The saga surrounding the alleged hate crime attack against "Empire" actor Jussie Smollett took a dramatic turn on Thursday amid multiple reports that Chicago police took two "persons of interest" into questioning, including one man who reportedly worked with Smollett as an actor on "Empire." A Chicago ABC affiliate and CBS Chicago reported Thursday evening that sources close to the case said police are investigating whether Smollett and the two persons of interest potentially "staged the attack."
"Multiple sources have told ABC7 Eyewitness News that police are investigating whether Smollett and the two men staged the attack allegedly because Smollett was being written off of 'Empire,'" ABC7 reported Thursday evening.
"Police are investigating whether the two individuals committed the attack — or whether the attack happened at all," Chicago police told ABC, the outlet reported in an update to its original report. Citing a source familiar with the investigation, ABC says that Smollett also "failed to appear for an interview with detectives earlier Thursday, but has since spoken with police."
CBS Chicago also reports that sources say police are investigating if the alleged attack was "potentially staged" by the "non-cooperating" persons of interest and the actor. "Investigators believe Jussie Smollett and the non-cooperating witnesses in the alleged attack of Smollett last month 'potentially staged the attack,' sources tell CBS 2 Investigator Brad Edwards," the outlet reports.
Earlier Thursday, multiple outlets, including The Chicago Tribune, reported that police had confirmed that they detained two persons of interest at O'Hare International Airport for questioning about their potential involvement in the case Wednesday night. One of the men reportedly appeared on "Empire," ABC News confirmed.
According to ABC, law enforcement officials say the homes of the two persons of interest were raided Wednesday night, noting that officials "removed shoes, electronic devices and other items they believe could help them determine if the two people played any role in the assault from those homes."
The outlet stresses that Chicago police told them they "cannot confirm any of those reports" and that no charges have been filed. In an update posted Thursday night, ABC reports that Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson contacted the outlet to clarify that the department is "continuing to treat Smollett as a victim and the investigation remains ongoing."
In response to ABC's initial report, Smollett's representatives issued a statement saying the actor "did answer routine followup questions for Chicago Police Department and continues to cooperate" and that he is not being written off "Empire." The outlet reports that Fox has also denied the "patently ridiculous" claim, stating, "He remains a core player on this very successful series and we continue to stand behind him."
Thursday evening, CBS Chicago's Charlie De Mar quoted a "top source" as saying, "We [investigators] believe the non-cooperating 2 witnesses are co-conspirators in a potentially staged attack" (post below).
"The brothers were returning from a trip to Nigeria, their attorney said," De Mar said in a follow-up report. "As they were picked up by police at O’Hare, officers were at their home, taking several items and leaving behind an inventory list of some of the items taken. The list includes a black face mask hat, an Empire script, a phone, receipts, a red hat and bleach."
Smollett, a 36-year-old openly gay African American singer and actor, told police that he was brutally attacked at around 2 a.m. on January 29 while walking home from Subway in Chicago's Streeterville neighborhood. According to Smollett, the two masked men hurled racial and homophobic slurs at him, doused him with an unknown chemical (believed to be bleach), assaulted him, and put a rope around his neck. Along with allegedly calling him "n***er" and "f***ot," he says they yelled, "This is MAGA country!"
But by the end of the first week of the investigation, police revealed that all available surveillance footage failed to show the attack. One piece of evidence emerged: a grainy image of two men dressed in dark clothing that Smollett said in an interview with "Good Morning America" Thursday were the two men.
Using the surveillance photos and, according to TMZ, "rideshare and/or taxicab records," police say they were able to identify the two persons of interest and track them the night of the alleged attack.
UPDATE: On Friday, police issued a statement to the press clarifying that the two men were being considered "potential suspects" and Smollett "continues to be treated as a victim, not a suspect."
This article has been updated to contain new developments in the case.