Texts, rideshares helped police uncover evidence in Smollett case
The sequence of events reads like the plot of a television show: A man stages his own attack and rehearses it beforehand, making sure there’s a surveillance camera nearby to record it.
But prosecutors say it really happened. They allege “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett hired two men to orchestrate what appeared to be a racist, homophobic attack on himself in Chicago on January 29.
Smollett hired brothers, Olabinjo and Abimbola Osundairo, and paid them $3,500 to stage an attack, Chicago police Superintendent Eddie T. Johnson said Thursday.
Smollett reported the attack to police who investigated it as a possible hate crime. But as the story unfolded over the weeks, its numerous twists and turns culminated with Smollett’s arrest Thursday on suspicion of filing a false police report.
On Friday, the executive producers of “Empire” said that while they were waiting for the legal process to play out, they would remove Smollett’s character, Jamal, from the season’s final two episodes.
The investigation: Text messages and secret meetings
The alleged plot’s electronic trail dates to January 25 when Smollett texted Abimbola Osundairo and said, “Might need your help on the low. You around to talk face to face?” prosecutors alleged.
He gave the brothers directions on the staged attack and told them to put a noose around his neck and shout “‘Empire’ fa***t” and “‘Empire’ n***er,” as well as to make a reference to “Make America Great Again,” prosecutors allege.
Smollett took the brothers to near the site of the purported attack, which had a surveillance camera on the corner, prosecutors said. The actor told detectives two men attacked him near the lower entrance of a Loews hotel in Chicago
After laying out the plan and rehearsing it, prosecutors said, Smollett gave the brothers a $100 bill to buy clothing and rope for a noose.
The staged attack went ahead as planned, with the brothers mildly punching Smollett with gloved hands, according to Johnson, the police superintendent.
“As far as we can tell, the scratching and bruising that you saw on his face were most likely self-inflicted,” Johnson said.
Phone records indicate Smollett talked to the brothers about an hour before the alleged attack, an hour afterward, and after they left the country for Nigeria, authorities said.
Police initially treated the matter as a hate crime, but they could not find video of the incident from surveillance cameras in the area.
“I believe Mr. Smollett wanted it on camera,” Johnson said. “But unfortunately that particular camera wasn’t pointed in that direction.”
The arrest: Rideshare and last-minute confessions
Even without footage of the incident itself, police found video of two people in the area, and their proximity to the incident led investigators to focus on them as “persons of interest,” police Commander Edward Wodnicki said.
From there, police used hours of video footage — from about 35 police pod surveillance cameras in the city, and more than 20 private sector surveillance cameras — to piece together their movements, he said.
It was the footage documenting the men’s arrival to the scene that produced a breakthrough.
Tracing their steps in reverse, investigators saw them getting out of a taxi about three blocks from where the alleged attack would take place, about a half-hour before the altercation would happen, authorities said.
Investigators tracked that cab ride backwards and learned the men had flagged the cab down after exiting a rideshare car.
The rideshare, an Uber, meant someone ordered it with a phone app. Further investigation led police to discover that one of the Osundairo brothers had ordered the Uber from his apartment, authorities said.
That helped investigators determine that the Osundairo brothers were the people they were looking for. They had taken the Uber from their apartment to where they picked up a cab, and the cab dropped them off close to the eventual attack site, authorities said.
“That (rideshare) was the lead that we needed in order to identify the two persons of interest,” Wodnicki said.
With the rideshare information in hand, investigators then found evidence connecting the brothers to Smollett.
The brothers flew to Nigeria on the evening on January 29, many hours after the attack. They flew back to Chicago on February 13, and investigators met them at customs when they returned, authorities said.
Olabinjo and Abimbola Osundairo asked for an attorney once in custody, Johnson said.
The men told officers that Smollett, who is black and gay, first “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 police superintendent said.
The revelations necessary to charge Smollett came during the 47th hour of a 48-hour holding period for the two men, who eventually confessed to the alleged plot, Johnson said.
After cooperating with police, the two were released without being charged last week and went before a grand jury Tuesday, Johnson said.
Alleged motive: Money and publicity
Investigators believe Smollett staged the attack “because he was dissatisfied with his salary,” Johnson said, citing information that the Osundairos gave to police.
The actor took “advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career,” Johnson said.
Smollett has maintained that he did not make the story up. A source told CNN that as recently as Thursday, he reiterated to the “Empire” cast and crew he was innocent of the charge against him.
“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,” his attorneys said in a statement.
“Given these circumstances, we intend to conduct a thorough investigation and to mount an aggressive defense.”
In a statement released Thursday night on behalf of the actor, his attorneys described the bail hearing as an “organized law enforcement spectacle.” The judge granted a $100,000 bail, and Smollett paid a $10,000 bond. He was ordered to give up his passport and will remain under supervision until his case is adjudicated.
“Mr. Smollett is a young man of impeccable character and integrity who fiercely and solemnly maintains his innocence and feels betrayed by a system that apparently wants to skip due process and proceed directly to sentencing,” the statement said.
Police reaction: Anger and criticism
During Thursday’s news conference, Johnson repeatedly chastised the media for devoting more attention to the Smollett case than to other victims of violence in the city.
“I am offended by what’s happened and I’m also angry,” Johnson said. “Bogus police reports cause real harm. They do harm to every legitimate victim.”
The superintendent said, however, that Smollett was given no more attention than any other alleged crime victim, but he lamented that resources devoted to this investigation could have been deployed elsewhere.
The aftermath: Supporters express disappointment
Some on social media expressed anger at Smollett for potentially tarnishing the public’s trust in victims moving forward.
Sen. Kamala Harris, who last month described Smollett’s attack claim as an “attempted modern day lynching,” said she’s frustrated and disappointed by the turn of events.
“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,” Harris wrote on Twitter.
20th Century Fox Television and Fox Entertainment initially stood behind the actor and his role on “Empire.” But on Friday, the show’s executive producers said they were removing Smollett’s character, Jamal, from the final two episodes of this season.
“The events of the past few weeks have been incredibly emotional for all of us. Jussie has been an important member of our ‘Empire’ family for the past five years and we care about him deeply,” the statement reads. “While these allegations are very disturbing, we are placing our trust in the legal system as the process plays out.
“We are also aware of the effects of this process on the cast and crew members who work on our show and to avoid further disruption on set, we have decided to remove the role of ‘Jamal’ from the final two episodes of the season.”
The filming of the season’s finale episode is in progress this week and next week.
Smollett faces a felony charge of disorderly conduct over falsely claiming he was attacked, police say.
Under Illinois law, filing a false police report is disorderly conduct and punishable by one to three years in prison. Smollett is due back in court March 14.