An actor who said he was the victim of a bizarre hate crime. A furious mayor who insisted it was all a hoax, nothing more than a desperate grab for money and fame. And a prosecutor who shocked everyone by dropping the case.
Chicago, a city torn by race, class, violence and secrecy, was the ideal setting for the twisty story of Jussie Smollett, the “Empire” actor who this week was cleared of charges that he had staged an attack on himself in order to stir up national attention and, possibly, a raise.
“The story is bizarre from beginning to end,” said Sara Paretsky, the Chicago mystery novelist whose best-selling V.I. Warshawski series is set in the city.
Like so many Chicagoans, she had followed the story from the beginning, and found herself “profoundly depressed” by the decision by the Cook County state’s attorney’s office to drop the charges. Many residents placed blame on Kimberly Foxx, the elected prosecutor, even though she recused herself from the case and handed it to her deputy.
“Every time I think we’ve elected someone who might rise above the corruption that encases Chicago like a wool glove on a hot July day, the electee runs to do something to prove it’s the same old same old,” Paretsky said.
Foxx, in an interview with WBEZ, said she did not make the decision in Smollett’s case. But she added that the decision was not unusual. “Every single day on cases that law enforcement partners work diligently on, there are people who get similar arrangements, people who get diversion, people who get sentences that are probably not what some people would want,” she said.
It was in January when Smollett filed a police report saying he had been attacked while walking downtown by two men who not only put a rope around his neck, but also made racial and homophobic slurs and declared that Chicago was “MAGA country.”
Weeks later, authorities said evidence showed that Smollett, 36, had staged the incident, paying two brothers to attack him. And Tuesday came the most dramatic twist of all: Prosecutors announced abruptly that all charges would be dropped against Smollett.
“Everybody in Chicago is looking for a motive — is it a political connection, is it a family connection?” said Martin Preib, a vice president with the police union in Chicago.
As for the explanation that dropping such charges is routine, Preib remarked: “No one in Chicago is buying it.”
On Wednesday, the confusion of the day before — a whirl of accusations, dropped charges, fiery news conferences and chaotic courthouse scenes — had hardly lifted.
Chicagoans, accustomed to the city’s legendary corruption and everyday graft, said they were sure that something illicit had taken place. They were just unsure what it was.
“The whole story does seem a little odd and now, who knows what to think,” said Tony DeSousa, 55, a construction worker waiting for a train to Midway Airport on Wednesday. “Someone is not being truthful.”
Tisha Bennett James, 39, who was born in Chicago, said nothing surprises her about her hometown and its potential for wrongdoing. “Those with power are not operating within the same system as the rest of us,” she said. “We already know that. Nothing to see here.”
The city is only a few months removed from Edward M. Burke, a councilman for nearly half a century — and until recently, one of the city’s most powerful figures — being charged by federal prosecutors for shaking down business owners.
But if there were still lingering questions about what had happened in the Smollett case, the answers given by officials in Chicago were hardly satisfying.
Joe Magats, the prosecutor who made the decision to drop the charges, said in an interview Tuesday that Smollett was not a threat to public safety and did not have a violent record, two factors that he considered when deciding whether to drop charges.
Magats said that Smollett had agreed to forfeit a $10,000 bond to the city and perform community service, though Smollett’s lawyers said that community service was not part of a deal. A spokeswoman for Magats’ office did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr., whose Rainbow PUSH Coalition is based in Chicago, backed Smollett’s account.
“When this crisis first exposed itself, we reached out to him,” Jackson said in an interview. “We called him about it. He came out here and met with me. I prayed with him, heard his concerns and began to counsel. Never involved in the legal because that was not my role.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who unleashed an angry tirade after hearing prosecutors had dropped charges, continued to rail Wednesday, appearing on morning television to insist that Smollett “committed a crime here.”
But Patricia Brown Holmes, a lawyer for Smollett, said Wednesday that the Chicago Police Department was engaging in a “smear campaign” against him.
“We are disappointed the local authorities have continued their campaign against Jussie Smollett after the charges against him have been dropped,” she said in a statement. “The facts are clear. The assistant state’s attorney appeared in court and dismissed the charges. Smollett forfeited his bond. The case is closed.”
The rift between city officials and Foxx appeared to be far from healed.
Anthony Guglielmi, a police spokesman, said that Eddie Johnson, the police superintendent, had not been aware of the decision to drop the charges until Tuesday’s court hearing had already concluded. He said that typically Johnson and Foxx speak at least once a day, but they did not have a conversation Tuesday.
Detectives on the case had also not been notified about the decision in advance, even though the police and a team of prosecutors had worked side-by-side in police headquarters for weeks while investigating the case.
The relationship between police and the prosecutors’ office, Guglielmi said, “is like a marriage, and like every marriage, it needs work.”
Smollett was last seen in public Tuesday, when he appeared at the courthouse for a hearing, looking serene. He stood in front of a scrum of reporters, read from handwritten notecards and declared that he had been vindicated.
“I’ve been truthful and consistent on every single level since Day 1,” he said. “This has been an incredibly difficult time, honestly one of the worst of my entire life, but I am a man of faith, and I’m a man that has knowledge of my history, and I would not bring my family, our lives or the movement through a fire like this.”
Anyone wishing to pore over court records for more clues on what occurred would have to face one more twist in this tale: The court file on Smollett’s case has been sealed.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.