CHICAGO — The investigation into black actor Jussie Smollett’s account of being beaten in a racist, anti-gay attack took a sharp turn Friday when police announced the arrest of two black men they believe assaulted the “Empire” cast member.
At least one of the men worked on the TV show, police said.
Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said authorities had probable cause to believe the suspects committed assault and battery against Smollett. But they had not been charged as of Friday afternoon.
Guglielmi would not comment on a possible motive.
Smollett, who is gay, has said two masked men shouting racial and anti-gay slurs and “This is MAGA country!” beat him and looped a rope around his neck early on Jan. 29 before running away. He said they also poured some kind of chemical on him.
The police spokesman said that there is “no evidence to say that this is a hoax” and that Smollett “continues to be treated by police as a victim, not a suspect.”
The two suspects, identified only as Nigerian brothers, were picked up at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport on Wednesday on their return from Nigeria after police learned at least one worked on “Empire,” Guglielmi said. He said he did not know what the man’s job was.
Guglielmi said police also searched the Chicago apartment where the men lived. But he said he had no information on what was found.
The police spokesman’s comments followed a furious 24 hours that included local media reports that the attack was a hoax.
Police said those reports were unconfirmed. And the producers of “Empire” disputed as “patently ridiculous” news reports that Smollett’s character was being written out of the show before the attack.
Smollett, 36, has said he was attacked while out getting food at a Subway sandwich shop in downtown Chicago.
Guglielmi said police have not found any surveillance video of an attack but continue to look. He said police also are contacting stores in the hope of finding out who bought the rope that was around Smollett’s neck.
In an interview with ABC News, the singer and actor said he didn’t remove the rope from around his neck before police arrived “because I wanted them to see.”
Smollett also said he initially refused to give police his cellphone because the device contained private content and phone numbers. He later gave detectives heavily redacted phone records that police have said are insufficient for an investigation.