The Chicago Police Department announced Wednesday evening that Jussie Smollett, the actor at the center of a highly scrutinized case involving his alleged assault last month, is now considered a suspect in the criminal investigation for filing a false police report. Such an action would be a Class 4 felony.
Detectives also presented evidence on Wednesday to a Cook County grand jury, according to police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi.
The announcement arrives days after police said they wanted to speak again to the “Empire” star, citing new evidence that had “shifted the trajectory of the investigation.”
Smollett previously told police he was attacked around 2 a.m. on Jan. 29 by two individuals who yelled racial and homophobic slurs, tied a rope around his neck and poured a chemical substance on him. He said at least one assailant told him “this is MAGA country” during the alleged attack. Chicago police said last month they were investigating the alleged assault against Smollett, who is black and openly gay, as a possible hate crime.
Police have not publicly discussed the new evidence that prompted them to request a follow-up interview with Smollett. But they said the information came up in interviews with two individuals who were arrested by police last week and released Friday without being charged. Police say at least one of the two men – who are brothers and of Nigerian descent – worked on the Fox drama with Smollett, but declined to say whether the actor knew them.
In a brief phone interview Wednesday, Guglielmi said police had been in communication with Smollett’s attorneys as recently as Tuesday, but that detectives had not yet spoken with the actor. His attorneys have not yet responded to a request for comment on whether Smollett plans to speak with detectives.
There have been heightened doubts about Smollett’s allegations amid increasing news reports, which cite unnamed police sources, that Smollett may have staged the attack. In a statement late Saturday, Smollett’s attorneys said he had “been further victimized by claims” he “played a role in his own attack.”
“Nothing is further from the truth and anyone claiming otherwise is lying,” Chicago-based attorneys Todd Pugh and Victor Henderson said in a statement, which said one of the individuals who spoke to police was a personal trainer Smollett hired to help him get ready for a music video.
When details of Smollett’s alleged assault were released by police last month, celebrities and other high-profile figures rallied around him – some seizing on the apparently racist and homophobic nature of the alleged attack or the reported invocation of President Trump’s campaign slogan. But mounting questions surrounding the case has led to some unease.
“Why would he make it harder for people who actually suffer from hate crimes? It makes no sense. The lie is so damaging,” writer Roxane Gay tweeted Saturday. She previously wrote that she hoped Smollett “knows how many people are thinking of him and committed to holding this administration and its ilk accountable for this hothouse of hate being fostered.”
Some have also questioned whether Smollett staged the attack to prevent himself from being written out of “Empire,” a theory that 20th Century Fox and Fox Entertainment denied Wednesday in a statement that referred to the actor as “a consummate professional on set.”
But others, such as filmmaker Ava Duvernay, have expressed caution in believing the police department’s statements on the case: “Despite the inconsistencies, I can’t blindly believe Chicago PD The department that covered up shooting Laquan McDonald over a dozen times?,” she tweeted. “Whatever the outcome, this won’t stop me from believing others. It can’t.”
While police have not publicly said they believe the case is a hoax, Guglielmi told the Associated Press on Tuesday that police were investigating a tip that Smollett and the two brothers were seen together in the elevator of his apartment building the night of the alleged attack. Guglielmi, who tweeted Tuesday night that the tip was “unfounded,” said it could not be corroborated by video evidence.
(c) 2019, The Washington Post · Bethonie Butler, Sonia Rao