‘Empire’ actor Jussie Smollett’s bond set at $100,000, judge calls charges ‘despicable’
Prosecutors say Jussie Smollett paid two men, including a close friend who worked alongside him on the Fox drama ‘‘Empire,’’ to help him stage a fake attack he later framed as a racist and homophobic hate crime.
The actor’s bond was set at $100,000 at a court hearing Thursday afternoon, during which Cook County Circuit Court Judge John Fitzgerald Lyke also directed Smollett to surrender his passport. Smollett later posted bail and was released.
Risa Lanier, chief of the prosecution bureau for the Cook County State’s Attorney office, outlined the state’s case against Smollett after the hearing.
Prosecutors have identified the two men as brothers Abimbola ‘‘Abel’’ Osundairo and Olabinjo ‘‘Ola’’ Osundairo. They say Smollett and Abel Osundairo were close friends who worked together on”Empire,’’ where Abel was a stand-in for a love interest of Smollett’s character, Jamal Lyon.
Prosecutors also say Abel had been ‘‘a source of designer drugs’’ including molly, a form of MDMA, for Smollett since the spring of 2018. They say Smollett met Ola Osundairo, who appeared as an extra on ‘‘Empire,’’ ‘‘on several occasions through Abel.’’
Prosecutors allege that Smollett was the guiding force behind the staged attack — right down to the intersection where it took place. They say Smollett told the Osundairo brothers, who are of Nigerian descent, that they should call his attention by yelling racial and homophobic slurs and say ‘‘this is MAGA country.’’ They also say Smollett provided a $100 bill for supplies including rope, ski masks, gloves, and red baseball hats resembling the ‘‘Make America Great Again’’ hats associated with President Trump’s campaign. According to prosecutors, Smollett coordinated the plan around a trip the brothers had planned to Nigeria.
During the hearing, which drew a large crowd of reporters, Smollett took deep breaths, shook his head, and kept his eyes closed. Lyke called the charges, if true, ‘‘despicable.’’ Four members of Smollett’s family, including his three brothers, crowded the packed courtroom.
The actor, who was arrested after turning himself in Thursday morning, has been charged with felony disorderly conduct for allegedly filing a false police report. He faces up to three years in prison.
The next court hearing is March 14.
At a media briefing Thursday morning, Chicago police said Smollett concocted the story of a brutal hate crime because he was ‘‘dissatisfied with his salary’’ on the Fox drama. Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said the department has a $3,500 check Smollett paid the men to help him stage the fake attack after a crude, threatening letter he sent to the ‘‘Empire’’ set in Chicago failed to get attention.
Johnson was remarkably forceful in his remarks about the case, which has gained widespread media attention since Smollett told police he was attacked in the city last month. Johnson, a black Chicago native, said the actor ‘‘took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career.’’
Johnson lamented the many resources Chicago police used on an investigation that lasted weeks. Detective Commander Edward Wodnicki said detectives interviewed more than 100 individuals and utilized both police cameras and private sector cameras to plot a timeline of the alleged assault.
Wodnicki said surveillance footage, along with taxi and ride share records, helped police track down Abel and Ola Osundairo. The brothers were taken into custody on Feb. 13 upon returning from Nigeria to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, gave police information implicating Smollett and were released last Friday without being charged. Wodnicki said they appeared as witnesses before a grand jury Wednesday, just hours before police announced that Smollett was a suspect in the case.
Smollett’s attorneys have maintained he did not play a role in his attack.
In a matter of weeks, Smollett traveled the arc of a black and openly gay hate crime victim to potential criminal himself. The vivid details of his alleged Jan. 29 attack — including a rope put around his neck — captured the attention of Democratic presidential hopefuls and celebrities as a tangible result of social decay and toxic political discourse.
As Smollett’s claims unraveled among inconsistencies and police gathered new evidence, conservatives blasted the incident as an example of a credulous media extending a narrative that Trump supporters have escalated his divisive rhetoric with acts of violence.
President Trump reacted to news of Smollett’s arrest on Twitter Thursday. ‘‘@JussieSmollett - what about MAGA and the tens of millions of people you insulted with your racist and dangerous comments!? #MAGA,’’ Trump wrote.
On Wednesday, Chicago-based attorneys Todd Pugh and Victor Henderson, who are representing Smollett, wrote in a statement: ‘‘Like any other citizen, Mr. 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. Given these circumstances, we intend to conduct a thorough investigation and to mount an aggressive defense.’’
The news of the felony charge, announced by the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, came just hours after the city’s police department said the ‘‘Empire’’ actor was being treated as a suspect in the criminal investigation. Police said days ago that they wanted to speak with Smollett again after new evidence ‘‘shifted the trajectory of the investigation.’’ Police first investigated the incident as a possible hate crime.
Smollett has aligned himself in the past with organizations dedicated to HIV/AIDS awareness, civil rights and LGBTQ advocacy. He invoked this while discussing the skepticism surrounding his claims during an interview that aired last week on ‘‘Good Morning America.’’
‘‘I’m an advocate. I respect too much the people — who I am now, one of those people — who have been attacked in any way,’’ he told ABC’s Robin Roberts. ‘‘You do such a disservice when you lie about things like this.’’