About a dozen Chicago police detectives have been sifting through footage from nearly every surveillance camera in Streeterville these last few days, piecing together “a digital puzzle” they hope will solve what happened outside the apartment building of “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett.
So far they’ve tracked all but a minute of Smollett’s walk from a Subway shop to his apartment in the 300 block of East North Lower Water Street early Tuesday, according to Chicago police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi.
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Somewhere along the way, Smollett said two men walked up, yelled racial and homophobic slurs, hit him and wrapped a rope around his neck. None of that has been caught by any of the cameras detectives have checked. They did spot two people walking near the area around the time of the attack, but the images are dark and the faces are not clear.
Celebrities and politicians have condemned the attack and voiced their support for Smollett, who is black and openly gay and an activist for LGBTQ rights.
Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., has called on the FBI to investigate the attack as a hate crime. President Trump, asked about it at a news conference, said “it’s horrible. Doesn’t get worse.”
Taraji P. Henson, who plays Jussie’s character’s mother on the show, tweeted: “I wish what happened to my baby was just one big bad joke but it wasn’t and we all feel his pain right now. @jussiesmollett is pure love to the bone.”
But the lack of progress in the case has fueled some harsh skepticism on social media. Smollett’s family acknowledged this when they released their first public statement about the incident Thursday.
“We want to be clear, this was a racial and homophobic hate crime,” the statement said. “Jussie has told the police everything from the very beginning. His story has never changed, and we are hopeful they will find these men and bring them to justice. Our family thanks everyone for their prayers and the huge amount of love he has received.”
For now, the only lead police appear to have are pictures from a surveillance camera on New Street near Illinois Street, taken between 1:30 a.m. and 1:45 a.m. Smollett, who plays Jamal Lyon on Fox’s “Empire,” said he was attacked about 15 to 30 minutes later around the corner.
“They are outside on a street walking,” Guglielmi said. “They are in the area that we have determined it could have taken place… in the time and the area. It certainly leads us to have questions for them.”
Smollett told police he had just left a Subway when two men in dark clothes approached and yelled the slurs. Smollett told police he was hit and a chemical — maybe bleach — was poured on him. They put a rope around his neck and yelled, “This is MAGA country,” he told detectives. The initials stand for Make America Great Again, a Trump campaign slogan.
Police were called just after 2:30 a.m. A friend of the actor told responding officers that “a noose was placed over the friend’s neck.”
So far, police detectives have used at least three surveillance cameras to piece together what he called “a digital puzzle,” tracking the movements of both Smollett and the two persons of interest. Smollett is seen walking in one direction on a street and the two other people are walking the other way.
“One was going north and one going south,” Guglielmi said. There’s a brief time, possibly a full minute, that Smollett and the two people are out of range.
“They kind of all go off camera and reappear in different cameras,” he said. “You almost have to watch them at the same time” because each camera shows the same time stamp but from different angles.
There’s no footage so far of any attack, he said.
Guglielmi said footage from the apartment building is sharp and shows Smollett walking in with a white rope around his neck. “We can confirm that, yeah, it was a rope, tied as a noose. It was tied that way,” he said. “You can tell it’s a rope tied as a noose.”
Forty minutes later, as officers responded with their body cameras turned on, Smollett still had the rope around his neck, but it was untied. “It was draped around his neck still, but it’s not fashioned as a noose. It was loosely dangling rope.
Smollett went on his own to Northwestern Memorial Hospital nearby and was treated for lacerations to his face, according to Guglielmi.
The actor told police he was on the phone with his manager during the attack, but both of them have refused to turn over their phone records, Guglielmi said.
“Both the victim and his manager have made statements to detectives that they were on the phone with each other,” he said in an email. “We were not able to independently verify that because they did not turn over cell phone records to police when asked.
“That being said, we have no reason to doubt the statements given, and the reason that detectives requested cell phone records is because the manager and the victim have a financial relationship with each other,” he added. “Because of that, independent verification was needed for the investigation.”
Brandon Z. Moore, Smollett’s music manager, declined comment to the Tribune. “Nothing I can tell you,” he said by phone.
Guglielmi said detectives “still have a lot more cameras to look at. But now that we’ve got potential persons of interest, the focus will be following their paths. Where did they come from and where did they go?
“We’ve got a dozen detectives out there looking for leads, so anything can happen,” he said.
A week before the alleged attack, a letter containing white powder and making racial and homophobic threats was mailed to Smollett at Cinespace Chicago Film Studios, where “Empire” is filmed, according to police. The letter triggered a hazardous materials call but fire crews determined the powder wasn’t dangerous.
The FBI has since taken over the investigation into the letter while Chicago police continue to look into the attack, authorities said.
“Empire,” which premiered on the Fox network in 2015, is a musical drama that films in Chicago for most of the year. Smollett plays a gay musician.
Production on “Empire” resumed Thursday after Chicago’s sub-zero temperatures shut down filming of TV shows across the city on Wednesday. “Empire” filmed scenes at Cinespace, a source told the Tribune. It’s unclear if Smollett went back to work Thursday. A Fox representative declined to comment on filming. “Empire” was also scheduled to shoot at Park Community Church on the Near North Side, according to notices posted near the church, but there was no sign of filming there at mid-day. The church’s voicemail message indicated its office is closed until Monday because of the weather.
Signs posted Thursday outside a Northwest Side park said “Empire” was scheduled to film there Friday.
A representative for the Troubadour club in West Hollywood said Smollett is still scheduled to play a sold-out show there Saturday. Smollett released his debut album, “Sum of My Music,” last year.
Anyone with information is asked to contact Area Central detectives at 312-747-8380 or report it anonymously to cpdtip.com.
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