Actor Jussie Smollett named suspect in criminal investigation

(Reuters) - Actor Jussie Smollett was named as a suspect in a criminal investigation into whether he lied about being attacked by two masked men shouting racist and homophobic slurs, Chicago police said on Wednesday.

Smollett, a 36-year-old black, openly gay actor on the hip-hop TV drama "Empire," ignited a firestorm on social media by telling police on Jan. 29 that two apparent supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump beat him up on the streets of Chicago, put a noose around his neck, and poured bleach over him.

"Jussie Smollett is now officially classified as a suspect in a criminal investigation by #ChicagoPolice for filing a false police report (Class 4 felony)," police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said on Twitter. "Detectives are currently presenting evidence before a Cook County Grand Jury."

Lawyers for Smollett, who has stuck by his story for three weeks as police failed to find surveillance video of an assault and suspicions of a hoax grew on social media, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Smollett's agent and public relations managers also did not return calls from Reuters.

Twentieth Century Fox Television, which produces "Empire," said it had no comment on the development. Earlier on Wednesday, the studio said, "Jussie Smollett continues to be a consummate professional on set and as we have previously stated, he is not being written out of the show."

TWO NIGERIAN BROTHERS

Last week, Chicago police questioned two Nigerian brothers recognized from surveillance footage near the scene of the supposed attack but released them two days later, without charge, in light of what investigators said was new evidence.

Local TV station CBS Chicago on Wednesday released a videotape it had obtained showing the two brothers buying a red hat and ski masks from a hardware store days before the alleged attack.

Smollett told police his assailants were white, that one wore a red hat, and that they shouted "This is MAGA country" - an apparent reference to Trump's campaign slogan "Make America Great Again" - as they struck him, the New York Times has reported.

Chicago police say the charge of filing a false police report carries a maximum sentence of up to three years in prison.

"Empire" has earned multiple Emmy nominations since its 2015 debut. Smollett plays the character Jamal Lyon, a member of the family that is the focus of the show.

(Reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York; Additional reporting Daniel Trotta; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Bill Tarrant, Chris Reese and Richard Chang)

02/20/2019 19:57

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