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Empire producers cut Smollett from season's last episodes following his arrest

The show’s producers said they are placing their trust in the legal system.

Actor Jussie Smollett pictured leaving Cook County jail following his release yesterday.
Actor Jussie Smollett pictured leaving Cook County jail following his release yesterday.

Updated Feb 22nd 2019, 4:14 PM

ACTOR JUSSIE SMOLLETT’S character on Empire will be removed from the final two episodes of this season in the wake of his arrest on charges that he staged a racist, anti-gay attack on himself last month in downtown Chicago, producers of the Fox TV show announced today. 

The announcement came a day after Smollett turned himself into police, appeared in court on a felony charge of disorderly conduct for allegedly filing a false police report, and left jail after posting bond.

“While these allegations are very disturbing, we are placing our trust in the legal system as the process plays,” Empire executive producers Lee Daniels, Danny Strong, Brett Mahoney, Brian Grazer, Sanaa Hamri, Francie Calfo and Dennis Hammer said in a written statement.

We are also aware of the effects of this process on the cast and crew members who work on our show and to avoid further disruption on set, we have decided to remove the role of ‘Jamal’ from the final two episodes of the season.

Smollett, who is black and gay, plays a gay character on the show that follows a black family as they navigate the ups and downs of the recording industry.

Police said Smollett planned the hoax because he was unhappy with his salary and wanted to promote his career. Before the attack, he also sent a letter that threatened him to the Chicago studio where Empire is shot, police said.

‘Vile and despicable’ 

Yesterday, police in Chicago tapped into the city’s vast network of surveillance cameras – and even some homeowners’ doorbell cameras – to track down two brothers who later claimed they were paid by ‘Empire’ actor Jussie Smollett to stage an attack on him.

Officers said they reviewed video from more than four dozen cameras to trace the brothers’ movements before and after the reported attack, determining where they lived and who they were before arresting them a little more than two weeks later.

Smollett reported being beaten up by two men who shouted racist and anti-gay slurs and threw bleach on him. But his story fell apart when Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo — bodybuilders and aspiring actors whom Smollett knew from the Empire set and the gym — told police that Smollett paid them $3,500 to stage the attack because he was unhappy with his salary and wanted to promote his career.

Prosecutors charged Smollett late Wednesday with felony disorderly conduct — the charge that is used for filing a false police report. He turned himself into police Thursday and was jailed until an afternoon court appearance.

Smollett’s attorneys asked that the actor be freed on his own recognizance, but Cook County Judge John Fitzgerald Lyke Jr rejected that idea. Lyke, who is also black, said he was bothered by the allegations involving the noose.

“The most vile and despicable part of it, if it’s true, is the noose,” he said. “That symbol conjures up such evil in this country’s history.”

He was later released after posting the required 10% of the $100,000 bond.

If convicted, Smollett could be sentenced to three years in prison and made to pay for the cost of the police investigation.

‘A lot of digging’

Police Commander Edward Wodnicki, who heads the detective division that led the investigation, credited the camera network but also residents who shared information from their own cameras for helping to solve the case.

“That was super useful in this investigation,” he said of residents’ cooperation.

The city came together to investigate and help the police with this crime.

The search went beyond surveillance cameras to include other electronic records. Detectives also reviewed in-car taxi videos, telephone logs, ride-share records and credit card records, according to a summary of the case released by prosecutors.

Empire Cast Member Attack Technology Surveillance cameras seen near the spot where Jussie Smollett allegedly staged the attack in Chicago Source: Teresa Crawford via PA Images

At first, police were puzzled when they could not find footage of the attack, which Smollett said occurred around 2 am on 29 January while he was walking home from a Subway sandwich shop.

Chicago has the most extensive video surveillance network in the US, with access to more than 32,000 cameras mounted on buildings, poles, train tunnels and buses — and even in businesses and private residences whose owners agree to opt into the system full-time. What’s more, authorities can track someone by linking those cameras at a sophisticated emergency command centre, police stations or even from tablets in officers’ squad cars.

Police say Smollett deliberately staged the attack in a spot where he believed it would be captured on video, but “that particular camera wasn’t pointed in that direction,” Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said Thursday.

But police soon found footage of two men walking in the area of the attack and interviewed more than 100 people seeking witnesses.

Using 35 police cameras and more than 20 private-sector cameras, investigators were able to trace the men’s movements after the attack, including footage of them getting into a cab, Wodnicki said.

Detectives interviewed the cab driver, got video from inside the vehicle and followed it along a trail of cameras to the city’s North Side, where the brothers got out and began walking.

PastedImage-59270 Surveillance video of the potential persons of interest. Source: ABC 7 Chicago/Youtube

The private footage offered by residents included video from cameras embedded in doorbells that showed the men walking, police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said.

After that, police tracked the men’s movements “backward to where they came from” before the attack, Wodnicki said — first walking, then to a cab and back to a ride-share car.

“That was the lead we needed to identify a person of interest,” Wodnicki said. “We were able to put a name to both individuals.”

Police found out the men had flown to Nigeria the same day as the reported attack and would return on 13 February.

In the meantime, police executed more than 50 search warrants and subpoenas, including phone and social media records.

The Osundairos were arrested when they got off the plane. Within two days, they were released without charges after detailing the alleged plot orchestrated by Smollett.

Although the camera network — which has raised privacy concerns among some civil liberties groups — was key, it was only one part of the investigation, Guglielmi said.

“Then they just did the police work,” he said. “It was a lot of digging.”

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