Jussie Smollett and Hollywood's History of Alleged Hate-Crime Hoaxes

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Portrait of Morton Downey Jr. with a backwards swastika on his face.

Very few hate crimes are fake — according to FBI data, they accounted for just 23 of the 7,175 such assaults reported in the U.S. in 2017 — but the industry does offer a few historical precedents.

The Jussie Smollett affair has turned a spotlight on a highly unusual transgression — the faked hate crime. According to FBI data, hoaxes accounted for just 23 of the 7,175 such assaults reported in the U.S. in 2017. Still, fabricated attacks are not unprecedented — particularly among entertainers.

He is a cultural footnote today, but Morton Downey Jr. was a sensation during the brief run of The Morton Downey Jr. Show from 1987 to 1989. The progenitor of trash TV mainstays like Jerry Springer, Downey refereed screaming matches between guests while blowing cigarette smoke in their faces. (Downey died of lung cancer in 2001.) By season two, viewers had grown weary of the shtick and were abandoning the show in droves. Then, on April 24, 1989, Downey stumbled out of a San Francisco airport restroom looking roughed up, a large black swastika scrawled across his face. A police investigation turned up no witnesses and no suspects — but did provide one clue: The hate symbol was drawn backward, as if Downey Jr. had done it himself in a mirror. Investigators concluded Downey Jr. had attacked himself. His syndicated show was canceled by July.

Tiger Woods also has been accused of making up a hate crime. According to his anecdote, told to Sports Illustrated and Barbara Walters and dramatized in the 1998 TV movie The Tiger Woods Story, Woods was a 5-year-old kindergartner in 1981 at Cerritos Elementary School in Anaheim, California, when a group of sixth-graders tied him to a tree, spray-painted the N-word on him and threw rocks at him. Woods said teacher Maureen Decker looked on and "didn't really do much of anything." In 2010, Woods' classmate Richard Romero came forward to insist the incident "never happened." Decker, now retired, sought the counsel of Gloria Allred and demanded "a public apology and a private apology." She received neither. Woods has stood by his version. A rep for the golfer declined to comment.

In 2016, British YouTuber Calum McSwiggan posted a photo of himself in a hospital bed hooked up to a tangle of wires, a bandage on his forehead. He wrote: "After one of the most wonderful weekends at VidCon we went out to a gay club to celebrate, and towards the end of the evening I was separated from my friends and beaten up by three guys." McSwiggan told police that the men yelled homophobic epithets. Claiming to have suffered three broken teeth, he accused the West Hollywood Sheriff's Department of treating him "like a second-class citizen."

The Sheriff's Department countered that it was unable to verify any aspect of McSwiggan's allegations. It turns out that McSwiggan had been arrested that night when "deputies observed him vandalizing a car." He was later observed "injuring himself with the handle and receiver to a pay phone inside the cell." McSwiggan pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years of probation and 52 anger-management counseling sessions and was ordered to pay $7,000 in restitution to the car's owner. Asked by theThe Hollywood Reporter if he might have any insights into what may have motivated Smollett, McSwiggan replied via Instagram, "Yeah I'm not interested sorry x."

But one vlogger with something to say about the Smollett case — and one who knows his way around a worldwide controversy — is Logan Paul. "In his mind, he didn't have it all. He wanted more," says Paul, 23. "And greed led to a foolish choice."

This story first appeared in the Feb. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.