Detectives investigating the reported attack on “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett have been questioning two people of interest seen in the area at the time, including a man who has an acting role on the show, according to law enforcement sources.
The developments come as Smollett gave his first TV interview about the incident and tried to end doubt that he was attacked in Streeterville more than two weeks ago by two men who shouted slurs at him, hit him and wrapped a rope around his neck while yelling, “This is MAGA country!”
“I respect too much the people — who I am now one of those people — who have been attacked in any way,” he told “Good Morning America” co-anchor Robin Roberts. “You do such a disservice when you lie about things like this.”
The same day the show aired, police interviewed Smollett again. They also questioned two people who were seen in the area where Smollett says he was attacked around 2 a.m. Jan. 29 while walking from a Subway shop to his apartment in the 300 block of East North Water Street.
A law enforcement source said the two men, brothers in their 20s, were brought in for questioning Wednesday night from O’Hare International Airport. One of them worked as an extra on “Empire,” the source said.
Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi emphasized that the two “are not considered suspects at this time.”
He later characterized as “unconfirmed” a report by WLS-Ch. 7 that the two men had staged the attack with Smollett who, the station said, feared he was being written off “Empire.”
“Media reports (about) the Empire incident being a hoax are unconfirmed by case detectives,” Guglielmi tweeted Thursday evening. “Supt Eddie Johnson has contacted @ABC7Chicago to state on the record that we have no evidence to support their reporting and their supposed CPD sources are uninformed and inaccurate.”
The Fox network, which produces and airs “Empire,” issued a statement insisting that “the idea that Jussie Smollett has been, or would be, written off of EMPIRE is patently ridiculous. He remains a core player on this very successful series and we continue to stand behind him.”
Smollett has said two men walked up, yelled racial and homophobic slurs, hit him and wrapped a rope around his neck. None of that was caught by the cameras detectives have checked so far, according to Guglielmi. The cameras did show two people walking near the area around the time of the incident, but the images are dark and the faces are not clear.
Guglielmi said the two men — who sources say are both black — were tracked down “through meticulous investigation.” The still video image that was released and “other cameras tracking their movement” played a role, he said. He released no other details, but a source familiar with the investigation said at least one of the men was traced through his use of a ride-share service.
On Thursday night, no one answered the door of the brothers’ North Side townhouse. A neighbor said police officers were inside the townhouse Wednesday and that one of the doors appeared damaged. Another neighbor described the brothers as “aspiring actors.”
Cook County court records show the older brother was charged in 2011 with attempted murder but pleaded guilty to a lesser crime.
During his first interview since the attack, Smollett said he believes the two people in the video are his attackers.
“‘Cause … I was there,” he replied when “GMA’s” Roberts asked how he was sure. “For me, when that was released, I was like, ‘OK, we’re getting somewhere,’ you know what I’m saying? So, yeah, I don’t have any doubt in my mind that that’s them. Never did.”
Celebrities and politicians have condemned the attack and voiced their support for Smollett, who is black, openly gay and an activist for LGBTQ rights. But there has been growing skepticism on social media, something Smollett addressed in the interview.
“I’ve heard that it was a date gone bad, which I so resent that narrative,” Smollett said. “I’m not gonna go out and get a tuna sandwich and a salad to meet somebody. That’s ridiculous. And it’s offensive.”
A week before the attack, Smollett told police he received a threatening letter at work. Witnesses told police a postal worker dropped off the letter at the Chicago studio where “Empire” is filmed. It was postmarked in southwest suburban Bedford Park on Jan. 18 and bore two American flag stamps. The letters MAGA were written in the upper-left corner of the envelope.
Smollett said a stick figure was shown hanging from a tree with the words, “Smollett Jussie you will die black (expletive).”
“Did I make that up too?” Smollett asked in the interview with Roberts.
Police have not said whether they believe the two incidents are related, and so far they are being investigated separately: the letter by the FBI and the alleged attack by Chicago police.
Chicago detectives have sought Smollett’s phone records since shortly after he reported the attack because he said he was on the phone with his manager when it occurred. But police said this week that the records Smollett and his manager provided were redacted PDFs that were not sufficient for solving the case.
“They wanted me to give my phone to the tech for three to four hours. I’m sorry but — I’m not gonna do that,” Smollett said. “Because I have private pictures and videos and numbers: my partner’s number, my family’s number, my castmates’ numbers, my friends’ numbers, my private emails, my private songs, my private voice memos.”
He added: “I don’t know what that’s gonna be, to hand over my phone for — and honestly, by then, inaccurate, false statements had already been put out there.”
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