The Chicago Police Department said Saturday that it was seeking to speak further with “Empire” star Jussie Smollett amid reports that two brothers who were arrested and once considered potential suspects in an attack on the actor have told investigators they were paid to take part in a hoax.
Smollett has described an attack on him late last month in which two masked men assaulted him and yelled homophobic and racial slurs.
“After we spoke to the former suspects last night, detectives reached out to Jussie Smollett’s attorneys and expressed interest that we need to talk to him again,” Anthony Guglielmi, a spokesman for the Chicago police, said in a brief phone interview. He declined to discuss the reports that described accounts the brothers had reportedly made to investigators.
In a follow-up statement, Guglielmi said, “We can confirm that the information received from the individuals questioned by police earlier in the ‘Empire’ case has in fact shifted the trajectory of the investigation.”
Multiple outlets, including CNN, reported Saturday that investigators in the case, which was initially being explored as a possible hate crime, now believe that Smollett organized the incident.
Todd S. Pugh and Victor P. Henderson, lawyers representing Smollett, released a statement late Saturday saying, “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.”
The statement added: “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.”
The lawyers said Smollett would “continue to cooperate,” and they “have no inclination to respond to ‘unnamed’ sources inside of the investigation.”
One of the brothers had worked as an extra on “Empire,” and their lawyer, Gloria Schmidt, has confirmed that they both knew Smollett. The two men were detained Wednesday after arriving on a flight from Nigeria. That same day, the police raided their home and, according to CBS Chicago, removed several items including an “Empire” script, a phone and a black face mask hat. Initially, they were described as “potential persons of interest.”
On Friday, Chicago police referred to them as “potential suspects,” but by Friday evening, they had been released without being charged. The police still have not publicly said why.
The brothers, Olabinjo Osundairo and Abimbola Osundairo, could not be reached for comment. Schmidt declined to comment Saturday on the reports but said the brothers had completed their cooperation with the police.
Smollett has rejected skepticism about his account that emerged on social media after he made his initial report to law enforcement.
In that account, Smollett, who is black and gay, said that in the early morning hours of Jan. 29, he was attacked by two masked men who made a reference to “Empire.” He also said the attackers made a reference to “MAGA country,” an allusion to President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.” According to Smollett’s account, the men then tied a noose around his neck, poured a chemical substance on him and fled.
Investigators could not generate many leads on finding suspects. There was no surveillance footage of the attack in an area of the city that the police said was heavily covered with cameras. Days after Smollett first spoke to the police, the department released an image showing two men that they said were potential persons of interest; according to the police, those ended up being the two men they detained last week. That the men, who are of Nigerian descent, were acquaintances of Smollett, fueled further speculation about the circumstances of an assault.
A spokesman for Fox, the network on which “Empire” airs, declined to comment.
In an interview broadcast Thursday on “Good Morning America,” Smollett was adamant that his story was true. For weeks, law enforcement backed up his assertions, saying publicly that investigators had no reason to doubt his story.
“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 much more,” Smollett told ABC’s Robin Roberts. “A lot more.”
He said he was sure that the men in the surveillance images released by law enforcement were his attackers.
“Because I was there,” Smollett said. “For me, when that was released, I was like, ‘OK, we’re getting somewhere.’ I don’t have any doubt in my mind that that’s them. Never did.”
After news of Smollett’s incident broke, several celebrities and advocacy groups offered their support for the actor as the case received national attention.
On Jan. 31, two days after the reported attack, Smollett’s family members, several who are involved in the entertainment business, released a joint statement, saying: “We want to be clear, this was a racial and homophobic hate crime. 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.”
Even Trump weighed in from the Oval Office, saying that the attack was “horrible” and that it “doesn’t get worse.”
Smollett responded to Trump’s comments during the ABC interview: “I saw it. I don’t know what to say to that. You know, I appreciate him not brushing over it.”
This article was written by Deb Sopan, a reporter for The New York Times.