Police say Empire actor Jussie Smollett staged Chicago attack to advance career

PHOTO: Reuters

NEW YORK - Actor Jussie Smollett paid two brothers thousands of dollars to beat him in a staged racist and homophobic attack because he was unhappy with his salary on the hip-hop TV drama Empire, Chicago's police chief said on Thursday (Feb 21).

Smollett, who is black and openly gay, was arrested on Thursday and charged with lying to police about the alleged attack on Jan 29. 

Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson was visibly angered as he condemned his actions.

Police did not spell out how the 36-year-old actor hoped to boost his salary by staging the supposed attack by supporters of President Donald Trump.

"Smollett took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career," Johnson told a news conference, adding that the actor paid US$3,500 (S$4,700) to the brothers to stage the supposed hate crime.

"This stunt was orchestrated by Smollett because he was dissatisfied with this salary. He concocted a story about being attacked," Johnson said. "We gave him the benefit of the doubt." 

Police did not say anything about the amount of Smollett's salary. If convicted, he could face a prison sentence of one to three years.

A judge set bail at US$100,000 and ordered Smollett to surrender his passport. The actor was in the process of being released after paying 10 per cent of the amount on Thursday afternoon.

Smollett had said two apparent Trump supporters struck him and put a noose round his neck while shouting "This is MAGA country," referring to Trump's "Make America Great Again" slogan.

It was initially reported that an unknown substance was poured over him, but Johnson on Thursday said that was unclear.

"@JussieSmollett - what about MAGA and the tens of millions of people you insulted with your racist and dangerous comments!? #MAGA," Trump wrote on Twitter on Thursday.

The Smollett case has become a sensation in the United States as it tapped in to increasingly heated political divisions since the election of Trump in November 2016.

Critics of Trump have said his rhetoric has fueled racism and violence, while the president's supporters say the press has been too quick to embrace any news that appears to cast Trump and his supporters in a bad light.

20th Century Fox Television, which airs Empire, said in a statement on Thursday that it understands the seriousness of the matter and respects the legal process.

"We are evaluating the situation and we are considering our options," the statement said.

Smollett wrote the brothers a US$3,500 personal cheque and gave them US$100 to buy the rope, ski masks, gloves and red MAGA-style baseball caps that were used in the supposed attack, according to court papers.

A spokesman for Smollett's lawyers, Todd Pugh and Victor Henderson, said on Thursday in an email, "once we are ready to make statement we will do so." 

On Wednesday, they had said they were conducting a thorough investigation to form an aggressive defence.


Police interviewed more than 100 people, reviewed video from more than 55 surveillance cameras and executed more than 50 search warrants during the investigation.

Johnson told reporters that Smollett had first tried to gain attention by sending himself a threatening letter filled with "racial, homophobic and political language."

"When that didn't work, Smollett paid US$3,500 to stage this attack and drag Chicago's reputation through the mud," the police chief said.

On Feb 13, police arrested the two brothers who were recognised from surveillance footage of the area where Smollett said the attack occurred. One of the brothers worked with Smollett on Empire, according to police and their lawyer.

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Near the end of the 48 hours in which police are allowed to detain potential suspects without charging them, the brothers "decided to confess to the entirety of what the plot was," Johnson said. They became cooperating witnesses and were released two days later without charges.

Since the alleged attack, Smollett had received support on social media, including from several celebrities and Democratic presidential candidates.

Others were sceptical of the incident, which Smollett said occurred around 2am on a Chicago street during one of the city's coldest weeks in recent history.

In an interview with Good Morning America last week, Smollett said he was angry that some people questioned his story, and he suggested the disbelief might come from racial bias.

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Johnson called for Smollett to apologise to the city and said he was worried that real victims might now be reluctant to come forward.

"My concern is that hate crimes will now be publicly met with a level of scepticism," Johnson told reporters, adding that the city had bigger problems.

"I just wish that the families of gun violence in this city got this much attention," the police chief said.