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Chicago's police chief said Thursday they were suspicious when “Empire” star Jussie Smollett first told detectives that two masked men taunted him with racist and homophobic slurs before beating him and looping a noose around his neck.
“From the very beginning we had some questions about it,” Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said during a news conference several hours after Smollett surrendered on a charge of filing a false report.
But as is their practice when confronted with a possible hate crime, Johnson said, “We were treating Smollett like a victim.”
“We gave him the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “When we discovered the actual motive, quite frankly, it pissed everybody off.”
A dozen detectives were assigned to a case that became a national story after Smollett, who is black and gay, reported on Jan. 29 that he’d been attacked in one of Chicago’s swankiest neighborhoods, Streeterville.
Smollett told police he had just arrived in town from New York and was out getting a bite to eat at 2 a.m. when “two unknown offenders approached him and gained his attention by yelling out racial and homophobic slurs toward him.”
Detectives Cmdr. Edward Wodnicki said they dispatched a pair of detectives to Northwestern Memorial Hospital to interview Smollett.
“We started a full scale hate crimes investigation,” he said.
The alleged attack was staged in part of town that is dense with public and private security cameras that enabled them to establish “a really solid timeline,” Wodnicki said.
So starting on Jan. 30, other detectives began gathering and reviewing footage and this enabled them to zero in on “two persons of interest on video that we believed were the likely offenders,” Wodnicki said.
They also tapped their contacts in the lakefront neighborhood as they canvassed the area and interviewed more than 100 people to identify the possible suspects, who they determined had fled the area by taxi, Wodnicki said.
“Our investigators located the cab, interviewed the driver, got the video from the cab,” he said.
Using information gleaned from that interview and the surveillance camera footage they had obtained, Wodnicki said they began tracking the movements of two men backwards and then forward.
“It was at that time that we started looking at where they went right after this event,” Wodnicki said. “We tracked them going to O’Hare and jumping on flight to Nigeria.”
The mystery men turned out to be brothers, Ola and Abel Osundairo, one of whom knew Smollett from the set of “Empire.”
“Our investigation led us to determine that they had purchased round-trip tickets with them returning to Chicago on the 13th,” Wodnicki said. “While we were waiting for their return, we executed over 50 search warrants and subpoenaed phone records, social media records, and records on people to help us illuminate the likely facts that occurred in this event.”
Police, backed by FBI agents and U.S. Customs investigators, were waiting for the brothers when they returned to Chicago and took them into custody where they were read their rights — and where they asked for a lawyer.
“She came to us after speaking with these two people of interest,” Wodnicki said of the lawyer. “She said something smelled fishy. She didn’t think they were the offenders as were reported.”
Wodnicki said she insisted “they’re not offenders, they’re victims.”
“This investigation spinned in a new direction,” the head detective said.
They had 48 hours to either charge the brothers with a crime or let them go, Wodnicki said.
By the 47th hour, detectives say they were able to document the brothers’ claims that Smollett had paid them $3,500 to stage the attack with the promise of $500 more after it was done.
“One more hour and we would have had to let them go,” Johnson added.
It was Feb. 15. But because Monday was a holiday, it wasn’t until Tuesday the two brothers appeared before a grand jury.
“I think the fact that this was staged and Jussie hired these two guys to stage them for his benefit... put them in a really tough spot as well,” Johnson said, adding that they have the check for $3,500 that Smollett had given them. “They were arrested for a hate crime. … We were able to get the truth from them.”
On Thursday, at 5 a.m., Smollett surrendered to police.
“It was uneventful,” Johnson said. “It went smoothly.”
Johnson credited “old-fashioned police work” with cracking the case. He bristled when asked if this case was treated differently because Smollett is a celebrity and told the assembled reporters they fanned this into a national story.
“You guys did,” he said. “We didn’t pull any resources from any shooting or homicide investigations. This didn’t get any special attention. … We give the same amount of resources to every hate crime that is reported in this city.”
Smollett's attorneys released a statement Wednesday night after the charges were announced: "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."