Empire actor Jussie Smollett staged attack to promote his career, say police

Empire actor Jussie Smollett staged a racist and homophobic attack because he was unhappy about his salary and wanted to promote his career, Chicago’s police superintendent has said.

Smollett also sent a racist and homophobic threatening letter to the Fox studio lot where he works in Chicago before the attack, Superintendent Eddie Johnson said.

The actor turned himself in and was arrested early on Thursday to face accusations that he filed a false police report when he told authorities he was attacked in Chicago by two men who hurled racist and anti-gay slurs and looped a rope around his neck.

“He took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career,” Mr Johnson told reporters at a news conference.

“This publicity stunt was a scar that Chicago didn’t earn and certainly didn’t deserve,” he later added.

Chicago police superintendent Eddie Johnson during the press conference (Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)

The whispers about Smollett’s account started with reports that he had not fully co-operated with police after telling authorities he was attacked.

Then detectives in a city bristling with surveillance cameras could not find video of the beating.

Later, two brothers were taken into custody for questioning but were released after two days, with police saying they were no longer suspects.

Mr Johnson said Smollett paid the brothers $3,500 to stage the attack.

Following three weeks of mounting suspicions, Smollett was charged on Wednesday with felony disorder conduct, a charge that could bring up to three years in prison and force the actor, who is black and gay, to pay for the cost of the investigation into his report of a January 29 beating.

In less than a month, the 36-year-old changed from being the seemingly sympathetic victim of a hate crime to being accused of fabricating the entire thing.

The brothers are not considered suspects.

Mr Johnson said they wore gloves during the staged attack and “punched him a little bit”.

He said scratches and bruising Smollett had on his face were “most likely self-inflicted”.

In a statement, lawyers Todd Pugh and Victor Henderson said 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”.

Smollett, who plays a gay character on the hit Fox television show Empire, said he was attacked as he was walking home from a Subway sandwich shop in central Chicago.

Jussie Smollett (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

He said the masked men beat him, made derogatory comments and shouted “This is MAGA country” – an apparent reference to President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan Make America Great Again – before fleeing.

Empire is shot in Chicago and follows a black family as they navigate the ups and downs of the recording industry.

After reviewing hundreds of hours of video, detectives did find and release images of two people they said they wanted to question and last week picked up the brothers at O’Hare International Airport as they returned from Nigeria.

Police questioned the men and searched their apartment.

The brothers, who were identified by their lawyer as Abimbola “Abel” and Olabinjo “Ola” Osundairo, were held for nearly 48 hours on suspicion of assaulting Smollett.

The day after they were released, police said the men provided information that had “shifted the trajectory of the investigation”, and detectives requested another interview with Smollett.

Police said one of the men had worked on Empire, and Smollett’s lawyers said one of the men is the actor’s personal trainer, whom he hired to help get him physically ready for a music video.

The actor released his debut album, Sum Of My Music, last year.

Smollett was charged by prosecutors, not the grand jury.

Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said the brothers appeared before the panel to “lock in their testimony”.

Speaking outside the courthouse where the grand jury met, the brothers’ lawyer said the two men testified for about two-and-a-half hours.

“There was a point where this story needed to be told, and they manned up and they said we’re going to correct this,” Gloria Schmidt said.

She said her clients did not care about a plea deal or immunity.

“You don’t need immunity when you have the truth,” Ms Schmidt said.

She also said her clients received money from Smollett, but she did not elaborate.

Smollett has been active in LGBTQ issues, and initial reports of the assault drew outrage and support for him on social media, including TV talk show host Ellen DeGeneres.

Referring to a published account of the attack, Mr Trump told reporters at the White House that “it doesn’t get worse, as far as I’m concerned”.

But several hours after Smollett was declared a suspect and the charges announced, there was little reaction from celebrities online.

Jussie Smollett stars in Empire (Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

Former Cook County prosecutor Andrew Weisberg said judges rarely throw defendants in prison for making false reports, opting instead to place them on probation, particularly if they have no prior criminal record.

Smollett has a record – one that concerns giving false information to police when he was pulled over on suspicion of driving under the influence.

According to records, he was also charged with false impersonation and driving without a licence.

He later pleaded no contest to a reduced charge and took an alcohol education and treatment programme.

Another prospective problem is the bill someone might receive after falsely reporting a crime that prompted a nearly month-long investigation, including the collection and review of hundreds of hours of surveillance video.

The size of the bill is anyone’s guess but given how much time the police have invested, the cost could be huge.

Mr Weisberg recently represented a client who was charged with making a false report after surveillance video discredited her account of being robbed by three men at O’Hare Airport.

For an investigation that took a single day, his client had to split restitution of $8,400, Mr Weisberg said.

In Smollett’s case, “I can imagine that this would be easily into the hundreds of thousands of dollars”, he said.

- Press Association

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