Police: ‘Empire’ actor staged attack to ‘promote his career’
By DON BABWIN
Thursday, February 21
CHICAGO (AP) — “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett staged a racist and homophobic attack because he was unhappy about his salary and wanted to promote his career, Chicago’s police superintendent said Thursday.
Before the attack, Smollett also sent a threatening letter that targeted himself to the Fox studio in Chicago where “Empire” is filmed, Supt. Eddie Johnson said.
Smollett turned himself in and was arrested early Thursday to face accusations that he filed a false police report when he told authorities he was attacked in Chicago by two men who hurled racist and anti-gay slurs and looped a rope around his neck, police said.
“He took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career,” Johnson told reporters at a news conference.
“This publicity stunt was a scar that Chicago didn’t earn and certainly didn’t deserve,” he later added.
The whispers about Smollett’s account started with reports that he had not fully cooperated with police after telling authorities he was attacked. Then detectives in a city bristling with surveillance cameras could not find video of the beating. Later, two brothers were taken into custody for questioning but were released after two days, with police saying they were no longer suspects. Johnson said Smollett paid the brothers $3,500 to stage the attack.
Following three weeks of mounting suspicions, Smollett was charged Wednesday with felony disorderly conduct, a charge that could bring up to three years in prison and force the actor, who is black and gay, to pay for the cost of the investigation into his report of a Jan. 29 beating.
In less than a month, the 36-year-old changed from being the seemingly sympathetic victim of a hate crime to being accused of fabricating the entire thing.
The brothers are not considered suspects. Johnson said they wore gloves during the staged attack and “punched him a little bit.” He said scratches and brusing Smollett had on his face were “most likely self-inflicted.”
In a statement Wednesday, attorneys Todd Pugh and Victor Henderson said 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.”
Smollett, who plays a gay character on the hit Fox television show “Empire,” said he was attacked as he was walking home from a downtown Subway sandwich shop. He said the masked men beat him, made derogatory comments and yelled “This is MAGA country” — an apparent reference to President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again” — before fleeing.
“Empire” is shot in Chicago and follows a black family as they navigate the ups and downs of the recording industry.
After reviewing hundreds of hours of video, detectives did find and release images of two people they said they wanted to question and last week picked up the brothers at O’Hare International Airport as they returned from Nigeria. Police questioned the men and searched their apartment.
The brothers, who were identified by their attorney as Abimbola “Abel” and Olabinjo “Ola” Osundairo, were held for nearly 48 hours on suspicion of assaulting Smollett.
The day after they were released, police said the men provided information that had “shifted the trajectory of the investigation,” and detectives requested another interview with Smollett.
Police said one of the men had worked on “Empire,” and Smollett’s attorneys said one of the men is the actor’s personal trainer, whom he hired to help get him physically ready for a music video. The actor released his debut album, “Sum of My Music,” last year.
Smollett was charged by prosecutors, not the grand jury. Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said the brothers appeared before the panel to “lock in their testimony.”
Speaking outside the courthouse where the grand jury met, the brothers’ attorney said the two men testified for about two and a half hours.
“There was a point where this story needed to be told, and they manned up and they said we’re going to correct this,” Gloria Schmidt said.
She said her clients did not care about a plea deal or immunity. “You don’t need immunity when you have the truth,” she said.
She also said her clients received money from Smollett, but she did not elaborate.
Smollett has been active in LBGTQ issues, and initial reports of the assault drew outrage and support for him on social media, including from Sen. Kamala Harris of California and TV talk show host Ellen DeGeneres.
Referring to a published account of the attack, President Donald Trump told reporters at the White House that “it doesn’t get worse, as far as I’m concerned.”
But several hours after Smollett was declared a suspect and the charges announced, there was little reaction from celebrities online.
Former Cook County prosecutor Andrew Weisberg said judges rarely throw defendants in prison for making false reports, opting instead to place them on probation, particularly if they have no prior criminal record.
Smollett has a record — one that concerns giving false information to police when he was pulled over on suspicion of driving under the influence. According to records, he was also charged with false impersonation and driving without a license. He later pleaded no contest to a reduced charge and took an alcohol education and treatment program.
Another prospective problem is the bill someone might receive after falsely reporting a crime that prompted a nearly monthlong investigation, including the collection and review of hundreds of hours of surveillance video.
The size of the tab is anyone’s guess, but given how much time the police have invested, the cost could be huge.
Weisberg recently represented a client who was charged with making a false report after surveillance video discredited her account of being robbed by three men at O’Hare Airport.
For an investigation that took a single day, his client had to split restitution of $8,400, Weisberg said. In Smollett’s case, “I can imagine that this would be easily into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Check out the AP’s complete coverage of the Jussie Smollett case.
Brothers in Smollett case are bodybuilders, aspiring actors
By The Associated Press
CHICAGO (AP) — An attorney representing the brothers at the center of an investigation into the attack reported by Jussie Smollett said her clients “manned up” and testified in front of a grand jury, before prosecutors charged the “Empire” actor with filing a false police report.
Gloria Schmidt spoke to reporters Wednesday outside a Chicago courthouse where the brothers met with the grand jury, which was collecting evidence in the case. Without providing details, she said the two men accepted money from Smollett and wanted to come clean. She said they weren’t motivated by any promises from prosecutors.
“There was never a change of heart,” Schmidt said. “There was a point where this story needed to be told, and they manned up and they said, ‘We’re gonna correct this.’ Plea deal, immunity, all of that — they don’t care about that.”
The brothers, identified by Schmidt as Abimbola “Abel” Osundairo and Olabinjo Osundairo, are of Nigerian descent. But they told a reporter at CBS2-Chicago that they were “born and raised in Chicago and are American citizens.”
They are bodybuilders who have developed an online following and have dabbled in acting and at least one failed business venture, according to social media posts and news reports.
Abimbola Osundairo, 25, graduated from Lake View High School in Chicago, where he participated in football, track and field, soccer, and wrestling, before joining the football team at Quincy University in western Illinois, according to a football profile on the university’s website. Olabinjo Osundairo, 27, also was on the Quincy football team and had attended Latmos Comprehensive College in Lagos, Nigeria, according to his football profile.
Smollett, who is black and gay, he was physically attacked by two men who shouted homophobic and racial slurs at him before beating him up and throwing some kind of chemical on him the early morning of Jan. 29. He also said his attackers shouted, “This is MAGA country,” an apparent reference to President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” and looped a rope around his neck.
The brothers told a CBS2 reporter in a phone interview that they are not racist, homophobic or anti-Trump, the news station reported.
Chicago police said they reviewed video of Smollett walking downtown but found nothing showing an attack. They released images of two people , later identified as the brothers, whom they called “persons of interest” in the case because they were in the area at the time.
The Osundairos were arrested on Feb. 13 at O’Hare International Airport after returning from Nigeria when police learned at least one of them worked on “Empire.” Police said they left for Nigeria on the day of the attack. Police released them released after two days, saying the “investigation had shifted” following interviews with the brothers.
The Cook County State’s Attorney charged the 36-year-old Smollett on Wednesday with felony disorderly conduct for allegedly filing a false police report. He turned himself in to police early Thursday to face the charge, police said.
Smollett’s attorneys, Todd Pugh and Victor P. Henderson, met with prosecutors and police earlier Wednesday afternoon. It’s unknown what was discussed or whether Smollett attended the meeting. The attorneys didn’t reply to requests seeking comment.
A man identified on some videos as the Osundairos’ business partner, Leland Stanford, did not respond Wednesday to a Facebook message. The Osundairos did not respond to a message on their “Team Abel” Facebook page or to an email posted on their YouTube page, and a voice message left at a phone number listed for their father also was not returned.
Smollett’s lawyers had said the actor was angered and “victimized” by reports that he may have played a role in staging the attack.
“As a victim of a hate crime who has cooperated with the police investigation, Jussie Smollett is angered and devastated by recent reports that the perpetrators are individuals he is familiar with,” the weekend statement read. “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 said one of the brothers was Smollett’s personal trainer, and the Chicago Tribune — which is not naming the brothers — reported that Smollett follows their bodybuilding page on Instagram.
The Osundairos, who promote a fitness and diet program under the title “Team Abel,” have more than 20,000 Instagram followers and more than 1,600 followers on Facebook. They also have a “Team Abel” YouTube channel.
They’re also aspiring actors who have posted auditions online and reportedly worked with Smollett on “Empire.”
The Tribune reported that neither brother has been credited for work on “Empire,” though the older brother said in a 2015 interview that he played the prison bodyguard for Chris Rock’s character. Rock guest-starred on the Season 2 premiere of “Empire” in 2015.
The newspaper also reported that the brothers signed in 2016 with Hinsdale, Illinois-based Babes ‘N Beaus Model and Talent Agency, according to one of the owners, Don Underwood.
Each appeared on an episode of NBC’s “Chicago P.D.” last year, and both had roles in the 2017 independent movie “The Worst Nightmare,” the Tribune reported. One had a small part in Spike Lee’s 2015 film, “Chi-Raq.”
State records showed the Osundairos established a party and decoration store in 2015 that was dissolved last year, the Tribune reported. Federal court records show they filed for bankruptcy in 2016 with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt and their store “operating at a loss.”
The newspaper reported that the older brother pleaded guilty in 2012 to aggravated battery and was sentenced to two years of probation for a stabbing that occurred a year earlier about a block away from the brothers’ home, according to Cook County records. His brother was ticketed for a DUI in 2015.
Minnesota lawmaker seeks crackdown on fake hate crime claims
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — A Minnesota lawmaker wants tougher penalties for falsely reporting hate crimes in his state after an actor in Chicago was accused of doing so.
Rep. Nick Zerwas’ bill comes after actor Jussie Smollett was charged with falsely telling authorities he was attacked by men who hurled racist and anti-gay slurs and looped a rope around his neck.
Zerwas, an Elk River Republican, also cites a false report of a racist note that triggered protests and cancelled classes at St. Olaf College in Northfield in 2017.
Zerwas says false reports traumatize communities and force police to waste resources.
Filing a false police report is usually a misdemeanor in Minnesota. His bill would make falsely reporting hate crimes a gross misdemeanor punishable up to a year in jail and a $3,000 fine.
Lawyer likens R. Kelly to Beethoven to explain studio move
By MICHAEL TARM
AP Legal Affairs Writer
CHICAGO (AP) — R&B singer R. Kelly is moving out of his Chicago recording studio because a judge has stymied his creativity by barring him from working there overnight due to building-code violations, his lawyer said Wednesday.
Cook County Judge Patrice Ball-Reed has effectively ordered the Grammy Award-winning artist “not to be creative between 9:00 p.m. and 9:00 a.m.,” attorney Steve Greenberg said.
“R. Kelly can never be creative and do his job under these circumstances,” he said in a statement .
He compared Kelly to Ludwig van Beethoven, Winston Churchill, Sigmund Freud and one of the Beatles, who he said did some of their best work overnight, too.
“John Lennon,” Greenberg said, “spent 24 hours a day in bed while recording.”
Among the violations cited by inspectors was evidence the industrial space was used as a residence.
The judge recently refused a request by Kelly to let him work longer into the night at the studio, which is part of a warehouse building on the city’s West Side.
The dispute over studio access comes amid allegations of sexual misconduct by Kelly, all of which he has denied. A recent Lifetime documentary series, “Surviving R. Kelly,” looked at old allegations against Kelly and made some new ones.
Greenberg, in his statement, called the judge’s order a “vindictive and baseless reaction to unsubstantiated claims of decades old misconduct.” He added that some people are reaching conclusions about the allegations prematurely.
“There are three countries that presume an accused to be guilty and require him to prove his innocence — North Korea, China and Myanmar,” the attorney said. “The public should not rush to judgment.”
Follow Michael Tarm on Twitter at http://twitter.com/mtarm
Column: ARE YOU BLACK, WHITE OR HUMAN?
By Robert C. Koehler
Some of my best friends are colored. All of them are, actually.
And so I introduce you to Lowell Thompson, artist — indeed, psycho-realist, as he calls himself — recovering ad man and “colored person.” He’s also, you might say, the king of irreverence and political incorrectness, but this is only because he’s also a dragon slayer. The dragon is racism. There’s no way to engage with race politely, but there’s a way to yank the seriousness out of it.
What race are you? What color are you? Race is the American divide, a border wall deeper and more profound than the one Donald Trump wants to build. Cultures merge and evolve, but race — “color” — remains impenetrable, a line more fundamental, it would appear, than humanity itself.
Thompson had a revelation about this some years ago, with the help of the profession to which he had devoted his life: “The key to understanding the race problem is one word: branding,” he said in a 2014 interview. “Not only were cattle and slaves branded, but America became the world leader in branding through advertising. And the greatest ad campaign in American history was for American racism: By branding Africans as subhumans, it justified the slavery that America’s success is based upon. My job now is unselling racism.”
In his determination and commitment to do so, Thompson has given his life over to creating transformative change. Martin Luther King called it “creative altruism”: deconstructing the walls that divide, undoing institutional prejudice and unfairness. He has become, in the process, part of the bubbling cauldron of social evolution.
Thompson, who is African-American, grew up in Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes. He was a kid who loved to paint and found his way into one of the city’s major ad agencies when he was a young man. This was in the late ’60s; doors were opening, thanks to the civil rights movement. But the opening was fleeting. By the early ’90s, there were almost no African-Americans left in the business. He told me one of his memories from those days. The receptionist at one of the agencies where he was then freelancing challenged his presence in the office: “Aren’t you the mailroom guy?”
Finally he had to address the situation. He did his research and wrote an article called “The Invisible Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.” That was the beginning of his transition to political activism.
“I’ve been trying to come up with an idea to solve America’s race problem for over 25 years,” he told me. “Could I use what I learned in advertising?”
Turns out the answer was yes. The first thing an ad has to do is capture attention, grab people by surprise, pull them in. An irreverent sense of humor also helps, along with an ability to see through and beyond the basically unquestioned social realities that shape our lives.
Thus, as Thompson began to see it, confronting and eliminating racism in American society wasn’t simply a matter of moral scolding. This is called political correctness: demanding, pleading for, better behavior from white people in positions of power toward non-white people in positions of vulnerability. As he saw it, the problem is race itself — a bogus concept of division.
He decided to take on the concept, to challenge the idea that the “color of one’s skin” was a natural division among people, a reasonable igniter of distrust … and that, my God, all the human occupants of Planet Earth were one of five colors — black, white, yellow, brown or red — and those colors negated their complexity as human beings. This offended him not just as a man but as an artist.
And this is where the irreverence started coming in. Race was simply too absurd to take seriously. So, in the mid-’90s, when he wrote a book called White Folks: Seeing America Through Black Eyes, he decided to step over the PC line. He devised an ad campaign for the book announcing, simply, “White Folks for sale.”
Oops! Way too funny, and way too non-PC. A local radio station refused to run the ad. We can use sex and violence to sell products, but we dare not stir up the horrors of American history.
Flash forward a couple of decades and Lowell Thompson is walking through a Barnes and Noble store. He notices a large display of adult coloring books and realizes these are a thing now — and suddenly another politically incorrect idea pops into his head. He decided to create a coloring book. The title would be: “Some of My Best Friends Are Colored.”
Thompson has pursued the project through hell and high water, you might say. Shortly after he came up with the idea, “I almost died,” he told me. His blood had stopped coagulating at one point, he collapsed on a public street and was rushed to a hospital. They saved his life and he was able to push on with the project, which includes holding public events in which participants get a chance both to color and talk about race. A flyer he passes out asks: Are you black, white or human? A box next to each option contains the appropriate color. Only one of them makes sense.
Initially the project was funded by a charitable foundation, but, oops again, the word “colored” proved to be too controversial to higher-ups in the organization and they backed off, and he has pursued it on his own.
The irreverence and the crayons are both central. With both, he’s reaching, I believe, for a child’s openness and sense of possibility. We can’t free our thinking until we let go of what we know.
Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound is available. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at commonwonders.com.