On Friday, Jan. 18th, a letter was dropped into a mailbox in Chicago’s southwest suburbs.
The envelope was addressed in childlike scrawl to Empire TV star Jussie Smollett at Cinespace Studios, a West Side production facility that the Fox program calls home. “MAGA”—the acronym for Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign slogan “Make America Great Again”—was sloppily written in the return address space.
Four days later and about eleven miles away, the letter found its way to Smollett.
Something about the envelope must have raised concerns. Smollett would later tell police that he and Empire’s executive producer donned gloves before they opened it and exposed themselves to a threat letter covered in white powder. Police logged the time as 2:30 p.m.
|The envelope (top) and letter. | TMZ|
The powder was later determined to be crushed Tylenol, according to reports. But the letter addressed to Smollett depicted a curly-haired stick figure being hanged by another stick figure with a noose.
Using individual letters and words that appear to be clipped from magazines, the sender threatened Smollett with an anti-black and anti-gay message:
About a week after Smollett opened the letter, he told police that he had been beaten and kicked in Streeterville by two men who recognized him from Empire. They poured bleach on him and—in throwbacks to the threat letter—called him anti-gay, anti-black slurs while putting a noose around his neck and screaming “this is MAGA country,” he said.
As Smollett reported the attack to police, a multi-agency federal investigation into the source of the threat letter was entering its seventh day.
Headed by the FBI’s Chicago Field Office, the terroristic threat investigation is being assisted by one of America’s oldest and most underestimated law enforcement agencies: The United States Postal Inspection Service.
Whoever sent the letter to Smollett may have considered the mail to be an untraceable way to deliver a message. They’d be mistaken.
“Those postal guys are the real deal,” said a North Side cop who worked with inspectors on a serial package theft case in Lincoln Park last November. “They can do amazing things and aren’t afraid of the work.”
Since being created by Benjamin Franklin—yes, that Benjamin Franklin—the service has learned a few things about tracing mail-based crimes. Figuring out who mailed a letter has been made easier because, while most criminals know to wear gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints, most criminals also forget to leave their cellphones at home when they go to the mailbox.
Even without tracking phones, inspectors have a catalogue of techniques developed over the course of 200 years to track a letter to its source. More than 1,000 “white powder” cases were investigated between January 2007 and March 2009 alone, according the LA Times.
|Postal Inspectors are pretty serious about the mail. | National Postal Museum|
And inspectors aren’t afraid of tedious work.
Retired Chicago cop Donna Kenny: “My first experience with postal inspectors was in 1987. I answered a call to ‘see the mother about the mailman,’” Kenny remembered. “The mother thought the mailman was flirting with her 12-year-old daughter.”
“I was very new and I eventually wound up contacting the postal inspectors. I’d never heard of them before.”
The inspectors met Kenny at the mother’s house to compile some information. While they did that, they asked Kenny to earn the girl’s confidence. She did.
“She told me she had sex with the 36-year-old mailman who said he wanted to marry her.”
That was day one.
The next morning after roll call, Kenny was called into a meeting.
“The postal inspectors dropped a thick 3-ring binder on the desk and said, ‘Come with us.’”
“They had spent the whole night interviewing the whole neighborhood, getting the mailman’s personnel record which included previous complaints of inappropriate sexual behavior with minors and the report from the emergency room, where I had taken the girl the day before. I didn’t even realize there was an emergency room doctor’s report.”
Kenny worked side-by-side with the inspectors, shepherding the girl through meetings with detectives and prosecutors.
“I learned so much in those few days and I was grateful for the education on how to do things properly from start to finish. To this day, they are two of the best cops I ever worked with.”
Two Lakeview brothers who were previously considered “persons of interest” in Smollett’s purported attack told police during interrogations last week that Smollett staged the hate crime because he was upset that the threat letter did not get enough attention, ABC7 Chicago reported Monday afternoon. Detectives are investigating their claim.
Meanwhile, the FBI and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service has been quietly working on the origins of Smollett’s letter for nearly a month. Giving it far more “attention” than he knew.
Late Monday, CWBChicago received confirmation that the letter case has been before a federal grand jury and multiple subpoenas have been generated over the course of the investigation.
In a conversation on Feb. 8th, before police met with brothers Ola and Abel Osundairo, a leading source within the Smollett attack investigation called the hate crime a “false flag”and said “There is a direct line between (the letter) and (the purported attack).” In the same conversation, the source hinted at what was to come: “This is not a whodunit. It’s a how-many-people-dunit.”
Whoever mailed the letter “made an enormous mistake,” we were told. Federal charges were “certain.”
A law firm partner who asked not to be identified by name spoke with us about the federal problems ahead for whoever mailed the letter: “If they have Smollett on the letter, he’ll be facing ’terroristic hoax’ charges, a felony. There may be federal obstruction charges as well.”
All in all, the federal legal options are numerous: “If they want to bury him, they can.”
Meanwhile, the Osundairo brothers are reportedly holed up in a Chicago hotel with police protection.
Attack location identified
One piece of housekeeping: CWBChicago has confirmed with Chicago police that Smollett told responding officers that he was attacked on the southwest corner of New Street and Lower East North Water Street.
Previous reporting had the attack taking place across the street and slightly west, in an area where Lower East North Water Street is covered by an upper traffic deck.
The correct location was confirmed by information contained in dispatch records for a Chicago Police Department evidence technician who was assigned to process the purported crime scene shortly after Smollett reported the attack to police. CWBChicago sought the dispatch records after noticing that the Chicago Police Department’s original case reportof the purported attack lists the address of occurrence as “341 E Lower North Water St”—that’s across the street and slightly east of Smollett’s home.
On Saturday, a 30-year-old woman who lives in a high-rise that overlooks the purported crime scene told CWBChicago that she believes she saw the events that Smollett described to police as a violent hate crime.
The woman said she returned to her apartment early on Jan. 29th after helping a friend move from the Gold Coast to Lincoln Park. “It was cold and everyone bailed on him, so it took forever,” she said.
Upon returning home, the woman saw three men standing on the corner where Smollett would later report being attacked.
“All I saw was three guys talking,” she said. “They were standing right before the staircase” that leads to Upper East North Water Street.
“I don’t think there was any problem because it looked like they knew each other.”
And she said, as she looked down on the men through her open bedroom window, she did not hear any screaming or slurs. “I heard trucks (two blocks away) on Michigan Avenue, but I didn’t hear anything from them.”
If the woman is right, she estimates that the actual timeline for the crime as known to the public is off. “10, 15, maybe 20 minutes off,” she said.
So, why’d she have her window open so early on a frigid Tuesday morning?
“Because I was smoking pot,” she laughed. “That’s why I haven’t talked to the cops, too.”