Police say star staged attack to boost salary

CHICAGO — “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett 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, police said Thursday.

Smollett, who is gay and black, staged the January 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.

“First Smollett attempted to gain attention by sending a false letter that relied on racial homophobic and political language. 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.”

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 wasn’t a scar that Chicago didn’t earn nor did it 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 also said he offered Smollett his prayers. 

“I’ll continue to pray for this troubled young man who resorted to both drastic and illegal tactics to gain attention,” he said. “I’ll also continue to pray for our city, asking that we can move forward from this and begin to heal.” 

Johnson said that Smollett turned himself 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.

“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 additional $500 per piece when they returned from a trip to Nigeria. A search warrant for their 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 a little of substance. At the point, Cook County prosecutors decided it was time to move forward with charges, Wodnicki said.

 

Smollett’s attorneys, Todd Pugh and Victor Henderson, issued a statement to USA TODAY. 

“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.”

Smollett has lawyered up, retaining Chicago criminal defense attorneys Pugh and Henderson. He has since 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 reportedly in preliminary stages of investigating whether Smollett had any role in a threatening letter sent to him at Fox’s Chicago studio on Jan. 22, exactly one week before his alleged assault. 

Contributing: Maria Puente

More: Don Lemon weighs in on Jussie Smollett: ‘There were credible reasons to be skeptical’

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