A $3,500 check deposited at a grocery store bank. A red baseball cap purchased at an Uptown shop. A bottle of hot sauce left at the scene of “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett’s purported attack.
Those items are among the evidence detailed in Chicago police investigative records from the Smollett case released Wednesday to the Chicago Tribune under an open-records request.
The release of the documents came a day after Cook County prosecutors abruptly dropped a 16-count indictment accusing Smollett of orchestrating a Jan. 29 racist and homophobic attack on himself to advance his career. In dismissing the case, prosecutors said they had cut a deal with the actor to perform two days of community service and forfeit his $10,000 bond to the city of Chicago.
The unusual move allowed Smollett’s attorneys to get his criminal case immediately sealed, catching Chicago police brass by surprise and bringing swift condemnation from Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who called it a “whitewash of justice.”
Like just about everything else in the Smollett case, even the fulfilling of a public records request became controversial. Police Department officials said Wednesday that shortly after releasing the materials to the Tribune, they were contacted by the state’s attorney’s office and ordered to stop distributing the documents.
“We received verbal notification from the state’s attorney’s office that the records are under court order,” police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said.
Guglielmi said the department has asked for a copy of the court order that is barring the release of the documents.
“In the meantime, we have discontinued fulfilling those requests,” he said.
The 61-page police file — which was redacted to remove witness names and other personal information — lays out in detail the investigative steps taken by a team of detectives to unravel what happened to Smollett on the frigid January night in Streeterville when he claimed he was the victim of a racist and homophobic attack.
While the detective files cover much of what was already publicly known about the investigation, they shed light on the moves that police and prosecutors made behind the scenes to interview witnesses in front of a grand jury amid the media frenzy over the case.
Shortly before Smollett was charged in February, detectives arranged to have two brothers who had allegedly been hired to attack the actor appear before the grand jury at the Leighton Criminal Court Building at 26th Street and California Avenue.
With reporters staking out the grand jury room on the building’s fourth floor, detectives arranged to meet the brothers and their lawyer at the parking lot of Guaranteed Rate Field on West 35th Street and then drive them to the courthouse a few miles away, the records show.
The detective brought them into the courthouse through a secured rear entrance near the Cook County Jail to avoid detection by reporters, according to the detective’s supplemental report.
Smollett, who is African-American and openly gay, has said he was walking from a Subway sandwich shop to his apartment in the 300 block of East North Water Street about 2 a.m. Jan. 29 when two men walked up, yelled racial and homophobic slurs, hit him and wrapped a noose around his neck. Smollett said they also poured a bleachlike substance on him and yelled, “This is MAGA country,” in reference to President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.”
Smollett’s allegations made worldwide headlines, but questions arose about his story.
Police initially treated the incident as a hate crime, but their focus turned to Smollett after the two brothers who were alleged to have been his attackers told police that Smollett had paid them $3,500 to stage the attack, with a promise of an additional $500 later.
Police pieced together much of their evidence by reviewing footage from about 55 police and private surveillance cameras showing the brothers’ movements before and after the attack.
Among other evidence discussed in the files was a bottle of El Yucateco brand hot sauce that was found at the scene more than a week after the alleged attack. Detectives showed a photo of the bottle to one of the brothers, who “stated that it appeared to be the bottle he filled with bleach and poured on Smollett,” according to a supplemental report filed earlier this month.
On Feb. 19, another detective interviewed a manager of a TCF Bank branch located in a Jewel grocery store about a $3,500 check written by Smollett that had been deposited by one of the brothers, the records show. Prosecutors later alleged the check — which indicated in the memo line that it was for physical training — was, in fact, payment for carrying out the staged attack.
Police also obtained surveillance footage of the brothers purchasing many of the items they allegedly used in the attack at an Uptown beauty store, according to the reports. Among them were a rope, black masks, hats and gloves, the reports showed.
The most recent supplemental report — submitted Tuesday, the day the criminal case against Smollett was dropped — detailed the circumstances of Smollett’s surrender to police after he was charged Feb. 21.
According to the report, Smollett arrived at the Central District police station in the South Loop at 5 a.m. that day “accompanied by his attorney and other associates.” He was led to an interview room and read his rights before declining to speak to police.
Smollett’s attorney then asked detectives if they could release Smollett if he promised “he would show up at bond court” later that day. A sergeant informed the attorney “that would not be possible.”
On the drive to the courthouse, Smollett was offered “breakfast, coffee, or something to drink,” but he declined, according to the report. He was placed in a holding area and kept segregated — for security reasons — from the other detainees awaiting bond hearings.
“At no time while Smollett was in custody … was he handcuffed, placed in a cell or subjected to the media,” the report said.
Meanwhile, a day after he said he believed the city was owed an apology, police Superintendent Eddie Johnson toned down his comments, saying, “it’s time to turn the page and move on.”
“You know, Kim Foxx and I have a great relationship, and I don’t see any reason why that wouldn’t continue,” he said. “… In order for us to prosecute crime thoroughly, you need the Police Department and a state’s attorney’s office to work together. And it’s about as simple as that.”
Chicago Tribune’s Megan Crepeau contributed.
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