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Focus of Jussie Smollett assault investigation has ‘shifted,’ Chicago police say

Chicago police have shifted the direction of their investigation into actor Jussie Smollett’s report of a hate-crime assault, a police spokesman said Feb. 16. (Video: Reuters)
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Chicago police say that new information in the case involving an alleged assault against Jussie Smollett has “shifted the trajectory of the investigation” and that they want to interview the “Empire” actor again.

In a statement Saturday night, police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said that the information was received in interviews with two people who were questioned by police and that the department has reached out to Smollett’s attorney to request a follow-up interview.

Chicago police said last month they were investigating an alleged assault against Smollett, who is black and openly gay, as a possible hate crime. Smollett told police he was attacked about 2 a.m. on Jan. 29 by two people who yelled racial and homophobic slurs, tied a rope around his neck, and poured a chemical substance, which he said he believes was bleach, on him. According to Smollett, at least one assailant told him “this is MAGA country” during the alleged attack.

On Friday, Chicago police said they had arrested two potential suspects on “probable cause that they may have been involved in an alleged crime.” Guglielmi told The Washington Post that at least one of the two men, who were later released without being charged, has worked on the Fox drama. Guglielmi did not confirm whether the men — who are of Nigerian descent and believed to be the “persons of interest” seen in surveillance images released by police last month — knew Smollett.

Surveillance video shows two ‘people of interest’ in alleged assault against ‘Empire’ actor Jussie Smollett, police say

“Due to new evidence as a result of today’s interrogations, the individuals questioned by police in the Empire case have now been released without charging and detectives have additional investigative work to complete,” Guglielmi said in a tweet Friday night.

Charges brought against actor Jussie Smollett have ignited debate about bigoted conspiracy theories, power and the country's handling of race relations. (Video: Taylor Turner/The Washington Post)

The latest police statement comes amid increasing news reports, which cite unnamed police sources, that Smollett may have staged an attack in the city last month.

“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,” attorneys for the actor said in a statement late Saturday. “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. … Jussie and his attorneys anticipate being further updated by the Chicago Police Department on the status of the investigation and will continue to cooperate. At the present time, Jussie and his attorneys have no inclination to respond to ‘unnamed’ sources inside of the investigation, but will continue discussions through official channels.”

Local outlets published reports Thursday evening that questioned the veracity of Smollett’s allegations. CBS Chicago — citing an unnamed “source with intimate knowledge of the investigation” — reported that investigators believe Smollett and two “non-cooperating witnesses” had staged the attack. ABC7, meanwhile, published a report citing “multiple sources” who told the ABC affiliate that police were investigating whether the actor and the “two persons of interest” had “staged the attack allegedly because Smollett was being written off ‘Empire.’ "

But in a tweet Thursday night, Guglielmi said the hoax reports were “unconfirmed by case detectives.” He noted that police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, who told ABC7 earlier this month that Smollett “had been cooperative” in the investigation, had followed up with them “to state on the record that we have no evidence to support their reporting and their supposed [Chicago Police Department] sources are uninformed and inaccurate.”

Twentieth Century Fox and Fox Entertainment also responded to the reports Thursday in a strongly worded statement: “The idea that Jussie Smollett has been, or would be, written off EMPIRE is patently ridiculous. He remains a core player on this very successful series and we continue to stand behind him.”

Several of Smollett’s “Empire” colleagues, including co-creator Danny Strong, also denied the show had considered writing off the actor’s character, Jamal Lyon, an openly gay R&B artist.

The hoax reports surfaced on the same day “Good Morning America” aired an interview with Smollett, who talked in detail for the first time about the alleged attack. Smollett appeared emotional as he spoke to ABC’s Robin Roberts. He said he was “pissed off” about the attack — and at critics doubting his account.

Jussie Smollett says he is ‘forever changed’ in first interview since alleged attack

“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.’ ”

The actor told Roberts he believed some doubted his story because he said his attackers referenced President Trump’s “make America great again” 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.”

Smollett also said some media reports about his alleged assault were inaccurate. He said he never told police his attackers were wearing MAGA hats. “I didn’t need to add anything like that,” he said. “I don’t need some MAGA hat as the cherry on top of some racist sundae.”

Chicago police released images Jan. 30 of two “people of interest” in the assault against actor Jussie Smollett. (Video: Reuters)

He explained some of the more scrutinized details of the case, including why he didn’t change his clothes or remove the rope from his neck after the attack (“I wanted [the police] to see what this was,” he told Roberts). Smollett also explained his initial hesitation — referenced in the police report — to go to police.

“There’s a level of pride there. We live in a society where, as a gay man, you are considered somehow to be weak,” he said. “And I’m not weak. We, as a people, are not weak.”

Jussie Smollett speaks out after alleged attack: ‘My body is strong but my soul is stronger’

Outside of acting, Smollett has established himself as an activist, working alongside organizations dedicated to HIV/AIDS awareness, civil rights and LGBTQ advocacy — a background he referenced while addressing the skepticism surrounding his claims.

“I’m an advocate. I respect too much the people — who I am now, one of those people — who have been attacked in any way,” he told Roberts. “You do such a disservice when you lie about things like this.”

Sonia Rao contributed to this report, which has been updated.

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