‘There was a point where this story needed to be told…’
(Jeremy Gorner, Megan Crepeau, William Lee and Tracy Swartz, Los Angeles Times) CHICAGO — In little more than three weeks, “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett went from a sympathetic victim of a racist, anti-gay attack to an accused liar whose allegedly staged assault further roiled divisions across the country.
Smollett, 36, was charged Wednesday evening with disorderly conduct, a felony, for allegedly filing a false police report about an attack he said occurred as he walked to his apartment building in the Streeterville neighborhood last month. If convicted, he faces anywhere from probation to three years in jail.
“Like any other citizen, Mr. Smollett enjoys the presumption of innocence,” Smollett’s attorneys Todd Pugh and Victor Henderson said in a statement. “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.”
While Chicago police initially launched a hate crime investigation, authorities had recently said they were looking into whether Smollett paid two brothers he knew to stage the attack on Jan. 29. The brothers appeared before a grand jury earlier Wednesday, according to their attorney Gloria Schmidt.
“There was a point where this story needed to be told and they manned up and they said, you know what, we’re going to correct this,” Schmidt told reporters.
Schmidt declined to give much detail about the evidence presented to grand jurors. She did say the brothers got money from Smollett at some point, and said she believes the brothers have been in contact with the actor at least once since the attack was reported.
She did not expect any charges to be filed against her clients, and said authorities did not offer them any deals or immunity. “You don’t need immunity when you have the truth,” she said.
The brothers spent “countless hours” cooperating with police, Schmidt said, and she urged Smollett to come clean as well. “I think that Jussie’s conscience is probably not letting him sleep right now, so I think that he should unload that conscience and just come out and tell the American people what actually happened.”
Schmidt declined to tell reporters how her clients got involved or their role in the incident.
Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said “detectives will make contact with (Smollett’s) legal team to negotiate a reasonable surrender for his arrest.” The actor was scheduled to appear in court for a bond hearing Thursday afternoon.
His attorneys met with prosecutors and detectives earlier in the day but it was unclear if the actor was present, according to Guglielmi. Bedsides Pugh and Henderson, Smollett is represented by Los Angeles-based lawyer Mark Geragos, who has represented celebrities such as pop star Michael Jackson, R&B singer Chris Brown and actress Winona Ryder.
Smollett, who is African-American and openly gay, has said he was walking from a Subway sandwich shop to his apartment on East North Water Street around 2 a.m. when two men walked up, yelled racial and homophobic slurs, declared “This is MAGA country,” hit him and wrapped a noose around his neck.
Police took the two brothers, 25 and 27, into custody last week after they were captured by surveillance cameras in the area around the time of the alleged attack. Guglielmi called them “potential suspects” last Friday morning, but they were released 12 hours later.
Guglielmi said that, after talking with them, detectives were investigating whether Smollett paid the brothers to stage the attack. Information from the brothers also allowed investigators to discover where the rope used for the noose had been purchased, according to a law enforcement source.
The shift in the investigation’s focus came amid growing skepticism on social media — doubts addressed by Smollett in a national TV interview and in a strongly worded statement after the brothers were released.
“Jussie Smollett is angered and devastated by recent reports that the perpetrators are individuals he is familiar with,” read the statement from his attorneys. “He has been further victimized by claims attributed to these alleged perpetrators that Jussie played a role in his own attack. Nothing is further from the truth.”
The statement said one of the brothers was Smollett’s personal trainer, the first time the actor had acknowledged knowing either of them. The two also reportedly worked with Smollett on “Empire.”
As many as 20 detectives were assigned to the case in the weeks following Smollett’s report, and nearly every camera in the Streeterville neighborhood was checked for video that might show the attack. Some police sources privately expressed doubts after finding little, if any corroborating evidence or video of a crime.
Police did release an image of two men seen in the area of Smollett’s building around the same time, but it was blurry and dark. Smollett said his music manager was on the phone with him at the time and would support his story, but the actor refused to turn over his full phone records, instead handing police redacted records.
The reported attack drew both outrage and support on social media from fellow celebrities, politicians and presidential hopefuls. President Donald Trump weighed in, saying, “It doesn’t get worse, as far as I’m concerned.”
As doubts grew, Smollett proclaimed his innocence through representatives and during a national television interview on “Good Morning America.”
A major break in the case came Feb. 13 when police arrested the two brothers after they arrived at O’Hare International Airport from Nigeria. Police also raided the men’s North Side townhome, seizing items as the brothers were questioned by detectives.
As prosecutors fanned out on the case Wednesday, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx announced she had recused herself from the case last week “out of an abundance of caution” because she spoke to one of Smollett’s relatives after the alleged attack and acted as a go-between with police, one of Foxx’s aides told the Chicago Tribune.
“State’s Attorney Foxx had conversations with a family member of Jussie Smollett about the incident and their concerns, and facilitated a connection to the Chicago Police Department who were investigating the incident,” said Robert Foley, a senior adviser to Foxx. “Based on those prior conversations and out of an abundance of caution, last week State’s Attorney Foxx decided to remove herself from the decision-making,” he said.
Foley would not comment further. First Assistant State’s Attorney Joe Magats is now overseeing the case.
There is also a federal investigation that is still pending.
A week before the alleged attack, Smollett told police he received a threatening letter at work. Witnesses told police a postal worker dropped off the letter at the Chicago studio where “Empire” is filmed. It was postmarked in southwest suburban Bedford Park on Jan. 18 and bore two American flag stamps. The letters “MAGA” were written in the upper-left corner of the envelope.
Federal authorities are looking into the origin of the letter. The status of their investigation was not known Wednesday.
Meanwhile, production of “Empire” continued Wednesday as cast and crew try to wrap up the final episodes of Season 5. Filming took place at the Ferrara Bakery on the Near West Side. It’s unclear which cast members participated in the shoot because crew members put cardboard over the bakery’s doors, and security guards patrolled Taylor Street by the shop’s entrance.
Also Wednesday, representatives for the Fox network, which produces and airs “Empire,” reiterated support for Smollett while denying media reports that his role on the show is being reduced or eliminated altogether.
“Jussie Smollett continues to be a consummate professional on set and as we have previously stated, he is not being written out of the show,” the statement from Fox read.
(Chicago Tribune’s Lisa Donovan contributed.)
©2019 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.