Prosecutors say Jussie Smollett paid two men to help him stage a fake attack he later framed as a racist and homophobic hate crime. The “Empire” actor, who has been charged with felony disorderly conduct for allegedly filing a false police report, faces up to three years in prison.
Smollett’s bond was set at $100,000 at a court hearing Thursday afternoon, during which Cook County Circuit Court Judge John Fitzgerald Lyke Jr. also directed Smollett to surrender his passport. Risa Lanier, chief of the prosecution bureau for the Cook County State’s Attorney Office, outlined the state’s case against Smollett after the hearing.
Prosecutors have identified the two men as brothers Abimbola “Abel” Osundairo and Olabinjo “Ola” Osundairo. They say Smollett and Abel Osundairo were close friends who worked together on “Empire,” where Abel was a stand-in for a love interest of Smollett’s character, Jamal Lyon. Prosecutors also say Abel had been "a source of designer drugs” including molly, a form of MDMA, for Smollett since spring 2018. They say Smollett met Ola Osundairo, who appeared as an extra on “Empire,” “on several occasions through Abel.”
Prosecutors allege that Smollett, 36, was the guiding force behind the staged attack — right down to the intersection where it took place. They say Smollett told the Osundairo brothers, who are of Nigerian descent, to call his attention by yelling racial and homophobic slurs, and say, “This is MAGA country.” They also say Smollett provided a $100 bill for supplies including rope, ski masks, gloves and red baseball hats resembling the “Make America Great Again” hats associated with President Trump’s campaign. According to prosecutors, Smollett coordinated the plan around a trip the brothers had planned to Nigeria.
During the hearing, which drew a large crowd of reporters, Smollett took deep breaths, shook his head and kept his eyes closed. Lyke called the charges, if true, “despicable." Four members of Smollett’s family, including his three brothers, were in the packed courtroom.
The next court hearing is March 14.
At a media briefing Thursday morning, Chicago police said Smollett concocted the story of a brutal hate crime because he was “dissatisfied with his salary” on the Fox drama. Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said the department has a $3,500 check Smollett paid the men to help him stage the fake attack after a crude, threatening letter he sent to the “Empire” set in Chicago failed to get attention.
Johnson was remarkably forceful in his remarks about the case, which has gained widespread media attention since Smollett told police he was attacked in the city last month. Johnson, a black Chicago native, said the actor “took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career.”
Johnson lamented the many resources Chicago police used on an investigation that lasted weeks. Detective Commander Edward Wodnicki said detectives interviewed more than 100 individuals and used both police cameras and private-sector cameras to plot a timeline of the alleged assault.
Wodnicki said surveillance footage, along with taxi and ride-hailing service records, helped police track down Abel and Ola Osundairo. The brothers, who were taken into custody Feb. 13, upon returning from Nigeria to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, gave police information implicating Smollett and were released last Friday without being charged. Wodnicki said they appeared as witnesses before a grand jury Wednesday, just hours before police announced that Smollett was a suspect in the case.
Smollett’s attorneys have maintained he did not play a role in his attack.
In a matter of weeks, Smollett traveled an arc from a black and openly gay hate crime victim to a potential criminal himself. The vivid details of his alleged Jan. 29 attack — including a rope put around his neck — captured the attention of Democratic presidential hopefuls and celebrities as a tangible result of social decay and toxic political discourse.
As Smollett’s claims unraveled among inconsistencies and police gathered new evidence, conservatives criticized the incident as an example of a credulous media extending a narrative that Trump supporters have escalated his divisive rhetoric with acts of violence.
President Trump reacted to news of Smollett’s arrest on Twitter Thursday. “@JussieSmollett - what about MAGA and the tens of millions of people you insulted with your racist and dangerous comments!? #MAGA,” Trump wrote.
On Wednesday, Chicago-based attorneys Todd Pugh and Victor Henderson, who are representing Smollett, wrote in a statement: “Like any other citizen, Mr. 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. Given these circumstances, we intend to conduct a thorough investigation and to mount an aggressive defense.”
The news of the felony charge, announced by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, came just hours after the city’s police department said the “Empire” actor was being treated as a suspect in the criminal investigation. Police said days ago that they wanted to speak with Smollett again after new evidence “shifted the trajectory of the investigation.” Police first investigated the incident as a possible hate crime.
There have been heightened doubts about Smollett’s allegations amid news reports, which cited unnamed police sources, he may have staged the attack. In a statement late Saturday, attorneys Pugh and Henderson said Smollett had “been further victimized by claims” that he “played a role in his own attack.”
“Nothing is further from the truth and anyone claiming otherwise is lying,” they wrote in the statement.
Smollett has aligned himself in the past with organizations dedicated to HIV/AIDS awareness, civil rights and LGBTQ advocacy. He invoked this while discussing the skepticism surrounding his claims during an interview that aired last week on “Good Morning America.”
“I’m an advocate. I respect too much the people — who I am now, one of those people — who have been attacked in any way,” he told ABC’s Robin Roberts. “You do such a disservice when you lie about things like this.”
When details of Smollett’s alleged assault were released by police last month, celebrities and other high-profile figures rallied around him — some seizing on the apparently racist and homophobic nature of the alleged attack or the reported invocation of Trump’s Make America Great Again campaign slogan. But growing questions surrounding the case caused unease.
“Why would he make it harder for people who actually suffer from hate crimes? It makes no sense. The lie is so damaging,” writer Roxane Gay tweeted Saturday. She previously wrote that she hoped Smollett “knows how many people are thinking of him and committed to holding this administration and its ilk accountable for this hothouse of hate being fostered.”
As the case was increasingly scrutinized, some questioned whether Smollett staged the attack to prevent being written out of “Empire,” a theory that Fox denied even as questions swirled around Smollett’s allegations. On Thursday, Twentieth Century Fox and Fox Entertainment said in a statement: “We understand the seriousness of this matter and we respect the legal process. We are evaluating the situation and we are considering our options.” They did not respond to a request for comment about the actor’s salary, which has not been made public.
Several politicians initially spoke out in support of Smollett but have since adjusted their stances, including Democratic Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.) and Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), who called for judgment to be withheld until the investigation has been completed. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) deleted a tweet that referred to the alleged attack as “an affront to our humanity.”
Others, such as filmmaker Ava Duvernay, expressed caution over putting faith in the police department. “Despite the inconsistencies, I can’t blindly believe Chicago PD. The department that covered up shooting Laquan McDonald over a dozen times?” she tweeted. “Whatever the outcome, this won’t stop me from believing others. It can’t.”
The widespread media and celebrity attention was something Johnson repeatedly brought up at Thursday’s briefing. He grimly noted that he wished “the families of gun violence in this city got this much attention.”
Johnson also expressed concern that Smollett’s alleged hoax would lead hate crimes to be met in the future “with a level of skepticism that previously didn’t happen.” He said Smollett had been treated like a victim until “we received evidence that led detectives in another direction.”
“We gave him the benefit of the doubt,” Johnson said later while responding to questions from reporters. “But when we discovered the actual motive, quite frankly, it pissed everybody off.”
Mark Guarino in Chicago contributed to this report.