On Thursday, “Empire” (2015–) actor Jussie Smollett turned himself into the custody of Chicago Police, marking a stark turnaround in one of the year’s strangest news stories thus far. Smollett, who checked himself into a Chicago hospital in the early hours of Jan. 29, had alleged that two attackers had beaten him outside a Subway restaurant while making racial and homophobic slurs. He also claimed that they had placed a noose around his neck and chanted “MAGA country” in reference to Donald Trump’s campaign slogan.
Initially, a wide outpouring of support for Smollett circulated in the news and on social media, from Smollett’s “Empire” co-star Taraji P. Henson to presidential candidates Kamala Harris and Cory Booker.
However, after Chicago Police raided the home of two persons of interest on Feb. 14, pieces of a different story began to emerge amid multiple conflicting news reports and a statement from Chicago Police saying that Smollett was under no suspicion. With building confusion about the nature of Smollett’s attack, the actor appeared in a televised interview with Robin Roberts on “Good Morning America” the same day.
In the now-controversial interview, Smollett answered growing reports that the attack (or some elements thereof) had been a hoax, saying, “It feels like if I had said it was a Muslim, or a Mexican or someone black, I feel like the doubters would’ve supported me a lot more.”
The two persons of interest, Abel and Ola Osundairo, are brothers of Nigerian origin with whom Smollett had an existing relationship. They met when Abel appeared in a small role on “Empire.” They were taken into police custody but not charged. They were released on Feb. 15. Subsequent to their questioning, Chicago Police announced that the focus of their investigation had shifted.
Speculation as to a possible motive for Smollett to stage the attack went in multiple directions from a wide spectrum of sources, with some alleging that Smollett’s character was being written out of “Empire,” which Fox denied. Others claimed that Smollett was dissatisfied with his “Empire” salary and was seeking to use to attack to leverage a pay raise.
After the brothers’ release, surveillance footage showing them purchasing ski masks and red hats emerged. CBS News reported that they were cooperating with prosecutors on the investigation. On Feb. 20, the Cook County state attorney filed a charge of felony disorderly conduct against Smollett in the wake of an announcement from Chicago Police that Smollett had become a suspect in the investigation.
The speculation came to a head when Smollett turned himself in on Feb. 21. In press conferences, Chicago Police announced that they believed Smollett had paid the Osundairo brothers to stage the attack to gain publicity and advance his salary. They also believe a threatening letter Smollett had received before the attacks was also fabricated. If convicted, the actor faces up to three years in prison. Following Smollett’s arrest, the creators of “Empire” announced that his character would be removed from the final two episodes of the show’s fifth season.