Two brothers arrested for an alleged attack on Jussie Smollett recounted for Chicago police how the ex-Empire actor orchestrated the hoax, a lead investigator testified on Tuesday.
Smollett told the the pair via text message to meet him “on the low”, paying for supplies and holding a “dry run” in downtown Chicago, former police detective Michael Theis said from the stand as prosecutors began their case.
Mr Theis said he initially viewed the actor as a victim of a homophobic and racist attack and that police “absolutely” did not rush to judgment as Smollett’s defence lawyer had alleged during opening statements.
Mr 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 what they thought was a “horrible hate crime” in January 2019.
He said they 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,” Mr 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 to know what happened”, a reference to then-mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Smollett is charged with felony disorderly conduct for making what prosecutors say was a false police report about the alleged attack.
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 Abimbola and Olabingo Osundairo — brothers who also worked on the set of Empire in Chicago — as they returned to the city from Nigeria, 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, Mr Theis testified.
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.
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 later fashioned into the noose.
Jurors also saw a still image from a video that Mr 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, Mr Theis said, leading detectives to believe Smollett may have retied it.
“At the end of the investigation, we determined that the alleged hate crime was actually a staged event” and the brothers were released, Mr Theis said.
Defence lawyer Nenye Uche said during opening statements on Monday that Smollett “is a real victim” and that the brothers attacked Smollett because they did not like him “because of who he is”.
On Tuesday, Mr Uche suggested the brothers were homophobic, asking Mr Theis on cross-examination about a homophobic word one of the brothers used.
Mr Theis said there was a message containing a slur but that he did not know if that made the man homophobic. Mr Uche also asked the former detective if he was aware one of the brothers attacked someone at the TV studio because he was gay.
“One individual said it happened, but I don’t know that it happened,” Mr Theis said.