By Chicago Tribune Staff
CHICAGO — The two brothers being questioned about a reported attack on “Empire” star Jussie Smollett both know the actor from working on the show and also spent time with him at a gym, according to their attorney.
But Gloria Schmidt denied they had anything to do with the attack in Streeterville late last month as police sources said detectives are investigating the possibility that Smollett staged the incident with the help of the brothers.
“They are baffled about why they are people of interest,” Schmidt told CBS-Ch. 2. “It’s an awful thing that happened to Jussie, but it’s not my guys.”
Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi has emphasized that the two “are not considered suspects at this time” and has characterized as “unconfirmed” reports that the attack was faked.
A law enforcement source told the Tribune the two men, who are black and in their 20s, were brought in for questioning Wednesday night from O’Hare International Airport.
Guglielmi said detectives were able to track the movement of the men through cameras in the area where the attack occurred around 2 a.m. Jan. 29 in the 300 block of East North Water Street. He released no other details, but a source familiar with the investigation said at least one of the men was traced through his use of a ride-share service.
On Thursday night, no one answered the door of the brothers’ North Side townhouse. A neighbor said police officers were inside the townhouse Wednesday and that one of the doors appeared damaged. Another neighbor described the brothers as “aspiring actors.”
Smollett has told police he was walking back from a Subway shop toward his apartment building when two men shouted racial and homophobic slurs at him, hit him and wrapped a rope around his neck while yelling, “This is MAGA country!” Smollett is black, openly gay and an activist for LGBTQ rights.
On the day police announced they had taken the brothers into custody, Smollett gave his first TV interview about the incident and tried to end doubts that have grown about the attack.
“I respect too much the people — who I am now one of those people — who have been attacked in any way,” he told “Good Morning America” co-anchor Robin Roberts. “You do such a disservice when you lie about things like this.”
Smollett said he believes the two people captured on videos by police are his attackers, though images that have been released are dark and blurry.
“‘Cause … I was there,” he replied when “GMA’s” Roberts asked how he was sure. “For me, when that was released, I was like, ‘OK, we’re getting somewhere,’ you know what I’m saying? So, yeah, I don’t have any doubt in my mind that that’s them. Never did.”
A week before the attack, Smollett told police he received a threatening letter at work. Witnesses told police a postal worker dropped off the letter at the Chicago studio where “Empire” is filmed. It was postmarked in southwest suburban Bedford Park on Jan. 18 and bore two American flag stamps. The letters MAGA were written in the upper-left corner of the envelope.
Smollett said a stick figure was shown hanging from a tree with the words, “Smollett Jussie you will die black (expletive).”
“Did I make that up too?” Smollett asked in the interview with Roberts.
Police have not said whether they believe the two incidents are related, and so far they are being investigated separately: the letter by the FBI and the alleged attack by Chicago police.
Chicago detectives have sought Smollett’s phone records since shortly after he reported the attack because he said he was on the phone with his manager when it occurred. But police said this week that the records Smollett and his manager provided were redacted PDFs that were not sufficient for solving the case.
“They wanted me to give my phone to the tech for three to four hours. I’m sorry but — I’m not gonna do that,” Smollett said. “Because I have private pictures and videos and numbers: my partner’s number, my family’s number, my castmates’ numbers, my friends’ numbers, my private emails, my private songs, my private voice memos.”
He added: “I don’t know what that’s gonna be, to hand over my phone for — and honestly, by then, inaccurate, false statements had already been put out there.”
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