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Investigation of celebrity’s hate crime claim puts spotlight on unsolved murders

Demetrius Griffin

Demetrius Griffin, then 15, was killed in 2016. | Facebook

Now that his story of being attacked by two racist and homophobic masked men is unraveling, “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett is nowhere to be seen.

The gay advocate is leaving it to his high-priced lawyers to explain his dealings with two African-American brothers who were first picked up as suspects but are now being treated as cooperating witnesses.

On Wednesday, prosecutors approved a disorderly conduct charge against Smollett.

By now I’m sure you’ve heard about the case.

Jussie Smollett

“Empire” actor Jussie Smollett | AP photo

On Jan. 29, Smollett reported to police that two men taunted him with racial and homophobic slurs, beat him, doused him with a substance that smelled like bleach and put a rope around his neck.

Sounds ridiculous, right?

But here’s the thing. Had the police, or the media for that matter, come right out and said that, hordes of protesters likely would have descended upon Streeterville like a mob.

In a city that has been wracked by distrust between police officers and the African-American community, Smollett had a perfect cover.

Additionally, this story has sucked up police resources for three weeks while crimes have remained unsolved.

One of those stories is the heinous murder of Demetrius Griffin Jr.

It is tragic enough that Demetrius was only 15 when someone took his life in 2016, but he was burned alive and his body stuffed in a trash can in Austin.

I can’t bear to think what his mother must have gone through.

Despite the $7,500 reward that was offered for information leading to an arrest, this case has languished for 2½ years.

We moved on, but this family cannot.

“It was horrific. There have been rumors and things floating around, but nothing official from police,” said the Rev. Marshall Hatch, pastor of New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church.

Demetrius’ family had been actively involved in the church for more than 20 years. It is a close-knit family headed by parents who brought their children to Sunday school and enforced a curfew, Hatch told me.

“He had a small frame and seemed to be a rather normal high school kid. I think he was out walking a girl home that night,” the pastor said.

“There have been no breaks, no definitive leads. This murder has not been solved. The family has tried to keep this story alive by putting out fliers and with balloon releases,” he said.

The horror of a 15-year-old being burned to death in a trash can would have made national headlines had someone said they saw two hooded Klansmen lurking in the neighborhood.

That is the fear and the hatred that Smollett exploited when he allegedly lied about being the target of a racist attack.

Because Demetrius’ murder wasn’t a hate crime, this grisly homicide has been treated like the run-of-the-mill violence that has claimed thousands of young lives over the years.

On Tuesday, a coalition of faith and community leaders announced the reward amount in Demetrius’ case has been increased to $15,000.

The announcement coincided with the dedication of newly installed stained-glass church art that features images of the four girls killed in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing.

The stained-glass art also has likenesses of Demetrius, Hadiya Pendleton, Blair Holt, Derrion Albert and Laquan McDonald.

“Demetrius’ case is the only one that is not solved,” Hatch pointed out.

“It is a horrific challenge for the present administration. They need to solve this case. When people look at the resources that police will spend to investigate something when it came to the Smollett case, they don’t see justice. This family has been languishing. They need answers and closure,” he said.

There may be a good reason why this brutal crime has not been solved.

But the optics are terrible for the Chicago Police Department.

While detectives searched for suspects that were accused of roughing up a celebrity because he is gay and black, a killer has gotten away with a horrifying crime.

Of course we wonder how quickly this murder would have been solved if the same level of resources that were devoted to solving the Smollett incident had been devoted to capturing Demetrius’ killer or killers.

Even if there were nothing fishy about the hate crime Smollett reported, grief-stricken parents of Chicago’s murdered children must feel betrayed.