After the better part of a weekend in which the Chicago Police Department was publicly careful about pushing back against news reports suggesting it was investigating the racist and homophobic attack against Empire actor Jussie Smollett last month as a hoax, the dam has apparently begun to break. CNN reports tonight that “two law enforcement sources with knowledge of the investigation” have now told them that the CPD believes the attack was staged, while an official spokesperson has issued a statement saying that recent witness interviews have “shifted the trajectory of the investigation,” and that they’re seeking to speak to Smollett once again.
Said interviews were with two men, reported to be brothers, that CPD picked up for questioning on Thursday after they’d been identified in surveillance footage from around the time and location of the attack. (One of them had also reportedly appeared on the Fox music drama, presumably as an extra.) Police released the two men today without charging either of them, noting that they’d cooperated with the investigation. The same unnamed sources that spoke to CNN about the wider direction of the investigation also said that the department had found evidence that the two men were the ones who’d purchased the rope placed around Smollett’s neck during the attack from a nearby hardware store.
According to Smollett, he was attacked on the night of January 29 by two men who apparently recognized him from Empire; he says they spouted racial slurs, placed a rope around his neck, poured an unknown fluid on him, and physically attacked him. His manager confirmed that he’d been on the phone with the actor and musician, who’s black and openly gay, during the time of the attack. Smollett went to the hospital that morning, and was quickly released.
Smollett gave an interview about the incident on Good Morning, America on Thursday morning, expressing his frustration at those who don’t believe it actually happened. (Meanwhile, he hasn’t commented on any of the developments that have taken place in the case over the last few days.) The CPD has yet to offer a motive as to why Smollett might stage an attack against himself; previous speculation that he was afraid of being written off of Empire has been firmly refuted by Fox, the show’s writers, and producer Danny Strong. Meanwhile, faking an incident like this will only make it more difficult for victims of hate crimes to be believed when they really do occur, an injection of lethal doubt that could carry an uncountable human toll; it’s not clear why Smollett would want that to be the case.
Update: Smollett’s attorneys have now issued a statement, vigorously denying the CPD’s (as yet unofficial) charges:
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. 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.
One of these purported suspects was Jussie’s personal trainer who he hired to ready him physically for a music video. It is impossible to believe that this person could have played a role in the crime against Jussie or would falsely claim Jussie’s complicity.
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.