ABC News(NEW YORK) — One of the most confounding high-profile criminal investigations in recent memory finally found its mark on Thursday, when Chicago police investigators charged Empire star Jesse Smollett with a felony charge for filing a false statement.
The beloved, gay black actor said that he was beaten, battered with racial and homophobic epithets and left lying on an icy Chicago sidewalk in the middle of the night, covered in a powdery substance and with a noose-like rope around his neck.
It was such a vicious attack that to some it seemed unthinkable.
The weeks-long investigation into the incident –- an alarming account that sizzled with a spectrum of hot button issues ranging from race, sexuality and politics to crime and celebrity — riveted and distressed a deeply-divided nation.
From nearly the start, when news of the incident first surfaced, an amorphous suspicion of Smollett's story took hold on social media and elsewhere, but over time skepticism bled into disbelief for some, while Smollett's fans and friends doubled-down again and again on their support for him. As days passed without a resolution to the investigation, the actor's account of the alleged attack was picked apart, questioned, defended and debated.
Through statements and his attorneys, Smollett has consistently denied staging the attack.
Yet throughout, Smollett was relentless in his defense of his account and the fact of the attack.
Two days after the alleged assault, Smollett’s family issued a statement calling it a hate crime and insisting that the actor’s story is consistent.
“We want to be clear, this was a racial and homophobic hate crime," the family wrote in the statement to ABC News. "Jussie has told the police everything from the very beginning. His story has never changed, and we are hopeful they will find these men and bring them to justice."
The next day, Smollett issued his own statement, again reiterating that “I am working with authorities and have been 100% factual and consistent on every level.”
.@JussieSmollett is one of the kindest, most gentle human beings I know. I’m praying for his quick recovery.
This was an attempted modern day lynching. No one should have to fear for their life because of their sexuality or color of their skin. We must confront this hate.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) January 29, 2019
The following day, Feb. 2, Smollett gave his first performance since the alleged attack at the Troubadour in West Hollywood, California. "Regardless of what anyone else says, I will only stand for love," Smollett said. He became emotional and began tearing up before beginning his set. "We hope that you all stand with us."
Shortly after the attack was reported in the media, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) released a statement praising the openly-gay actor for always “using "his voice and talent to create a better world."
"Our hearts are with Jussie Smollett as he recovers from a hate-motivated and repugnant attack in Chicago. Jussie has always used his voice and talent to create a better world, and it is disgusting that anyone, especially someone who has done such good for so many, would be targeted by undeniable hatred," the statement read in part.
Two weeks later, with a widening skepticism about — and virulent defenses of — his story surging through social media, Smollett sat down for an exclusive interview with Good Morning America anchor Robin Roberts, during which he addressed public suspicion about a number of details in his account to police.
There is no such thing as “racially charged.”
This attack was not “possibly” homophobic. It was a racist and homophobic attack.
If you don’t like what is happening to our country, then work to change it. It is no one’s job to water down or sugar-coat the rise of hate crimes. https://t.co/QAi0IYtSeR
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) January 30, 2019
Why did he initially decline to turn over his cell phone to police, who were interested in corroborating his contention that he was on his cell phone with his music manager when the attack unfolded?
"They wanted me to give my phone to the tech for three to four hours. I'm sorry but — I'm not gonna do that," the singer said. "Because I have private pictures and videos and numbers: my partner's number, my family's number, my castmate's number, my friends' numbers, my private emails, my private songs, my private voice memos."
But the day earlier, apparently unbeknownst to Smollett, Chicago police investigators had been quietly tracking the two "persons of interest" learned that these two men were returning to Chicago on Feb. 13 from Nigeria and moved in. The pair were detained at the airport, placed under arrest and taken in for questioning.
Those two individuals had been captured on a grainy surveillance video image near the scene and around the time of the alleged attack. The two men turned out to be brothers, with a connections to Smollett, who were ultimately released without charges, despite Smollett insisting in an exclusive interview with ABC News that he was certain those two men were his assailants.
"I don't have any doubt in my mind that that's them," Smollett said. "Never did."
It turns out that, if police are to be believed, it may have been the most truthful statement Smollett made all month.
By Feb. 16, news began to leak out that brothers Olabinjo and Abimbola Osundairo had agreed to cooperate with authorities after detectives confronted them with evidence that they bought the rope — allegedly used in an attack that Smollett described to police as laced with racial and homophobic slurs — at a local hardware store, sources said.
In response, Smollett hit back again at the suggestion that the incident was a hoax, and expressed disbelief that the brothers could have been involved.
“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," began a statement from Smollett attorneys Todd Pugh and Victor Henderson. "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."
“One of these purported suspects was Jussie’s personal trainer who he hired to ready him physically for a music video," the statement continued. "It is impossible to believe that this person could have played a role in the crime against Jussie or would falsely claim Jussie’s complicity."
As news surfaced of Smollett's potential culpability in staging the attack, civil rights leaders including New York's Rev. Al Sharpton adjusted their views of the whole affair.
“I, among many others when hearing of the report, said that the reports were horrific and that we should come with all that we can come with in law enforcement to find out what happened and the guilty should suffer the maximum,” Sharpton said Sunday night show on MSNBC.
“I still maintain that,” he continued. “And if it is that Smollett and these gentlemen did in some way perpetuate something that is not true, they ought to face accountability to the maximum.”
With Smollett officially charged with a felony for allegedly concocting a hoax, local law enforcement officials were anything but jubilant.
"That was a pretty hateful allegation, and it really put a terrible look on Chicago," Guglielmi told ABC Chicago station WLS in a telephone interview Thursday morning. "Chicago trusted this young man. We loved Empire, and we took this very seriously that something this hateful could happen in our city."
On Thursday, Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie T. Johnson blasted Smollett in an emotional press conference in which he said that Smollett's alleged staging of a hoax attack was a "publicity stunt…to promote his career."
"Jussie Smollett took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career," Johnson said. "Why would anyone, especially an African-American man, use the symbolism of a noose to make false accusations? … How can an individual who's been embraced by the city of Chicago turn around and slap everyone in the city in the face with these false claims?"
Johnson charged that Smollett, an actor on the hit show Empire who has consistently denied any role in staging the alleged attack, orchestrated it because he was "dissatisfied with his salary."
In a new statement on Thursday, officials from 20th Century Fox Television and Fox Entertainment said that "[w]e understand the seriousness of this matter and we respect the legal process. We are evaluating the situation and we are considering our options."
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