Prosecutors’ case against Jussie Smollett has focused on how Chicago police say they determined that what they initially believed was a horrific hate crime was actually a fake assault staged by the ex-”Empire” actor with help from two brothers.
Testimony will continue Wednesday in the trial, which is expected to last about a week.
A lead investigator in the case, Michael Theis, said Tuesday that the brothers — who worked with Smollett on the Chicago set of “Empire” — detailed for police how the actor orchestrated the hoax. They said Smollett told them via text message to meet him “on the low,” paid for supplies including a clothesline later fashioned into a noose and took them for a “dry run” prior to the January 2019 alleged attack.
Theis, who now is assistant director for research and development for the Chicago Police Department, said roughly two dozen detectives clocked some 3,000 hours on the investigation, rebutting a defense attorney’s statement that they rushed to judgment. He said police were excited when they were able to track the movements of two suspected attackers using surveillance video and cellphone and records from ride-sharing services.
“The crime was a hate crime, a horrible hate crime,” Theis said, noting Smollett — who is Black and gay — reported that his attackers put a noose around his neck and poured bleach on him. He said the case had become national and international news and that “everybody from the mayor on down” wanted it solved, a reference to then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Defense attorney Nenye Uche has said the brothers — who also worked on the set of “Empire” — attacked Smollett because they didn’t like him “because of who he is” and suggested Tuesday that the brothers were homophobic.
Smollett is charged with felony disorderly conduct for making what prosecutors say was a false police report. The class 4 felony carries a prison sentence of up to three years, but experts have said if Smollett is convicted he likely would be placed on probation and perhaps ordered to perform community service.
After police arrested brothers Abimbola and Olabingo Osundairo, the men said Smollett wanted to stage the attack because he was unhappy about how the TV studio handled hate mail the actor had received, Theis said. He said investigators checked out the brothers’ account — including that the actor picked them up days before the attack and drove them around the downtown neighborhood where he lived and talked about what would happen — and corroborated their version of events using GPS, cellphone records and video evidence. Police found no instance where they concluded the men were lying, he added.
“At the end of the investigation, we determined that the alleged hate crime was actually a staged event,” Theis said, and the Osundairo brothers were released.
Jurors were shown surveillance video of the brothers buying supplies, including a red hat they told police Smollett wanted them to wear to resemble supporters of then-President Donald Trump, and a piece of clothesline police said was later fashioned into the noose. Jurors also saw a still image from a video that Theis said showed Smollett returning home the night of the alleged attack, with the clothesline draped around his shoulders. The clothesline was wrapped around his neck when officers arrived, Theis said, leading detectives to believe Smollett may have retied it.
Uche has portrayed the Osundairo brothers as unreliable, and said when police searched their home they found heroin and guns. The brothers will testify during the trial, but it’s unknown if Smollett will.
Uche asked Theis on cross-examination about a homophobic word one of the brothers used. Theis said there was a message containing a slur but that he doesn’t know if that makes the man homophobic. Uche also asked Theis if he was aware one of the brothers attacked someone at the TV studio where “Empire” was filmed because he was gay.
“One individual said it happened, but I don’t know that it happened,” Theis said.
Uche also sought to discredit the police investigation, suggesting detectives ignored possible leads. And he said a $3,500 check the actor paid the brothers was for personal training so he could prepare for an upcoming music video, not for carrying out the hoax, as prosecutors allege. Theis said the memo on the check said it was for “nutrition” and “training.”
Uche also has suggested that a third attacker was involved. One area resident said she saw a white man with “reddish brown hair” who appeared to be waiting for someone that night, according to police reports. She told a detective that when the man turned away from her, she “could see hanging out from underneath his jacket what appeared to be a rope.”
Under cross-examination, Theis acknowledged that he saw that statement but did not send a detective to re-interview the woman. He said she had seen the man a few hours before the alleged attack and that “the rope was a different color.”