It was the sort of morning that you dread in this industry.
These days, with their unsubstantiated, unconfirmed reports claiming that something unspeakable had befallen a celebrity, are the kind that leave you with a pit in your stomach as you set out to try and confirm a story that you hope against hope someone, somewhere, got incredibly wrong. All the while knowing that, if it's being reported at all, it's most likely true.
They're the days that bring news of Demi Lovato suffering a near-fatal overdose, Nipsey Hussle being gunned down or, just this week, Kobe Bryant perishing alongside his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others in a devastating helicopter crash that left no survivors.
On the morning of January 29, 2019, the story in question was that of breakout Empire star Jussie Smollett who told Chicago Police that he had been attacked outside of apartment building by two people he described as white men wearing black ski masks who were "yelling out racial and homophobic slurs," said "This is MAGA country" and had "poured an unknown chemical substance on [him]" before putting a noose around his neck.
By the time the news of the police report had been confirmed, we'd learned that Smollett alleged to have fought off his attackers before receiving treatment at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where he was released "in good condition" later that morning. The actor suggested that his attack had possibly been motivated by his criticism of the Trump administration, possibly linked to a letter he'd received at the studio containing death threats and a white powder determined to be nothing more than Tylenol.
Support for Smollett was swift, loud and, more often than not, partisan. High-profile figures in the entertainment industry were outraged that he'd been the victim of such a terrifying attack. Fans were concerned for his ongoing safety. Democratic senators were urging Congress to pass federal anti-lynching bills.
Not even a month later, Smollett had, in the eyes of the Chicago Police Department, gone from victim to person of interest, charged by a grand jury with a class 4 felony for filing a false police report.
And then all hell broke loose.
After CPD raided the home of two "persons of interest" in the case on February 13, 2019, brothers Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo, who are of Nigerian descent and had appeared as extras on Empire, recovering bleach and other items in the home, they were released two days later without being charged with a crime, which CPD spokesman Anthony Guglielmi owed to "new evidence" uncovered during their interrogations.
Using the Osundairo brothers' phone records, internet search history and text messages to corroborate their story, the police concluded that Smollett had paid them $3,500 to stage the attack. They alleged it had all been a rouse dreamt up as a publicity stunt because the actor was dissatisfied with his pay on Empire. Smollett's attorneys, meanwhile, contend the brothers are liars who carried out a very real attack on the actor with the help of a still-unidentified co-conspirator and fabricated a story to avoid charges.
By March 8, Smollett was indicted on 16 felony counts of disorderly conduct related to the incident, to which he and his legal team entered a not guilty plea. And, in a shocking turn of events, the office of Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx, who had recused herself from the investigation in mid-February citing "familiarity with potential witnesses in the case," abruptly dismissed the case, with the judge granting a motion to seal the case. As result, Smollett forfeited the $10,000 bond he'd posted after his February arrest.
While Smollett's statement after charges were dropped positioned the proceedings as a full exoneration, First Assistant State's Attorney Joseph Magats, who took over the case after Foxx stepped aside, told the Chicago Tribune, "The fact that (Smollett) feels that we have exonerated him, we have not. I can't make it any clearer than that." However, the abrupt and secretive nature of the proceedings made it difficult to determine which party was telling something closer to the truth.
On April 12, the city of Chicago filed a lawsuit in the Circuit Court of Cook County against Smollett, seeking payment for the cost of overtime authorities expended while investigating the alleged attack, specified at $130,105.15. Furthermore, they asked that the actor be found liable for $1,000 for "each false statement he made to the city, in addition to three times the amount of the damages that the city sustained." Days later, the Osundairo brothers filed a federal defamation suit against his attorneys.
With two episodes of Empire's fifth season left to film when this all began, the decision was made to remove Jamal, his character, from the remainder of the season. When it was announced that the sixth season, which began airing last fall, would be the show's last, Fox Entertainment extended Smollett's contract, however no plans were made for his return. And earlier this month, Fox Entertainment President Michael Thorn confirmed to TV Line that there would be no last-minute appearance by Jamal before the show wraps up for good this spring.
"There were a number of factors that went into the decision to not bring him back," Thorn explained. "There were many points of view about if he should come back or if he shouldn't. As hard as a decision as that was, for us — and when I say us I mean the network, the studio and the producers — it felt like it was in the best interests of the show and the cast."
And while the case has long since fallen out of the daily news cycle because of, well, everything else, that doesn't mean it's over. Far from it.
In October, Smollett's lawyers requested the civil suit filed by the city of Chicago against their client be dismissed, claiming he couldn't have predicted the level of expense generated from his police report. Federal judge Virginia Kendall ruled against them. The following month, Smollett filed a counterclaim against the city, CPD detectives Michael Theis and Edward Wodnicki, Superintendent Eddie Johnson and the Osundairo brothers, claiming the city can't seek reimbursement because it had already accepted the $10,000 bond he'd forfeited when his charges were dropped.
"The CPD's prosecution of Mr. Smollett based on the Osundairo brothers' false statements about the attack has caused Mr. Smollett to be the subject of mass public ridicule and harm to him personally," his attorneys wrote.
With special prosecutor Dan Webb appointed in August by Cook County Judge Michael Toomin to investigate the entire case, from first report to charges being dropped, it was revealed this month that Google had been ordered to turn over a trove of documentation from Smollett and his manager, who'd made the initial 911 call to report the attack, from their accounts including emails, drafts and deleted messages, any files in their Google Drive cloud storage services, any Google Voice texts, calls and contacts, search and web browsing history, and location data. The sweeping warrants are intended to cover a full year's worth of data, from November 2018 to November 2019.
The hunt for the truth continues. Stay tuned.