Chicago, Illinois: Dozens of private and city-owned security cameras played a critical role in helping investigators unravel “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett’s alleged hoax attack, police and prosecutors say.
Officials say investigators were suspicious of Smollett from the outset.
Officers were dispatched to investigate a brutal racist, homophobic attack on Smollett early on the morning of Jan. 29. During the attack, he said, two men threw a rope around his neck, in the manner of a noose.
When officers arrived at the actor’s apartment in Chicago’s swanky Streeterville neighborhood about 40 minutes after the alleged beating, one detail caught their eye.
“Chicago Police Officers observed that Smollett had a rope draped around his neck,” said Risa Lanier, a Cook County State’s Attorney. “This was captured on police body worn camera. Seconds later, Smollett asked police to shut off the cameras.”
Still, police continued for nearly three weeks to publicly identify Smollett as a victim of a possible hate crime.
That all changed after police arrested two U.S.-born brothers of Nigerian descent – Abel and Ola Osundairo – as they arrived in Chicago Feb. 13 from a two-week trip overseas.
Abel, 25, was a close friend and personal trainer of Smollett who provided the actor with the club drug Ecstasy, prosecutors say. Both brothers had worked on the set of “Empire.”
Smollett was charged this week with disorderly conduct by filing a false police report.
Prosecutors say he falsely told police that the perpetrators flung racial and homophobic slurs as they pummeled him, poured a chemical substance on him, and screamed “This is MAGA Country,” a reference to President Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan.
He remains free on $100,000 bond as he awaits trial.
The Osundairo brothers initially resisted giving police much information. But as investigators prepared to charge them with a hate crime, prosecutors say, they came clean.
Eventually, the Osundairos’ defense attorney Gloria Schmidt told police her clients would give police a video statement.
The brothers said Smollett paid them $3,500 to assist with a carefully choreographed attack, police and prosecutors say. They also said Smollett was involved in sending a threatening letter addressed to him at the Chicago studio where “Empire” is filmed. The letter arrived at the studio one week before the alleged hoax attack.
Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said Smollett was unsatisfied with his salary for the Fox television show and wanted to use the attack to raise his profile.
Investigators say they learned many of the details of the alleged conspiracy through their conversations with the Osundairos.
The brothers might never have made it on to detectives’ radar if it weren’t for an array of roughly 55 city, business and doorbell cameras that captured snippets of the men’s movements as they came to and from the crime scene.
“It was because of these (police) cameras, our investment in technology in the city of Chicago and the great assistance from the community with those other cameras that led us to a really solid timeline of where our two persons of interest went,” said Commander Edward Wodnicki, who led the team of detectives investigating the case.
Police started with a grainy video that showed only the silhouette of two men walking away from the scene soon after the attack. Wodnicki said it was just enough for police to begin tracking the Osundairo brothers “forward” from the crime scene.
Footage showed the brothers jumping into a cab not far from where Smollett said he was attacked. Investigators were able to track down the cab driver, who had a security camera inside the taxi that captured the brothers’ faces.
The brothers took the cab several miles to the city’s North Side before they “abruptly stopped the cab” and began walking, police say.
Image: “Empire” TV series actor Jussie Smollett emerges from the Cook County Court complex after posting 10 percent of a $100,000 bond in Chicago, Illinois.