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Empire actor Jussie Smollett staged hate crime on himself to promote his career, police say

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

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

The actor turned himself in and was arrested early 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, police said.

"He took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career," 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 said.

Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson speaks during a news conference on Thursday, where he said Jussie Smollett staged a racist and homophobic attack on himself because he was unhappy about his salary and wanted to promote his career. (Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times/Associated Press)

The whispers about Smollett's account of the attack started with reports he had not fully co-operated with police after telling authorities he was attacked. Detectives in a city full of surveillance cameras could not find video of the alleged beating. Later, two brothers were taken into custody for questioning but were released after two days, with police saying they were no longer suspects.

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

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."

Following three weeks of mounting suspicions, Smollett was charged Wednesday with felony disorder conduct, a charge that — if he were found guilty — 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 Jan. 29 beating.

Johnson said the case made him "angry" and said police would continue to take allegations of hate crimes seriously and investigate them. 

Smollett's lawyers have said they will vigorously fight the charge against their client. 

In a statement on Wednesday, attorneys 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."

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 felony charge emerged on the same day detectives and the two brothers testified before a grand jury. Smollett's attorneys met with prosecutors and police, but it was unknown what they discussed or whether Smollett attended the meeting.

The announcement of the charges followed a flurry of activity in recent days, including lengthy police interviews of the brothers, a search of their home and their release after officers cleared them.

Police searched the Chicago apartment of two brothers who were questioned as part of their investigation into Smollett's report of the attack. (Nader Issa/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)

Investigators have not said what the brothers told detectives or what evidence detectives collected. But it became increasingly clear that serious questions had arisen about Smollett's account — something police signalled Friday when they announced a "significant shift in the trajectory" of the probe after the brothers were freed.

Smollett, who plays a gay character on the hit Fox television show Empire, said he was attacked as he was walking home from a downtown Subway sandwich shop. He said the masked men beat him, made derogatory comments and yelled "This is MAGA country" — an apparent reference to President Donald Trump's campaign slogan, "Make America Great Again" — before fleeing.

Earlier Wednesday, Fox Entertainment and 20th Century Fox Television issued a statement saying Smollett "continues to be a consummate professional on set" and his character is not being written off the show. The series is shot in Chicago and follows a black family as they navigate the ups and downs of the recording industry.

The studio's statement followed reports that Smollett's role was being slashed amid the police investigation.

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. The police spokesperson said the brothers appeared before the panel to "lock in their testimony."

Brothers 'manned up,' attorney says

Speaking outside the courthouse where the grand jury met, the brothers' lawyer said the two men testified for about 2½ 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.

Attorney Gloria Schmidt, who is representing the two Nigerian brothers who were questioned and released by police in the Smollett attack case, told reporters on Wednesday that her clients told the truth. (Joshua Lott/Reuters)

She said her clients did not care about a plea deal or immunity. "You don't need immunity when you have the truth," she said.

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

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

Referring to a published account of the attack, President Donald 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.

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 program.

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