Hate crime or hoax? The Story behind the Jussie Smollett case

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Jussie Smollett
Jussie Smollett

Jussie Smollett Faces Prison, Career Ruin if He Lied About Attack

It’s been almost three weeks since actor and singer Jussie Smollett came forward saying he was the victim of a hate crime in an attack that briefly left him hospitalized. But now news reports, citing anonymous sources, are calling Smollett’s story into question, fueling a firestorm of outrage and confusion over what to believe and how to feel about the case.

Smollett, who is black and gay, plays a queer character in the Fox drama Empire. Initial reports of the attack were quickly met with an widespread outpouring of support from Smollett’s colleagues, the LGBTQ community at large, and politicians. Empire co-creator Danny Strong, for example, condemned the attack and tweeted his support of Smollett.

Chicago police said from the outset that they were treating the incident as a possible hate crime. Media reports followed every development in the unexpected case of a celebrity who claimed to be a victim of targeted violence and hate.

But in the weeks since Smollett’s story first made headlines, the narrative has taken a number of twists and turns — from assumed tragedy to suspected hoax. Several reports, citing unnamed sources, suggest that police are investigating whether Smollett helped orchestrate his own attack. And federal investigators are reportedly looking into whether Smollett played a role in sending a threatening letter to himself prior to the attack.

Smollett, however, has stood by his initial claims, with his lawyers arguing in a statement that he “has now been further victimized” by the allegations of a hoax.

Though much of what happened on that January night is still unclear — or perhaps because it’s unclear — the story has activated virtually every lightning rod issue dividing America today, from racism and homophobia to distrust in the media and politically motivated attacks. Here’s what we know so far.

Police initially detained two suspects — only to release them when the investigation’s trajectory “shifted”
Smollett says he was attacked on January 29 by two masked men at the entrance of the Loews hotel in Chicago. He claims they yelled racist and homophobic remarks — making references to his show Empire and President Donald Trump’s signature slogan, “Make America Great Again.” Smollett says one attacker tied a noose around his neck and poured a substance on him that he believed was bleach; then the two fled.

Police were unable to find surveillance video of the attack even though it was in a heavily trafficked area with plenty of cameras nearby. They did, however, release images from surveillance video a day after the incident that showed two shadowed people walking down a sidewalk. Authorities wanted to take them in for questioning.

On Wednesday, February 13, police arrested two Nigerian men, Olabinjo Osundairo and Abimbola Osundairo, brothers who were later found to have known Smollett prior to the incident. Their lawyer says one of them had worked as an extra on the set of Empire; Smollett’s lawyer says another was his personal trainer for a brief stint, though neither attorney specified which brother served which role, or whether they were both talking about the same person.

Police raided their homes in search of the liquid suspected of being poured on Smollett. They recovered Empire scripts, a phone, and a black mask.

Until Friday, February 15, the brothers were being treated by authorities as “persons of interest.” But by that afternoon, the narrative had turned. Police released them both without charges, saying new evidence has “shifted the trajectory of the investigation.”

Mostly unnamed sources are driving rumors of a hoax. Smollett has since lawyered up.
Rumors began circulating earlier this week that Smollett was somehow involved in his own attack, and that he may have even orchestrated it all. By Saturday, February 16, police spokesperson Anthony Guglielmi said they were looking to re-interview Smollett (though authorities still haven’t indicated why).

Initially, local media outlets were primarily the ones driving the story. According to CBS Chicago, two unnamed sources with “intimate knowledge of the investigation” said Smollett was potentially behind the attack and had involved the two brothers. ABC7 ran another story, again with unnamed sources who claimed that police were investigating whether the attack was staged “allegedly because Smollett was being written off of ‘Empire.’”

Guglielmi pushed back on the reports, tweeting on Thursday, February 14, that the reports of a hoax were unconfirmed by detectives and that the ABC7 sources in particular “are uninformed and inaccurate.”

National outlets, however, have backed up the local reports since Thursday, February 14. An unnamed source told CBS News that the Osundairos told investigators that Smollett had paid them off. CNN similarly reported that “[t]wo law enforcement sources with knowledge of the investigation” said Smollett “paid two men to orchestrate an assault on him that he reported late last month.”

CBS News, citing anonymous sources, reported that Smollett was upset that he didn’t get a “bigger reaction” from a threatening letter sent to him, so he staged the attack. The FBI and US Postal Service are now investigating if Smollett played a role in sending the threatening letter, two unnamed federal officials told ABC News.

But a law enforcement official also told ABC News that police haven’t independently verified allegations that Smollett orchestrated the Osundairos’ attack.

In his first televised interview since first reporting his account of the attack, Smollett on Thursday, February 14, told ABC host Robin Roberts he was “pissed off” that critics doubted his story.

Stories soon surfaced that Smollett had hired a high-profile defense attorney, Michael D. Monico, who is best known for representing Michael Cohen, but those reports appear to have been premature. Instead, Smollett is being represented by Chicago defense attorneys Todd S. Pugh and Victor P. Henderson. On Saturday, February 16, they released a statement saying Smollett is “angered and devastated” to find that he knows the alleged perpetrators in the case.

“He has now 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 and anyone claiming otherwise is lying,” the statement continued.

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