Police who say Empire actor Jussie Smollett staged a bias attack on himself as a publicity stunt to boost his salary on the FOX TV show allegedly have at least one tangible piece of evidence connecting him to the incident.
It’s the $3,500 check that Smollett allegedly used to pay the two men who attacked him.
“Mr. Smollett is the one that orchestrated this crime,” said Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson in a press conference Thursday where authorities described how they came to discredit Smollett’s claims, leading to a felony charge against him for allegedly filing a false police report.
Smollett, who turned himself in on Thursday morning, appeared in Cook County Circuit Court later in the day where his bond was set at $100,000, reports the Associated Press.
“These are outrageous allegations” that Smollett denies, one of his attorneys, Jack Prior, told the judge, but the defense team and Smollett’s family members left the court without further comment.
Around 2 a.m on Jan. 29, Smollett, 36, claimed he was beset on the street near his Chicago home by two masked, black-clad men spewing racist, homophobic and political slurs. He told police they put a noose around his neck, doused him with bleach and fled, saying “this is MAGA country,” invoking a campaign slogan used by President Trump and his supporters that some perceive as a dismissal of immigrants and minorities.
“First, Smollett attempted to gain attention by sending a false letter [to himself] that relied on racial, homophobic and political language,” Johnson said of the actor and singer, who is gay and black. “When that didn’t work, Smollett paid $3,500 to stage this attack and drag Chicago’s reputation through the mud in the process.”
The superintendent, a Chicago native who also is black, added: “Jussie Smollett took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to advance his career.”
“I’m left hanging my head and asking why,” he said. “Why would anyone, especially an African American man, use the symbolism of a noose to make false accusations? How could someone look at the hate and suffering associated with that symbol and see an opportunity to manipulate that symbol to further his own public profile?”
Smollett’s attorneys have promised an “aggressive defense,” to the felony charge of disorderly conduct by filing the false report, which carries a maximum 3-year prison term. After he was first named a suspect and then formally accused on Wednesday, Smollett turned himself in to authorities at 5 a.m Thursday, police said.
After video surveillance cameras in the area of the alleged attack captured two men on the street “we believed were the likely suspects” — although not the attack itself — authorities tracked the men’s movements to a ride-share service whose pay account revealed their identities, said police Commander Edward Wodnicki.
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Police then tracked the two men — identified by police as brothers — to O’Hare airport and learned they’d bought round-trip tickets to Nigeria with a Feb. 13 return to Chicago. In the interim, authorities subpoenaed phone and other records that showed the two had been in contact with Smollett before and after the incident.
Police arrested the men upon their return, and near the end of 48 hours in custody they allegedly confessed their role in working with Smollett to stage the attack, police said. They were then released.
In addition to the $3,500 check given to the men by Smollett, “we have the phone records that clearly indicate that they talked to each other quite a bit before the incident, after the incident, and while they were out of the country,” said Johnson.
The two men were promised an additional $500 by Smollett after they returned to Chicago, he said.
The men’s motivation for allegedly helping Smollett was “financial,” he said, adding that at least one of the men had worked on the Empire set and Smollett likely recruited them in part for their physical “bulk.”
Neither of the two men has been charged in connection with the case.
Asked what the police superintendent would consider to be justice for Smollett in the case, Johnson told reporters: “Absolute justice would be an apology to this city that he smeared. Admitting what he did, and then be man enough to offer what he should offer up in terms of all the resources that were put into this.”