobbed by the gaggle of photographers awaiting his release as reporters shouted questions to him. Smollett stared straight ahead as he walked, clinging to the shoulder of a man in front of him who cut through the media members like an icebreaker.
At the curb, Smollett was pushed into a waiting, black SUV that sped south on California Avenue trailed by news vans. Prior said Smollett headed to Cinespace Studios in North Lawndale, where “Empire” is filmed. It is unclear how the charge will impact his role on the show.
“We understand the seriousness of this matter and we respect the legal process,” 20th Century Fox Television and Fox Entertainment said in a statement. “We are evaluating the situation and we are considering our options.”
Brothers become crucial witnesses
At the police news conference, police detailed how the Osundairo brothers got involved in the alleged scheme. Before Smollett allegedly recruited them, they had plans to travel to Nigeria for two weeks. While the two were out of the country, investigators learned that they had been in contact with Smollett before and after the reported attack, including when the brothers were in Nigeria, police said.
Upon their return to Chicago last week, they were immediately taken into police custody. Over the next two days, authorities said, the two flipped on Smollett and detailed the scheme to law enforcement — turning the focus of the investigation to Smollett.
“We gave Mr. Smollett the benefit of the doubt until the 47th hour of the 48 hours we could hold those two individuals,” Johnson said, because until then, police didn’t have everything they needed to prove it was a hoax.
“When I said he was being treated as a victim, that’s the absolute truth.”
Johnson said Smollett, who went to the hospital after the incident, might have gone as far as to cause his own wounds seen in pictures posted on social media.
“As far as we can tell, the scratches and bruising that you saw in his face was most likely self-inflicted,” Johnson said.
Area Central Detectives Cmdr. Edward Wodnicki thanked nearby businesses in Streeterville for providing investigators with a host of surveillance footage that allowed police to establish “a really solid timeline” of events.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel credited detectives for their diligence in investigating the case, as well as citizens in Streeterville for assisting police.
“All across Chicago, in every neighborhood, there are signs in front yards and in windows that read, ‘Hate Has No Home Here,’” the mayor said in a statement. “It is a sign that expresses our shared values and defines our great city. . . . Our laws exist to reflect and defend those values, and hate crimes will never be tolerated. A single individual who put their perceived self-interest ahead of these shared principles will never trump Chicago’s collective spirit.”
President Donald Trump also weighed in, saying via Twitter the actor hurt “the tens of millions of people you insulted with your racist and dangerous comments.”
Supt. Johnson said Smollett’s “publicity stunt” was damaging to true victims of hate crimes.
“I know the racial divide that exists here,” Johnson said. “I know how hard it’s been for our city and our nation to come together. I also know the disparities, and I know their history.”
“Why would anyone, especially an African-American man, use the symbolism of a noose to make false accusations?” he added.
“It’s just despicable,” Johnson said.
Contributing: Matt Hendrickson, Nader Issa
Smollett’s family leaving court without taking questions pic.twitter.com/gqXLoyJSls— Sam Charles (@samjcharles) February 21, 2019