By Karen Pierog
CHICAGO (Reuters) – 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.
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 $3,500 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.
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.
20th Century Fox Television, which airs “Empire,” said in a statement 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.
The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office approved felony criminal charges against Smollett for disorderly conduct and filing a false police report, police said on Wednesday. He has a bond hearing scheduled for later on Thursday.
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 defense.
‘THROUGH THE MUD’
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 $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 recognized 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.
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 skeptical of the incident, which Smollett said occurred around 2 a.m. 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.
Johnson called for Smollett to apologize 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 skepticism,” 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.
(Reporting by Karen Pierog in Chicago and Gina Cherelus in New York; Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee, Wis.; and by Gabriella Borter and Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Matthew Lewis)