Empire star Jussie Smollett had maintained he'd been the target of a hate crime in the alleged attack near his Chicago home

By Jeff Truesdell
February 20, 2019 05:49 PM
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Empire actor Jussie Smollett is now considered a suspect as investigators look into whether he filed a false report alleging he was attacked on the street in Chicago by two black-clad men spewing racist and homophobic slurs, police confirmed Wednesday.

“Jussie Smollett is now officially classified as a suspect in a criminal investigation by #ChicagoPolice for filing a false police report. Detectives are currently presenting evidence before a Cook County Grand Jury,” police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi wrote in a tweet.

Police named Smollett as a suspect after confirming to PEOPLE that he was questioned again Wednesday by prosecutors from the Cook County District Attorney’s Office.

The initial report about the alleged attack raised alarm: The openly gay black actor, singer and activist, told police he’d been physically attacked on the street in his downtown Chicago neighborhood around 2 a.m. on Jan. 29 by two black-clad, masked men who hurled racist and homophobic slurs, doused him with an “unknown chemical substance” and left him with a rope around his neck.

“This is MAGA country,” at least one assailant allegedly said, invoking President Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan perceived by some as a discriminatory dismissal of minorities and immigrants. Smollett’s family branded the incident a racial and homophobic hate crime, and others on social media followed suit.

Credit: Leon Bennett/Getty

From the start, police conceded they faced challenges verifying Smollett’s report.

Hundreds of hours of surveillance camera footage reviewed by authorities included images of Smollett walking on the street. But nothing captured the alleged attack, which the Empire actor, 36, said occurred after he left a 24-hour Subway restaurant near his Streeterville apartment amid one of the city’s coldest spells on record.

The alleged incident also followed reports that Smollett had been the target of a threatening letter mailed to his TV show’s Chicago set, and containing a white powder that was found to be crushed-up aspirin.

As doubts about the Chicago attack began to swirl on social media, Smollett’s family defended him with a statement that insisted “has told the police everything” and “his story has never changed.” Smollett said in his own statement on Feb. 1 that he had been “100 percent factual and consistent on every level.”

On Wednesday, shortly before Guglielmi’s tweet about the actor being considered a suspect, Smollett’s brothers Jocqui and Jake shared a statement that read: “Remember to THINK, check your own prejudice, and truly inform yourself before jumping to conclusions and spreading untruths, saying things you’ll regret, and making cruel harmful jokes #justiceforjussie.”

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Police previously said the actor had shared only some of the phone records they’d requested, which Smollett said he’d redacted to protect the privacy of his personal contacts.

From the surveillance videos, police obtained and released images of two people on the street they portrayed as “persons of interest.” But after detaining two men on Feb. 13 — they were identified by multiple outlets as Nigerian brothers Ola and Abel Osundairo, at least one of whom had worked on Empirepolice released them on Feb. 15 without charges “due to new evidence,” police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi wrote in a tweet.

“We can confirm that the information received from the individuals questioned by police earlier in the Empire case has, in fact, shifted the trajectory of the investigation,” he said in a statement Saturday to the Associated Press.

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Police confirmed they’d pursued a tip alleging that Smollett was spotted in the elevator of his apartment building on the night of the attack with the two men, but concluded it was “unfounded,” according to Guglielmi.

But police declined PEOPLE’s request to comment on multiple reports claiming the brothers said they were paid by Smollett to stage the incident, or that they’d rehearsed it.

A spokesman in Chicago for the FBI — which investigates threats delivered through the U.S. Postal Service — also declined PEOPLE’s request on Wednesday to address reports that Smollett might have had a role a part in creating or sending the threatening letter.

Police said that have continued to reach out to the actor for clarification.

“While we are not in a position to confirm, deny or comment on the validity of what’s been unofficially released, there are some developments in this investigation and detectives have some follow-ups to complete which include speaking to the individual who reported the incident,” Guglielmi tweeted on Sunday.

Credit: Jerod Harris/Getty

A day earlier, Smollett defended himself against the claims attributed to the brothers while acknowledging that he knew the two men. An attorney for the men, Gloria Schmidt, previously told CBS Chicago that the men know Smollett from working on Empire and occasionally go to the same gym as the actor. She did not immediately respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment.

“As a victim of a hate crime who has cooperated with the police investigation, Jussie Smollett is angered and devastated by recent reports that the perpetrators are individuals he is familiar with,” according to a statement from his lawyers. “He has now been further victimized by claims attributed to these alleged perpetrators that Jussie played a role in his own attack. Nothing is further from the truth and anyone claiming otherwise is lying.”

“One of these purported suspects was Jussie’s personal trainer who he hired to ready him physically for a music video,” the statement continued. “It is impossible to believe that this person could have played a role in the crime against Jussie or would falsely claim Jussie’s complicity.”

As questions about Smollett’s claims continued to reverberate Wednesday, 20th Century Fox Television and Fox Entertainment issued a statement in support of the actor.

“Jussie Smollett continues to be a consummate professional on set and as we have previously stated, he is not being written out of the show,” it said.

Smollett’s reps have not returned previous inquiries from PEOPLE. A person answering the phone at the offices of attorney Mark Geragos would not confirm Geragos is representing Smollett.

Fox had no comment regarding Smollett being considered a suspect. “We are currently shooting season 5. We have two episodes remaining to shoot,” Fox said in a statement to PEOPLE about the current filming schedule.