Jussie Smollett Faces Felony Charge, Accused of Faking Own Assault

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Jussie Smollett, the “Empire” actor who said he was the victim of a hate crime, was charged Wednesday night with staging the assault he reported to Chicago police in January.

Law enforcement officials said a grand jury had heard evidence that Mr. Smollett falsely reported being attacked in a case that quickly drew national attention, and that local prosecutors had then charged him with a felony count of disorderly conduct.

Mr. Smollett, who is black and openly gay, had told the police that, while walking in downtown Chicago, he had been confronted by masked men who hurled homophobic and racial slurs at him, and announced it was “MAGA country,” a reference to President Trump’s campaign slogan.

[A timeline of the Jussie Smollett case.]

Mr. Smollett had received an immediate outpouring of public support. Many cited his account as an example of another in a rising tide of hate crimes, which the F.B.I. reported last fall had increased for the third straight year.

But the change in thinking by investigators as the case progressed began to unleash criticism against the news media and politicians who many critics said were too quick to embrace a sketchy account in their drive to tarnish the president. It became a nightly topic on Fox News for Tucker Carlson, who called it a case of identity politics run amok. “Identity politics is a scam,” he said, “and it is not so different from the one that Jussie Smollett just pulled.”

Ramesh Ponnuru, a senior editor at National Review, said on Wednesday: “I think that the initial reaction suggested that there is a lot of credulity, especially among liberals who were looking at a story that seemed to confirm their impressions about Trump supporters.”

Mr. Smollett has continued to vehemently insist the incident occurred just as he reported it. A representative for him, Pamela Sharp, said that she was “aware of the news” but had no further comment.

From the start, investigators had difficulty corroborating Mr. Smollett’s story, even with about a dozen detectives assigned to the case.

No surveillance cameras caught the attack. There were no witnesses. He had not reported it from the scene, and when he got home was still wearing a noose that he said the perpetrators had placed around his neck.

Investigators, though, were able to track two men who appeared on video footage not far from the scene that night. Using ride share data, they discovered the two were brothers who in fact knew Mr. Smollett. One had acted as an extra on “Empire.”

The police initially identified the brothers as possible suspects in the attack, but then released them without filing any charges. The men told investigators that Mr. Smollett had coordinated a faux attack and paid them to participate in it.

The brothers, Olabinjo and Abimbola Osundairo, were brought in as witnesses to the grand jury Wednesday evening with their lawyer. Afterward, Gloria Schmidt, the lawyer, declined to say how much the brothers had been paid but said they had testified before the grand jury for more than two hours.

She said the two men wanted to clear the record and she urged Mr. Smollett to do the same.

“I think Jussie’s conscience is probably not letting him sleep at night,” she said,”so he should probably unload that conscience and just come out and tell the American people what actually happened.”

Filing a false police report in Illinois is technically referred to as disorderly conduct and can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony. In Mr. Smollett’s case, he was charged with a felony count, which carries a maximum sentence of three years in prison.


From left, Abimbola ‘Abel’ and Olabinjo ‘Ola’ Osundairo, taken from Instagram.

Mr. Smollett’s lawyers, Todd S. Pugh and Victor P. Henderson, have said their client denies the police account. “Jussie Smollett is angered and devastated by recent reports that the perpetrators are individuals he is familiar with,” they said in a statement Saturday.

It added: “One of these purported suspects was Jussie’s personal trainer who he hired to ready him physically for a music video. It is impossible to believe that this person could have played a role in the crime against Jussie or would falsely claim Jussie’s complicity.”

Mr. Smollett’s possible motive in pursuing a plan the police now suspect him of drafting remains mysterious. Various theories have surfaced, one suggesting he might have been worried he was about to be relegated to a lower profile on “Empire,” perhaps being written out of the Fox series entirely. The network vehemently denied that was the case.

On Wednesday, in fact, before the police made their announcement, Fox had put out another statement saying it was standing by Mr. Smollett. It called him “a consummate professional on set” and said, “as we have previously stated, he is not being written out of the show.”

A week before the reported attack, Mr. Smollett said he had received a virulently racist and threatening anonymous letter containing a white powder, later determined to be harmless. The F.B.I. is investigating the letter but has declined to comment.

As Mr. Smollett first described the attack it occurred at 2 a.m. on Jan. 29. He said his assailants hit him in the face, bruising him, then poured a chemical substance on him as he walked back home along Lower East North Water Street, after a trip to buy a tuna sandwich. Mr. Smollett, in a follow-up interview with detectives, said the attackers had mentioned “MAGA country.”

Mr. Smollett’s manager, Brandon Moore, said he had been on the phone with Mr. Smollett and overheard part of the attack, a statement later confirmed by phone records released to the police.

Within days, the police released an image of two men they considered “potential persons of interest wanted for questioning.” Mr. Smollett would later say in an interview on “Good Morning America” that he was convinced the men in the pictures were his attackers.

“Because I was there,” Mr. Smollett said. “For me, when that was released, I was like, ‘O.K., we’re getting somewhere.’ I don’t have any doubt in my mind that that’s them. Never did.”

On Feb. 13, the investigators detained the Osundairos after they landed in Chicago on a flight from Nigeria where they had flown just after the reported incident. Police raided their home and, according to CBS Chicago, removed items including an “Empire” script, a ski mask, a red hat and a magazine.

Held for two days without being charged, the brothers, who have both acted and who train as bodybuilders, were reported to have ultimately provided investigators with an account that depicted them as pretend assailants in a bit of street theater intended to shake up public perceptions. Investigators came to believe that the rope used may have been bought by the brothers at the Crafty Beaver hardware store in the Ravenswood neighborhood on Chicago’s North Side.

Police scoured the area, recovering some videotape from neighboring stores in an apparent effort to corroborate the brothers’ account.

Public opinion, once so strongly behind Mr. Smollett, began to waver in recent days. Al Sharpton, for example, who was among the people who had initially condemned the reported attack, said that if the incident was shown to have been a hoax, those responsible “ought to face accountability to the maximum.”

In some ways the marked shift in opinion resembled the aftermath of last month’s incident in Washington where videos appeared to show high school students from Covington, Ky,. wearing “Make America Great Again” hats, engage in a standoff with an elderly Native American man. As more videos surfaced, the encounter appeared to have been more complicated. The students themselves had been subjected to ridicule by African-American protesters nearby and their defenders suggested they had been unfairly portrayed by a liberal media too quick to judge.

In the Smollett case, the Chicago police continued for weeks to assert that Mr. Smollett was considered a victim. But in recent days, the demeanor of investigators changed. On Tuesday, they released an unconfirmed tip reporting that Mr. Smollett had been seen with the brothers in an elevator on the night of the attack. The report was later debunked but the change in perspective by the police was clear.