Jussie Smollett’s Case File Is A Pandora’s Box
The disconcerting saga of the Jussie Smollett imbroglio took another strange turn this week, as Chicago prosecutors made public the embattled actor’s case file, in compliance with a court order. The documents, nearly 500 pages of them, offer a telling look at the investigation into an alleged gay-bashing attack against the openly gay Empire TV series star. The assault, which Smollett says took place during the small hours of January 29 in polar-vortex Chicago, as he was walking to a nearby Subway store to get a sandwich. Smollett told responding police officers that two men accosted him, hurling racist and homophobic slurs like “aren’t you that fa**ot from Empire?”, before scuffling with him, placing a noose around his neck, and pouring a “bleach-like” substance on him. As his assailants fled the scene, Smollett reported, they yelled, “This is MAGA Country”, a reference to President Trump.
The case made instant global news, as Smollett went to a nearby hospital at the urging of detectives, was treated and released, and soon began talking with the media about his ordeal. He remained ebullient, telling a crowd at his Los Angeles event a few days later, that he was “the gay Tupac”. Jussie soon returned to Chicago, as skepticism began to build surrounding the actor’s account of the incident. The city’s police chief, Eddie Johnson, assigned a whole phalanx of detectives to look into what he knew was likely to become a high-profile case and another black eye for his violence-plagued city. While opprobrium over the elements of the attack — a gay-bashing of a prominent Black, gay television star by purported Trumpers — stirred a spirited debate within and without the LGBTQ community, Smollett himself went on Good Morning America with Robin Roberts to discuss what had taken place. That interview would later figure in the detectives’ gumshoe work, as the case files reveal.
The whole potboiler came to a head when Smollett’s two attackers turned out to be a pair of brothers he knew as personal trainers, extras on the TV show, and — as the detectives working the case discovered — one of them was even his Ecstasy (“molly”) supplier. The brothers were picked up as they landed at O’Hare after a trip to Nigeria, and at the last possible minute, they fessed up to the cops about the whole wretched scheme.
Smollett’s story unraveled quickly after that; he was soon arrested and charged with sixteen counts of filing a false police report. That case fell apart, too, after prosecutors, apropos of nothing, suddenly dropped all the charges, in exchange for Smollett forfeiting his bail and agreeing to do community service. State’s Attorney Kim Foxx defended her office’s decision to do so, arguing that this resolution was in the city’s best interests. That brought howls of outrage from the city’s cops, who accused her of exerting undue influence over the proceedings; Foxx ostensibly knew members of the Smollett family, and interceded on their behalf. (Foxx did recuse herself from the case early in February for this reason, and gave it to one of her top lieutenants, who secured the indictment against Smollett.)
Smollett, however, didn’t escape without consequences. Showrunners at 20th Century Fox and on the set of Empire dropped him from the cast, and he lost other acting gigs, including a Broadway stint that was scheduled for this summer. His reputation plummeted, and he has disappeared from public view in recent weeks. Just when it seemed the drama had finally receded from the news, a Chicago judge ordered the case evidence to be made available to the public. In these files, was a devastating Pandora’s box of previously unknown revelations, which might truly spell finis to Smollett’s days in Hollywood.
In this trove of legal motions, arguments, arrest reports, text message transcripts, and witness interviews, is a detailed, sometimes ugly, compilation of the case, as seen from the perspective of the investigating detectives, prosecutors, and judges involved. It’s surprising how much of the case had essentially been solved fairly early on: once the brothers, Ola and Abel Osundairo told the cops about their role in the staged attack, (even as Smollett went on GMA the very next morning, and every word of his interview became an element in the criminal case against him), the detectives were able to reconstruct the chain of events.
The files show that using GPS coordinates taken from the Osundairos’ phones, police were able to retrace their movements before, and at the time of the alleged attack. Video from surveillance cameras and an Uber have the brothers traveling to and leaving the incident site within the timeframe of the attack, and store footage even depicts them buying materials used in the melee at a local hardware store. These records also proved that both brothers met with Smollett at the scene of the assault days before it was to occur. The beating was carefully rehearsed, the reports note, even to the extent of Smollett specifying that Ola be the one to strike him, because he “didn’t trust” Abel. The brothers intimated to police that Smollett directed which slurs they were to use and created a kind of script for them to follow. Smollett described his assailants as having “white skin”, and when told that Ola and Abel were in custody, Smollett denied they could be the correct suspects, because, detectives wrote, the siblings were “black as sin”.
The brothers also supported other “sins” according to the records. Text messages from Smollett to Abel have the star looking to get high on molly. Several times, Smollett reached out to Abel, asking for a fix. “Nigga [sic], you still got a molly connect?” Smollett wrote in September, “Hahahaha… Imma need a good fo pills Haha.” In another exchange, Smollett asks Abel if he could get his drugs late one evening, but the bodybuilder demurs, saying he was about to go to sleep. He tells Smollett to pick then up the next morning, to which Smollett replies, “No doubt.” The cops even tracked Smollett’s Venmo payments to the two men. At the time of Smollett’s arrest, police quoted him as telling the arresting officer, “I have an untreated drug addiction.”
A further text exchange has Smollett soliciting Ola and Abel’s help to stage the gay-bashing: “Might need your help on the low. You around to meet up and talk face to face?” The case fie cites video footage of Smollett leaving the Empire studio to pick the siblings up and driving them to their North Side flat. The following day, detectives indicate, Smollett returned to plan the attack, and gave them a $3,500 check to carry out the scheme, ostensibly marked in the “memo” section as for “personal training”.
Smollett was reticent to give investigators his phone when they asked for it, citing proprietary information on it, but case records suggest Smollett’s real motive was to hide evidence of his alleged duplicity. Had Smollett handed over his phone, police say, its ANI/ALI data would have shown he was not at the scene when he dialed 911, nor did he take a direct route to the Subway restaurant. When other evidence surfaced — including data from other phones and the cell towers themselves — the cops considered the case nearly solved. When Smollett declined to press charges against the brothers, they stopped being suspects, and Smollett instead went from victim to suspect himself.
The fallout from this long, arduous episode is still ongoing. Lawsuits are flying back and forth between all the parties involved, including the city of Chicago, which is trying to make Smollett pay for the cost of the investigation. The future of Empire is in doubt beyond its next season, and the Black LGBTQ community is still split over the facts of the case. There are many who say Smollett’s apparent mendacity will hurt real hate crime victims in the future, and President Trump recently used the case as a rallying cry to his base. All this will just be amplified as the authorities in Chicago continue to release more files from the investigation. Pandora’s box isn’t closing anytime soon.