Prosecutors say “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett gave detailed instructions to two brothers who helped carry out a staged attack against him in downtown Chicago, including giving them specific slurs to yell and telling them to shout “MAGA country” and to drape a rope around his neck. Police allege that Smollett hired the two brothers to help stage the Jan. 29 attack, which he described to police as racist and homophobic. Smollett is African-American and gay.
He allegedly paid $3,500 to the brothers, identified by their attorney as Abimbola (“Abel”) and Olabinjo (“Ola”) Osundairo.
Assistant State’s Attorney Risa Lanier said at a news conference after a court hearing Thursday that Smollett even pointed out to the brothers a specific surveillance camera he thought would capture footage of the attack when he drove them to the scene near his apartment two days ahead of time. But police say the camera was pointed another way during the staged attack.
One of Smollett’s attorneys, Jack Prior, told the judge during the hearing Thursday afternoon that Smollett “maintains these are outrageous allegations” and denies they are true.
A judge set bond at $100,000 on his felony disorderly conduct charge. Smollett’s attorneys asked for him to be freed on his own recognizance, but the judge, who is also black, rejected that idea and said he was particularly bothered by the allegations involving the noose.
Smollett said little during the hearing, except to state his name. He was joined in the courtroom by family members and didn’t comment as he left court. He later posted bond and was released from jail. The actor walked out in a group of people and to a waiting SUV. He didn’t speak to the large media contingent waiting outside.
Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson blasted Smollett at a press conference earlier Thursday, saying the actor orchestrated the attack as a “publicity stunt” because he was dissatisfied with his salary.
“When we discovered the actual motive, quite frankly, it pissed everybody off,” Johnson said.
Late Thursday, details about Smollett’s salary was released. He is earning more than $100,000 per episode of “Empire,” according to a person familiar with the situation who told AP. The studio declined to comment on the actor’s salary. As is customary with a successful TV series, regular cast members on “Empire” received a boost in pay as part of contract extensions that followed the drama’s renewal for a second season, the person said. Smollett is counted among the series regulars.
Before the attack, Smollett also sent an anonymous threatening letter to himself at the studio in Chicago where “Empire” is shot, Johnson said. The FBI has been investigating the threatening letter. Johnson would not say whether Smollett could face additional charges for that.
Lanier said Smollett knew the brothers, who both worked on “Empire” with him. He first recruited them to plan the attack during a conversation in his car Jan. 25, allegedly asking one of the brothers if he could trust him.
He told the brothers to catch his attention by yelling “Empire F–” and “Empire N—-” before launching into the attack, Lanier said. He then allegedly detailed how they should carry it out: “He wanted Abel to attack him, but not hurt him too badly, and give him the chance to appear to fight back,” Lanier said.
He wanted Ola to place the rope around his neck and yell, “This is MAGA country,” Lanier said.
Lanier said Smollett gave the brothers $100 to buy rope, gasoline, ski masks, gloves, and a red baseball hat resembling those with Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan. Their purchases were apparently caught on surveillance video at a local store.
Lanier said Smollett initially told the brothers to pour gasoline on him, but the plan later changed and he told them to use bleach. Lanier said the plan was for the attack to take place the night of Jan. 28, but it was delayed when his flight was late to arrive into Chicago.
Lanier said Smollett told Abel over the phone just before 1 a.m. the attack should take place near the location he had earlier indicated at 2 a.m. Surveillance video captured the brothers waiting nearby for Smollett, who was about four minutes late, Lanier said. The brothers then “staged the attack just as Smollett had instructed them,” Lanier said.
Lanier said a witness who had parked her car near the attack around the same time didn’t report hearing anything, though Smollett had claimed “his attackers were yelling racial and homophobic slurs, and he was yelling back.”
When police arrived at Smollett’s apartment after the report, Smollett still had the rope around his neck and asked police to turn off their body cameras, Lanier said. He indicated to police the camera that might have captured the attack, and also for the first time reported a phone call he said he received days earlier during which the caller said “Hey you little F—–” before hanging up, Lanier said.
Lanier said that statements Smollett made in his “Good Morning America” interview were intended to mislead the public into believing that his attackers were white. The brothers are black.
“I feel like if I had said it was a Muslim, or a Mexican, or someone black, I feel like the doubters would have supported me much more. A lot more,” Smollett told “GMA.”
Smollett’s story was met with intense questions from both police and the public. In less than a month, Smollett went from being the seemingly sympathetic victim of a hate crime to being accused of fabricating the entire thing. The 36-year-old was charged Wednesday with felony disorderly conduct, a charge that could bring up to three years in prison and force the actor to pay for the cost of the investigation into his claims.
Police treated Smollett as a victim until the two brothers, who had been taken into custody for questioning, admitted to helping him stage the attack, Johnson said. Initially called “possible suspects,” they are now being treated as witnesses.
It was the brothers who also explained Smollett’s alleged motive to detectives. Authorities have obtained a check for $3,500 that Smollett paid the brothers, he said.
In describing what police believe actually happened, Johnson made it sound as if Smollett was casting and directing a short movie.
“He probably knew he needed somebody with bulk,” he said of Smollett’s decision to hire the two muscular brothers. Smollett’s attorneys said one of the men is the actor’s personal trainer.
The brothers wore gloves during the staged attack and “punched him a little bit,” Johnson said. The scratches and bruising Smollett had on his face were “most likely self-inflicted,” Johnson said.
In a statement Wednesday, defense 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.”
The companies that make “Empire,” Fox Entertainment and 20th Century Fox Television, issued a statement Thursday saying they were “evaluating the situation” and “considering our options.”