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Chicago’s top cop rankled as actor Jussie Smollett is accused of faking hate crime

By Megan Crepeau, Jeremy Gorner and Jason Meisner • Updated Feb 22, 2019 at 9:18 AM

CHICAGO — Days before Jussie Smollett told police he was the victim of a vicious racist and homophobic attack, the “Empire” star sent a cautious text to a friend, Cook County prosecutors say.

“Might need your help on the low,” he messaged Abimbola “Abel” Osundairo, Smollett’s co-worker and alleged sometime ecstasy dealer. “You around to meet up and talk face to face?”

The text set in motion an elaborate hoax that had Chicago police working around the clock for three weeks — first to investigate an alleged hate crime, then to dismantle Smollett’s phony story, authorities said Thursday as Smollett stood in court to face a felony charge of filing a false report.

The incident sparked breathless international media coverage and intense social media speculation, accelerated by the political implications of an openly gay black man’s alleged assault by attackers who put a noose around his neck.

It also infuriated Chicago police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, who spoke in anger at a news conference, saying Smollett’s hoax dragged “Chicago’s reputation through the mud.”

Smollett “took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career,” said Johnson, who is black. “I’m left hanging my head and asking why? Why would anyone, especially an African-American man, use the symbolism of a noose to make false accusations?”

Johnson said Smollett first “attempted to gain attention” by sending a fictitious threatening letter to himself at the “Empire” production studios that used “racial, homophobic and political language.”

When that didn’t work, Johnson said, Smollett paid $3,500 to two burly brothers to carry out the staged attack in downtown Chicago, promising them another $500 later. He was “dissatisfied with his salary” on the television show, the superintendent told reporters and photographers from around the country at police headquarters.

When detectives figured out the real motive behind the attack, Johnson said, “quite frankly, it pissed everybody off.”

Hours later, Smollett endured the wrath of another black authority figure, Judge John Fitzgerald Lyke Jr., who said he couldn’t in good conscience release the 36-year-old actor from custody on his own recognizance. Instead he set bond at $100,000.

“The most vile and despicable part of it, if it’s true, is the noose,” said Lyke, voicing a similar theme to Johnson’s. “That symbol conjures up such evil in this country’s history.”

Shortly before 4 p.m., after a friend posted the necessary $10,000, a stone-faced Smollett left Cook County Jail amid a crush of reporters screaming questions.

He then headed for the “Empire” studios on the West Side, where cast members and crew are trying to wrap up shooting for the final episodes of Season 5.

Thursday night, a statement from Smollett’s legal team called the allegations part of “an organized law enforcement spectacle that has no place in the American legal system.”

“Mr. Smollett is a young man of impeccable character and integrity who fiercely and solemnly maintains his innocence and feels betrayed by a system that apparently wants to skip due process and proceed directly to sentencing,” the statement said.

In court, prosecutors said Smollett came up with the idea of the phony attack after being disappointed in the studio’s response to the threatening letter he had received days earlier — a letter Chicago police said was also faked.

The letter threatened Smollett by name and had “MAGA” — a reference to President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan — written on the envelope. It also contained a powdery substance later found to be crushed pain reliever, Assistant State’s Attorney Risa Lanier said in court.

Cook County prosecutors said Smollett recruited Abel Osundairo, who works as a stand-in for Smollett’s love interest on “Empire,” to fake the attack.

After Smollett texted Osundairo, the two met at Cinespace Studios on Jan. 25, prosecutors said. As he drove Osundairo to his apartment in the Lakeview neighborhood, Smollett laid out his plan, they alleged.

Outside the residence, they summoned Osundairo’s brother, Olabinjo “Ola” Osundairo, to the car, and both brothers agreed to take part in the plot, prosecutors said.

“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.

In addition, they were to yell racial and homophobic slurs, put a rope around his neck and shout, “This is MAGA country,” according to the prosecutor.

Smollett gave them a $100 bill to buy rope, ski masks, gloves and red baseball caps that would look like the hats sported by Trump, Lanier said.

Two days later, she said, Smollett gave Abel a backdated personal check for $3,500.

Early on Jan. 29, the brothers staged the attack as Smollett instructed — but mistakenly just outside the view of a surveillance camera the actor had hoped would capture the assault, Lanier said.

After his manager called police to report the incident a short time later, Smollett met officers at his Streeterville apartment — a rope still draped around his neck, the prosecutor said.

Smollett told police to turn off their body-worn cameras, then said he was assaulted by two masked men, at least one of whom appeared to be white.

Chicago police launched a hate crime investigation, but as it progressed, 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, who is also a singer and songwriter, 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.

After skepticism surfaced, Smollett stuck to his story in a Feb. 14 interview with “Good Morning America.”

Eventually, police pieced together much of their evidence by reviewing footage from about 55 police and private surveillance cameras showing the brothers’ movements before and after the staged attack.

At the end of Johnson’s news conference, a reporter asked what justice would mean in this case.

“Absolute justice would be an apology to the city he smeared,” Johnson said. “Now, our city has problems — we know that. But to put the national spotlight on Chicago for something that is both egregious and untrue is simply shameful.”

Johnson raised concerns that Smollett’s alleged actions could cause a public backlash for legitimate victims of hate crime.

“My concern,” he said, “is that hate crimes will now be publicly met with a level of skepticism that previously didn’t happen.”


©2019 Chicago Tribune

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