Jussie Smollett: From survivor of 'hate crime' to alleged hoaxer, a timeline of events surrounding Empire actor

FP Staff

Feb 22, 2019 16:09:30 IST

An American TV actor was criminally charged Thursday for allegedly masterminding an elaborate "publicity stunt" that sought to exploit the "pain and anger of racism" with a staged assault on the streets of Chicago.

It was the latest twist in a weeks-long saga that has seen 36-year-old Jussie Smollett, the gay African-American actor who stars on Fox music industry drama Empire, go from victim to suspect after he reported an assault late last month.

An incredulous Chicago police chief accused Smollett of first sending himself a fake threatening letter and then staging an attack to tap into Americans' anxieties over political and racial divisions, because he was allegedly "dissatisfied with his salary."

In a sign of the national attention the case has drawn, US President Donald Trump weighed in Thursday, taking issue with the fact Smollett claimed his assailants invoked the president's "Make America Great Again" slogan along with homophobic and racist slurs during the purported attack.

 Jussie Smollett: From survivor of hate crime to alleged hoaxer, a timeline of events surrounding Empire actor

Jussie Smollett exits Cook County Department of Corrections after posting bail in Chicago. Reuters/Joshua Lott

It all started when the actor told Chicago police last month that two men physically attacked him and yelled racial and homophobic slurs. Some key moments in the story —

22 January 

— Smollett receives a racist and homophobic threatening letter at the studio in Chicago where Empire is filmed. Police later say that they believe Smollett sent the letter himself.

29 January 

— Smollett tells police he was physically attacked by two men in downtown Chicago while out getting food from a Subway restaurant at 2 am. The actor says the men used racial and homophobic slurs, wrapped a rope around his neck and poured an "unknown substance" on him. Police say Smollett told detectives the attackers also yelled he was in "MAGA country," an apparent reference to Trump's "Make America Great Again" campaign slogan that some President's critics have decried as racist and discriminatory.

30 January 

— Chicago police say they have reviewed hundreds of hours of surveillance camera footage, including of Smollett walking downtown, but none shows the attack. Police obtain and release images of two people they would like to question, calling them "persons of interest."

— Reports of an assault on Smollett draw outrage and support for him on social media from some politicians and celebrities. An outpouring of support came from public figures such as Emma Watson, Katy Perry, and Joe Biden. Senators and Democratic 2020 presidential candidates Cory Booker and Kamala Harris both called the incident "an attempted modern-day lynching."

31 January 

— Trump tells reporters at the White House that he saw a story the night before about Smollett, saying, "It doesn't get worse, as far as I'm concerned."

— Smollett's family issues a statement calling the attack a racial and homophobic hate crime. Smollett's family says he "has told the police everything" and "his story has never changed," disputing assertions leveled on social media that he had been less than cooperative and changed his story.

Here is their statement:

“In the early hours of Tuesday morning, our beloved son and brother, Jussie, was the victim of a violent and unprovoked attack. We want to be clear, this was a racial and homophobic hate crime. Jussie has told the police everything from the very beginning. His story has never changed, and we are hopeful they will find these men and bring them to justice. Our family thanks everyone for their prayers and the huge amount of love he has received. We are thankful to our village for your immense support during this trying time. We are so grateful that God saw him through this cowardly attack alive. Jussie is a warrior whose light cannot be dimmed. We want people to understand these targeted hate crimes are happening to our sisters, brothers and our gender non-conforming siblings, many who reside within the intersection of multiple identities, on a monthly, weekly, and sometimes even daily basis all across our country. Oftentimes ending fatally, these are inhumane acts of domestic terrorism and they should be treated as such. They will continue to occur until we hold each other accountable. Make no mistake, words matter. Hateful words lead to hateful actions. Radical love is the only solution, but passivity will be our downfall. We, as a family, will continue to work for love, equity and justice until it reigns supreme in our nation and all over the world.

With love & gratitude,

The Smollett Family”

1 February

— Smollett issues a statement telling people he's OK and thanking them for their support. He says he's working with authorities and has been "100 percent factual and consistent on every level." Here it is in full:

“Beautiful People,

Let me start by saying that I’m ok. My body is strong but my soul is stronger. More importantly I want to say thank you. The outpouring of love and support from my village has meant more than I will ever be able to truly put into words. I am working with authorities and have been 100% factual and consistent on every level. Despite my frustrations and deep concern with certain inaccuracies and misrepresentations that have been spread, I still believe that justice will be served. As my family stated, these types of cowardly attacks are happening to my sisters, brothers and non-gender conforming siblings daily. I am not and should not be looked upon as an isolated incident. We will talk soon and I will address all details of this horrific incident but I need a moment to process. Most importantly, during times of trauma, grief and pain, there is still a responsibility to lead with love. It’s all I know. And that can’t be kicked out of me.

With Love, respect & honor...

Jussie.”

2 February

— Smollett gives a concert in West Hollywood, California, opening with an emotional speech, saying he had to play the show because he couldn't let his attackers win. The concert had been planned long before the incident, and his family members and others had urged him to postpone it.

Smollett kept the tone mostly celebratory through his hour-long set before addressing the attack head-on toward the end of his hour-long set, when he told the crowd he wanted to clarify a few things. He said he was bruised but his ribs were not cracked. He went straight to the doctor but was not hospitalised, and physicians in both Chicago and Los Angeles cleared him to play but told him to be careful.

“And above all, I fought the (expletive) back,” he said to cheers. Then he paused and said, emphatically but with a laugh, “I’m the gay Tupac.”

12 February

— Chicago police say Smollett turned over some, but not all, of the phone records detectives requested as part of their investigation. Police say the heavily redacted files aren't sufficient. Smollett says he redacted information to protect the privacy of contacts and people not relevant to the attack.

13 February

— Chicago police pick up two men they identify as Nigerian brothers at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on their return from Nigeria after police learn at least one worked on Empire. Police question the brothers and search the apartment where the men live.

14 February

— Chicago police say local media reports that the attack against Smollett was a hoax are unconfirmed.

The reports surfaced as detectives were questioning two “persons of interest” who were captured on surveillance cameras in the area of downtown Chicago where Smollett said he was attacked last month.

— Producers of Empire dispute media reports that Smollett's character, Jamal Lyon, was being written off the show.

15 February

— Chicago police spokesman Anthony Guglielimi says the two "persons of interest" are now considered suspects. He says the men — identified previously by police as two brothers from Nigeria — are in custody but have not been charged with a crime.

— Chicago police release the two men without charges after arresting them on suspicion of assaulting Smollett and holding them for nearly 48 hours. A police spokesman says the two are no longer considered suspects and that investigators have new evidence to consider as a result of questioning them.

16 February

— Police say the investigation has "shifted" after detectives question the two brothers about the attack and release them without charges. Police say they've requested a follow-up interview with Smollett. Smollett's lawyers say the actor feels "victimised" by reports that he played a role in the assault.

— Smollett's account of what happened is met with some skepticism on social media in the wake of the new developments.

17 February

— Chicago police say they are still seeking a follow-up interview with Smollett after receiving new information that "shifted" their investigation of a reported attack on the Empire actor. Guglielimi says police reached out to Smollett's attorney, but says an interview has not been conducted.

— Guglielimi declines to address reports that a grand jury may hear evidence in the case, saying: "We're not confirming, denying or commenting on anything until we can talk to him and we can corroborate some information that we've gotten."

19 February

— Chicago police investigate a tip that on the night Smollett reported being attacked, he was in an elevator of his apartment building with the two Nigerian brothers. Police later dismiss the tip, saying it's not credible based on video evidence.

— Chicago's top prosecutor, Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx, recuses herself from the investigation. Her office says the decision was made "out of an abundance of caution ... to address potential questions of impartiality based upon familiarity with potential witnesses in the case." No details were provided. Foxx later says the reason for the recusal is that she had conversations with a Smollett family member after the incident was reported in late January.

"The symbolism of the crime as advertised was so awful that some observers showed little interest in verifying initial details of Smollett's claim," the Chicago Tribune newspaper says in an editorial.

20 February

— Chicago police say Smollett is officially suspected of filing a false police report when he said he was a victim of a racist, homophobic attack in downtown Chicago late last month. Police also say that two brothers who were questioned about the attack were testifying before a grand jury and detectives were presenting evidence to the grand jury.

— Chicago police say the Cook County State's Attorney has charged Smollett with disorderly conduct for filing a false police report that he was attacked by two masked men. Police detectives were contacting Smollett's attorneys to arrange his surrender for arrest.

21 February

— Chicago police say Smollett turned himself in to face a felony charge of disorderly conduct, which could bring up to three years in prison.

— Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson says Smollett staged a racist and homophobic attack because he was unhappy with his salary and wanted publicity. Investigators say they have a $3,500 check that Smollett used to pay the two brothers to help him. Prosecutors released a four-page document that outlined their case against Smollett.

— Prosecutors say Smollett gave detailed instructions to the accomplices who helped him stage a racist, anti-gay attack on himself, including telling them specific slurs to yell, urging them to shout “MAGA country” and even pointing out a surveillance camera that he thought would record the beating.

“I believe Mr Smollett wanted it on camera,” Police Superintendent Johnson tells reporters. “But unfortunately that particular camera wasn’t pointed in that direction.” Police say Smollett planned the hoax because he was unhappy with his salary and wanted to promote his career. According to the police, before the attack, he also sent a letter that threatened him to the Chicago studio where Empire is shot.

The actor “took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career,” police, Johnson added.

— For the alleged hoax, Smollett solicited the help of two men. One of them was Abindola “Abel” Osundairo, a friend he worked out with and who worked on the show as a stand-in for another character. He also supplied Smollett with the drug Ecstasy, prosecutors said. “He probably knew he needed somebody with bulk,” Johnson said of Smollett’s decision to hire the pair.

A few days before Osundairo and his brother, Olabinjo “Ola” Osundairo, were scheduled to fly to Nigeria, Smollett sent him a text that prosecutors said set the scheme in motion. “Might need your help on the low,” he wrote his friend, according to the document.

— During a meeting with the brothers, Smollett told them he wanted the attack to happen 28 January near his apartment in the city’s Streeterville neighborhood, and that he wanted them to get his attention by calling out slurs, prosecutors said. He is accused of instructing them to put the rope around his neck, pour gasoline on him and yell the MAGA remark, an apparent reference to Trump’s slogan during the 2016 campaign.

Smollett then gave one of the brothers $100 to buy the rope, ski masks, gloves and red baseball caps that resemble those worn by Trump supporters, according to prosecutors. He drove them to the spot where he wanted the attack to take place, taking time to show them the camera that he said would capture it.

He drove them home, wrote a check to one of the brothers for $3,500 and flew to New York, prosecutors said.

— The time of the “attack” was pushed back to 2 am on 29 January because Smollett’s return flight was delayed. The brothers ordered an Uber ride to pick them up at their apartment and climbed into the vehicle toting their supplies, including bleach because there was a decision to use that instead of gasoline, according to prosecutors’ summary.

Police know much of this, they say, because Chicago has one of the world’s most extensive video surveillance systems. Investigators, in effect, pieced together the route the two men took by cab and foot to and from the scene, Johnson said.

The encounter lasted about 45 seconds. The brothers, Johnson said, “punched him a little bit,” but the scratches and bruises that Smollett had on his face were “most likely self-inflicted.”

When police arrived, he told them what happened and pointed out the nearby surveillance camera, prosecutors said at the court hearing. Smollett also tried to mislead police about the suspects, telling them that the area around one attacker’s eyes was white skinned, even though the brothers are black, prosecutors said. Johnson said Smollett used the one of the most terrifying symbols of racial hatred — a noose — that is synonymous with lynchings.

— By 14 February, police already had a pretty good idea that he was lying, thanks to dozens of search warrants, subpoenas and extensive analysis of camera and phone records. They also knew the names of the brothers, and the fact that they had flown to Nigeria and were scheduled to return to Chicago on 13 February.

The men were arrested and questioned for hours. At hour 47 — one hour before police had to either charge the men or release them — Johnson said the two confessed to what they had done. They were subsequently released without being charged.

— Smollett’s attorneys ask that the actor be freed on his own recognisance, but Cook County Judge John Fitzgerald Lyke Jr rejects that idea. Lyke, who is also black, said he was bothered by the allegations involving the noose. “The most vile and despicable part of it, if it’s true, is the noose,” he said. “That symbol conjures up such evil in this country’s history.”

The judge set Smollett’s bond at $1,00,000, and the actor soon walks out of jail after posting the necessary $10,000. He declined to comment to reporters.

— Smollett’s legal team issues a statement calling the actor a “man of impeccable character and integrity who fiercely and solemnly maintains his innocence.” “The presumption of innocence, a bedrock in the search for justice, was trampled upon at the expense of Mr. Smollett,” the statement reads.

***

After the day's proceedings, Trump tweeted to Smollett: “What about MAGA and the tens of millions of people you insulted with your racist and dangerous comments!? #MAGA.”

Many others too expressed their disbelief at the details of the incident.

— “Like most of you, I’ve seen the reports about Jussie Smollett, and I’m sad, frustrated, and disappointed. When anyone makes false claims to police, it not only diverts resources away from serious investigations but it makes it more difficult for other victims of crime to come forward. At the same time, we must speak the truth: hate crimes are on the rise in America.” | California Sen Kamala Harris, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, via Facebook.

— “I’m lost for words. To stoke fears and raise racial tensions is wrong in every situation on ALL SIDES! Yet my prayers are still with him and his family and our Nation. CAN WE PLEASE STOP THE HATE!” | Actor, director and writer Tyler Perry, in part, via Facebook.

— “My head is exploding this morning. I have to get off Twitter. This story is pathetic. All of it.” | TV host Andy Cohen, via Twitter.

— “The world has plenty of real monsters. You don’t have to make up any. And what for? Just further dividing people for personal gain? It sucks for the people who actually have to deal with that type of hate.” | Actor O’Shea Jackson Jr, via Twitter.

— “If you think Jussie Smollet having himself beat up is more concerning than a Trump-radicalized white nationalist with a weapons cache drawing up a list of Americans to kill, then you’re more confused than Jussie Smollet having himself beat up.” | Actor Jeffrey Wright, via Twitter.

— “You know what is most disturbing about this entire incident — we fail to understand that hate crimes have gone up over the last few years. While @JussieSmollett sort out his story, I will continue to speak up and denounce all forms of bigotry and discrimination.” | Veteran Democratic political strategist Donna Brazile, via Twitter.

The Essence Black Women in Hollywood Awards luncheon in Los Angeles also occurred the same day Smollett was in court, and it was part of the chatter on the red carpet leading up to the event.

— “I consider him a friend. I love him and regardless of if it’s true or not, I’m still going to be here for him, I’m not throwing them away. I hate the situation but I don’t hate the person.” — Singer-songwriter and reality star Kandi Burruss, at the Awards luncheon in Los Angeles.

“I think I’m with a lot of people where we don’t know what to think about the whole situation. I think a lot of us are just confused and not sure and are just waiting for more information, or like whatever the truth is to actually come out because no matter which way it goes, it’s not good for anybody involved. So we just want the truth and justice to be served all around.” — Actress Yvonne Orji, at the Awards.

— “I love Jussie. Let me tell you something, for the past 29 years I’ve been producing the longest consecutive running musical AIDS benefit in the country, Divas Simply Singing. One year, it almost didn’t happen. Jussie Smollett wrote the $10,000 check that put me over the line to have that show. This is a difficult time for him but at his core, he is a good human being, who has made a bad choice, poor choice, and I don’t know who helped him make that poor choice but I’m not going to drag him. I’m not going to give up on him. I’m still going to love him because I remember the good he did for me.” — Actress-singer Sheryl Lee Ralph, at the Awards.

— “I have promised myself, since the election, that I would not have knee-jerk reactions to anything. You know, I’m waiting, I’m waiting to see, it breaks my heart, either way it breaks my heart. So, we’ll see. I’m just heartbroken. So we’ll see. We shall see.” — Actor-singer Billy Porter, at the Awards.

With inputs from Associated Press and Agence France-Presse.

Updated Date: Feb 22, 2019 16:09:30 IST