One of Jussie Smollett’s Attackers Tells Court Events Were All Staged

Categories: The New York Times

Abimbola Osundairo, testifying at Mr. Smollett’s trial on charges of filing a false police report, said the actor “wanted me to fake beat him up.”

By Julia Jacobs and Mark Guarino

Dec. 1, 2021

Jussie Smollett, frustrated by what he saw as a muted reaction to a death threat he had received in the mail, enlisted a friend in 2019 to stage a fake attack that would grab public attention, the friend testified on Wednesday at the actor’s trial.

Abimbola Osundairo, the younger of the two brothers who have said they took part in what they describe as a hoax, said the strange request had come after Mr. Smollett showed him an image of a threatening letter he had received. It featured a red stick figure hanging from a noose, a gun pointed at the figure, and the acronym MAGA on it.

Mr. Smollett later arranged a meeting with him, Mr. Osundairo said, after sending him a text message in which Mr. Smollett said he needed help “on the low.” At the meeting, they discussed how the television studio behind “Empire,” the show they both worked on, was not taking the letter seriously, Mr. Osundairo told the court.

“He said he wanted me to beat him up,” Mr. Osundairo said. “I looked puzzled, and then he explained he wanted me to fake beat him up.”

Mr. Osundairo testified during the third day of Mr. Smollett’s trial on charges that he filed a false police report about the attack, a case that largely relies on the accounts of Mr. Osundairo and his brother, Olabinjo Osundairo, who say Mr. Smollett devised the attack.

Mr. Smollett has denied staging the Jan. 29 attack, and his lawyers have suggested that the brothers have fabricated the account to avoid prosecution.

“He wanted me to tussle and throw him to the ground and give him a bruise while my brother Ola would pour bleach on him and put a rope around him, and then we would run away,” Abimbola Osundairo testified.

Mr. Osundairo, 28, said his friendship with the actor had started in 2017 and had grown to a place where Mr. Osundairo would refer to Mr. Smollett as his “big brother.” Mr. Osundairo said Mr. Smollett had helped him secure a job as a stand-in for more prominent actors on “Empire,” a gesture that Mr. Osundairo said had left him feeling “indebted” to Mr. Smollett. He said he had ended up standing in for Mr. Smollett’s character’s love interest on the show.

It is unclear whether the prosecutors will also seek testimony from Mr. Osundairo’s older brother, Olabinjo, 30, who also appeared on “Empire” and, though he was not as close to Mr. Smollett, has told investigators he was brought in to assist with the attack. Olabinjo Osundairo is on a list of potential witnesses.

The brothers have told the police that on the day before the attack was supposed to take place, Mr. Smollett drove them around the Streeterville neighborhood of Chicago, where he lived, showing them where he wanted the attack to occur. The brothers say Mr. Smollett gave them a $100 bill to buy supplies for the attack, including ski masks, a rope and a red hat meant to indicate that the attackers were supporters of former President Donald J. Trump.

The special prosecutor handling the case, Daniel K. Webb, said earlier in the trial that on Jan. 29, the brothers waited for Mr. Smollett near the proposed spot — in subzero temperatures — and when the actor arrived, they beat him lightly, put the rope around his neck and poured bleach on him from a hot sauce bottle. Abimbola Osundairo said that as a car approached, the two brothers had run away and hailed a cab to take them home.

Mr. Osundairo said Mr. Smollett had instructed him to send a “condolence text” the next morning once the local news media reported the events.

“Bruh say it ain’t true,” Mr. Osundairo texted the actor. “I’m praying for a speedy recovery.”

The defense, which had not yet started its questioning of Mr. Osundairo on Wednesday, has in its opening statement and cross-examination sought to undermine the brothers’ accounts. Mr. Smollett’s lead lawyer, Nenye Uche, called the brothers “self-confessed attackers” and said both men “did not like” Mr. Smollett.

Mr. Uche said that a $3,500 check that Mr. Smollett made out to Abimbola Osundairo was for help with physical training for Mr. Smollett’s music video — not payment for helping with the attack, as prosecutors contend. (Mr. Osundairo testified that at the time of the reported attack he had been helping Mr. Smollett with diet and fitness plans to help him prepare for a music video but that he had intended to do the work for free because they were friends.)

The defense has also said that Mr. Smollett’s text message asking for help “on the low” was in reference to getting herbal steroids from Nigeria, where the brothers were planning to travel.

On Tuesday, Mr. Uche suggested in his questioning of a detective, Michael Theis, who investigated Mr. Smollett’s hate crime report, that the police had not properly looked into accusations that Olabinjo Osundairo had a history of making homophobic statements.

Prosecutors sought on Wednesday to blunt that suggested motivation. Abimbola Osundairo was asked whether the fact that Mr. Smollett is gay had affected their friendship, and he said it had not. Mr. Osundairo said at one point that he had visited a gay bathhouse with Mr. Smollett in Chicago.

The defense has also focused on guns and drugs found in the brothers’ home after their arrest in February 2019. But Detective Theis said Abimbola Osundairo had a valid license to own the guns, as well as proof of ownership. He said the police had found a “very small amount” of cocaine in a bag inside the lining of a safe.

(Olabinjo Osundairo was convicted of aggravated battery several years ago and is not allowed to own a gun.)

Two additional Chicago detectives testified Wednesday. One of them, Kimberly Murray, said that she had interviewed Mr. Smollett in the hospital a few hours after the attack and that he had told her that he was walking toward the lobby of his apartment talking on the phone to his agent when he heard one of his attackers yell racist and homophobic slurs at him.

She testified that Mr. Smollett had told her that he was struck on the left side of the face and kicked in his back and ribs; he said he had felt a tugging around his neck before the attackers fled. The actor told her that as he had left the scene, he noticed a rope “fastened like a noose” around his neck and that when he had returned to his apartment, he noticed that his sweatshirt smelled like bleach.

Detective Murray told the court that in the hospital interview, Mr. Smollett had described one of his attackers as a white man wearing a ski mask. (He said he could tell the man was white from the exposed skin around his eyes and the bridge of his nose).

A second detective, Robert Graves, testified Wednesday that Mr. Smollett had been interviewed a couple of weeks after the attack and had described one of his attackers as “pale-skinned,” not white, as he had said previously.

“I confronted him and reminded him that I was in the hospital and in the drive-through in which he described the attacker as a male white and not as pale-skinned,” Detective Graves said, adding that Mr. Smollett had responded that the attacker had “acted like he was white.”

The detectives testified that Mr. Smollett had declined to provide his cellphone, medical records and a saliva swab to investigators. Detective Graves said that the police had wanted access to the phone to help establish a timeline and to look into a threatening anonymous call that Mr. Smollett said he had received two days earlier but that Mr. Smollett had refused them that access.

During the defense’s cross-examination of Detective Graves, Mr. Smollett’s lawyer, Mr. Uche, said that because Mr. Smollett was a celebrity, he had not wanted to share his private information.

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