Chicago police say they have identified two “persons of interest” in the assault case involving Jussie Smollett, just hours after ABC’s “Good Morning America” aired an interview with the “Empire” actor in which he described the alleged attack.
In the interview that aired Thursday morning, Smollett told Robin Roberts that he is “pissed off” following the racist and homophobic attack, which Chicago police are investigating as a potential hate crime.
“I will never be the man that this did not happen to. I am forever changed,” Smollett said during the interview, which marked his first detailed public account of the attack. Police say Smollett, who is black and openly gay, was assaulted around 2 a.m. on Jan. 29 by two “unknown offenders” who yelled racial and homophobic slurs, poured an unknown chemical substance on the actor and wrapped a rope around his neck.
Chicago police have not made any arrests and have not found video of the alleged assault, leading some people to doubt his account of what happened. Smollett, who wiped away tears throughout the interview, told Roberts he is angry about the assault and about people not believing his story.
“At first, it was like, ‘Listen, if I tell the truth, then that’s it, because it’s the truth,’ ” Smollett said. “Then it became a thing of, like, ‘Oh, how can you doubt that, like how do you not believe that. It’s the truth.’ And then it became a thing of, like, ‘Oh, it’s not necessarily that you don’t believe that this is the truth, you don’t even want to see the truth.’ ”
Smollett told Roberts that before the alleged attack, he had gone to a Subway restaurant shortly after landing in Chicago, where the Fox drama is filmed.
He was on the phone with his music manager, Brandon Z. Moore, as he left the restaurant. As he crossed the street, Smollett said he heard someone yell “Empire,” which he ignored. It was after hearing homophobic and racial slurs that he turned around and confronted a man in a ski mask.
Smollett said the attacker told him, “This is MAGA country” and used a racial slur before punching him in the face. “So I punched his a-- right back.”
“We started tussling,” Smollett said. A second attacker began kicking him in the back. “Then it just stopped, and they ran off. "
Smollett said his manager was still on the phone, which had fallen out of his pocket. He told Moore that he had just been jumped. Then, Smollett said, he looked down and saw a rope.
“I noticed the rope around my neck, and I started screaming,” Smollett said. “And I said, 'There’s a [expletive] rope around my neck."
Police previously told The Washington Post that a thin white rope was still around Smollett’s neck when they first came into contact with him, about 40 minutes after the attack. He told Roberts that he was able to give only a body description of his attackers because the entire encounter happened so fast. “It felt like minutes, but it was probably like 30 seconds, honestly,” Smollett said.
Smollett addressed reports that he initially hesitated to go to the police about his alleged assault.
“We live in a society where, as a gay man, you are considered somehow to be weak. And I’m not weak,” he said. “We, as a people, are not weak."
Smollett explained that he kept the rope around his neck and didn’t change the clothes he had worn during the attack because he smelled bleach and thought his clothes looked as if they had been doused with the liquid. “I wanted [the police] to see what this was.”
Police have not confirmed that the substance allegedly poured on Smollett during the attack was bleach. But the New York Post reported this week that its staffers found an “empty hot sauce bottle that was partially filled with a clear liquid that smelled like bleach” near the scene of the alleged attack.
A police spokeswoman confirmed that the bottle was found by New York Post staffers and that it was turned over to the police for analysis. The spokeswoman said that the bottle had not been discovered during earlier searches of the area and that the FBI would assist with the analysis.
The actor said he doesn’t “have any doubt” that the two people in the surveillance image released by police are his alleged attackers.
“I want that video found so badly” — for multiple reasons, Smollett told Roberts. “Number one, I want them to find the people that did it. Number two, I want them to stop being able to say ‘alleged attack.'
“I want them to see that I fought back,” Smollett continued, his voice breaking. “And I want a little gay boy who might watch this to see that I fought the f--- back."
“I didn’t run off. They did,” Smollett said, referring to his attackers.
Smollett has faced increased scrutiny this week amid reports that he gave redacted phone records to police. A spokeswoman for the Chicago Police Department confirmed to The Washington Post that they “received limited and redacted phone records from the victim.”
The spokeswoman said the records will be analyzed by detectives, who will follow up with Smollett if additional information is needed. She added that Moore, who police consider a key witness because he said he could hear the attackers over the phone, “has refused to let police examine his phone.”
Smollett’s publicist released a statement this week noting that “any redacted information was intended to protect the privacy of personal contacts or high-profile individuals not relevant to the attack,” something Smollett reiterated in his GMA interview. The statement emphasized that Smollett is a victim and that he has cooperated with police throughout the investigation.
“Jussie has voluntarily provided his phone records from within an hour of the attack and given multiple statements to police. Chicago PD has repeatedly informed us that they find Jussie’s account of what happened that night consistent and credible,” Smollett’s publicist said in the statement.
Earlier this month, Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson told Chicago’s ABC7 that Smollett had “been very cooperative and we have no reason, at this point, to think that he’s not being genuine with us.”
Smollett told Roberts that he believes some have doubted his story because he said his attackers referenced Make America Great Again, President Trump’s enduring campaign slogan.
“It feels like if I had said it was a Muslim or a Mexican or someone black, I feel like the doubters would have supported me … a lot more,” he said. “And that says a lot about the place that we are in our country right now.”
“I come really, really hard against” Trump, Smollett said. “I come really, really hard against his administration, and I don’t hold my tongue."
Trump was asked about Smollett’s attack in an interview earlier this month. “I think that’s horrible,” he said. “It doesn’t get worse, as far as I’m concerned.”
Roberts asked Smollett whether he had seen the president’s comments. “I saw it,” Smollett said. “I don’t know what to say to that. I appreciate him not brushing over it."
Roberts asked the actor, "If the attackers are never found, how will you be able to heal?”
“I don’t know,” Smollett said, as his eyes filled with tears. “Let’s just hope that they are. Let’s not go there yet.
“I understand how difficult it will be to find them, but we got to,” he added. “I still want to believe with everything that has happened that there’s something called justice.”