CHICAGO – “Empire actor “Jussie Smollett made his first court appearance Thursday afternoon at a bond hearing following his early-morning arrest on charges of filing a false police report and disorderly conduct.
Judge John Fitzgerald Lyke Jr. set Smollett’s bond at $100,000 and ordered him to surrender his passport. No plea was entered and the actor said little other than giving his name.
At a morning press conference, police detailed how the 36-year-old actor choreographed a homophobic, racist attack against himself with the help of two brothers he knew, in an attempt to raise his profile because he was dissatisfied with the salary he was making. He is also prohibited from having contact with brothers as a condition of his bail.
Smollett, who is gay and black, staged the Jan. 29 attack to look like a hate crime, to take “advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career,” said Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, who is also African-American.
“First Smollett attempted to gain attention by sending a false letter that relied on racial homophobic and political language,” Johnson said. “When that didn’t work, Smollett paid $3,500 to stage this attack… The stunt was orchestrated by Smollett because he was dissatisfied with his salary so he concocted a story about being attacked.”
Smollett has played Jamal Lyon on “Empire” since 2015. Fox said Thursday it is weighing its options.
“We understand the seriousness of this matter and we respect the legal process,” 20th Century Fox Studio and Fox Entertainment said in a statement. “We are evaluating the situation and we are considering our options.”
During the press conference, Johnson, a black man, railed against Smollett, who he said was embraced by Chicago but unfairly added to the city’s image as a crime mecca.
“I am offended that this happened and I am angry,” he said. “This publicity stunt was a scar that Chicago didn’t earn and certainly didn’t deserve.”
Johnson said he was worried about how this would impact public perception of hate crimes investigations in the future.
“I’m also concerned about what this means moving forward for hate crimes,” he said. “Now, of course, the Chicago Police Department, will continue to investigate all reports of these types of incidents with the same amount of vigor that we did with this one. My concern is that hate crimes will now be publicly met with a level of skepticism that previously didn’t happen.”
Johnson said that Smollett turned himself in around 5 a.m. Thursday. He was scheduled to appear in bond court Thursday afternoon.
Smollett was charged with disorderly conduct for filing a false police report on Wednesday, three weeks after he told police he was assaulted on the street near his home in Chicago’s Streeterville neighborhood. He could face up to one to three years in prison and substantial fines.
The charge came just hours after Smollett was officially classified as a suspect in a criminal investigation by Chicago police, who presented evidence before a Cook County grand jury.
Smollett told investigators he was beaten by two masked men who shouted racial and homophobic slurs, wrapped a rope around his neck in the fashion of a noose and poured bleach on him. He also told investigators that the men who attacked yelled, “This is MAGA country,” a reference to President Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan.
“I’m left hanging my head and asking, ‘Why?” Johnson said. “Why would anyone, especially an African-American man, use the symbolism of a noose to make false accusations.”
Smollett’s initial status as a crime victim began to shift last weekend after police arrested and interviewed two brothers who were originally identified as suspects after turning up in surveillance footage.
The brothers told detectives that Smollett, who employed one as a personal trainer, paid them $3,500 to stage the assault, and the promise for an additional $500 each when they returned from a trip to Nigeria. A search of the residences also turned up a receipt for the rope that was placed around Smollett’s neck.
Police said Smollett’s attorneys met with police and prosecutors, but Commander Edward Wodnicki said the attorneys offered little of substance. At that point, Cook County prosecutors decided it was time to move forward with charges, Wodnicki said.
Soon after Smollett reported the attack, investigators reviewed surveillance video in the area and were able to quickly spot two possible assailants, later identified as the brothers, running from the area, Wodnicki said.
Through further review of surveillance cameras in the area, including 35 Chicago police cameras and 20 privately-owned systems, investigators were able to piece together the brothers’ movements after the incident, Wodnicki said.
The videos showed the brothers at one point getting into a rideshare vehicle on the night of the attack, Wodnicki said. Police were able to track down the driver, who helped them identify the brothers.
Police learned that the brothers had flown to Nigeria soon after the attack. They had purchased a round-trip ticket that had them returning on Jan. 13. While they awaited the brothers return, investigators issued 50 search warrants and gathered social media and phone records to bolster their case, Wodnicki said.
Police were waiting for the brothers at O’Hare International Airport when they arrived and immediately arrested them.
The brothers were initially not cooperative with investigators after their arrest. They had been in police custody nearly two full days — the maximum police could hold the suspects without charging them — when their attorney, Gloria Schmidt, told police the brothers were willing to give a video interview.
“It was at that time that this investigation began to spin in an absolutely new direction,” Wodnicki said.
Police said brothers, including one who had worked on the set of “Empire,” told them about Smollett’s unhappiness with his salary and that the actor had come up with the idea to send the threatening letter to Fox’s Chicago studio. The brothers also told police they wore gloves during the staged attack in an attempt to avoid leaving physical evidence.
“They punched him a little bit, but as far as we can tell, the scratching and bruising that you saw on his face, was most likely self-inflicted,” Johnson said.
Police are no longer treating the brothers as suspects even though they took part in the scheme. Wodnicki placed the blame on Smollett for putting the brothers in a position where they were on the cusp of being charged with a hate crime.
“The fact (is) that this was staged and that Jussie hired these two guys to stage this for his benefit, and then spin this into a criminal investigation,” Wodnicki said. “(Smollett) put them in a really tough spot as well.”
Smollett’s attorneys, Todd Pugh and Victor Henderson, said they will mount a vigorous defense. Police said Smollett did not provide investigators with further information after turning himself in.
“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,” the lawyers said in a statement. “Given these circumstances, we intend to conduct a thorough investigation and to mount an aggressive defense.”
Smollett has also added Los Angeles-based celebrity defense lawyer Mark Geragos to assist with the case. (Among others, Geragos represented singer Chris Brown, who pleaded guilty to assaulting his then girlfriend, Rihanna.)
Meanwhile, the FBI is also in preliminary stages of investigating Smollet’s role in the threatening letter sent to him at the Chicago studio where “Empire” films.
The letter was sent on Jan. 22, one week before his alleged assault. He could potentially faced federal charges, investigators said.
Johnson called on Smollett to come clean. Police did not immediately have an estimate for how much was spent carrying out the investigation.
“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,” he said.
Contributing: Maria Puente
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