The Chicago police said Wednesday they now consider Jussie Smollett, the “Empire” actor who said he was the victim of a hate crime, a suspect amid allegations that he had actually staged the assault he reported in January.
Law enforcement officials said they had begun presenting evidence to a grand jury in what now appears to be a case where investigators believe Mr. Smollett falsely reported being attacked.
Mr. Smollett, who is black and openly gay, had told the police that, while walking in downtown Chicago, he had been confronted by masked white men who hurled homophobic and racial slurs at him, and announced it was “MAGA country,” a reference to President Trump’s campaign slogan.
[A timeline of the Jussie Smollett case.]
The statement from the Chicago Police Department said: “Jussie Smollett is now officially classified as a suspect in a criminal investigation by #ChicagoPolice for filing a false police report (Class 4 felony). Detectives are currently presenting evidence before a Cook County Grand Jury.”
Mr. Smollett had received an immediate outpouring of public support. Many cited his account as an example of another in a rising tide of hate crimes, which the F.B.I. reported last fall had increased for the third straight year.
But the change in thinking by investigators has unleashed a barrage of criticism toward the news media, politicians and activists who many critics said were too quick to embrace a sketchy account in their drive to tarnish the president.
Mr. Smollett has continued to vehemently insist that the incident occurred just as he reported it. A representative for him said that she was “aware of the news” but had no further comment.
But from the start, investigators have had difficulty corroborating Mr. Smollett’s story, even with about a dozen detectives assigned to the case. Questions quickly rose about whether the incident had occurred in the way Mr. Smollett described.
No surveillance cameras caught the attack. There were no witnesses. He had not reported it from the scene, and was still wearing a noose that he said the perpetrators had placed around his neck when he got home.
Investigators, though, were able to track two men who appeared on video footage not far from the scene that night. Using ride share data, they discovered the two men were brothers who in fact knew Mr. Smollett. One had acted as an extra on “Empire.”
The police initially identified the brothers as possible suspects in the attack, but then released them after, anonymous law enforcement officials were quoted as saying, the men said Mr. Smollett had staged the attack and paid them a reported $3,500 to participate in it.
The brothers, Olabinjo and Abimbola Osundairo, of Nigerian descent, were brought in as witnesses to the grand jury Wednesday evening with their attorney.
Filing a false police report in Illinois is technically referred to as disorderly conduct and can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony. In Mr. Smollett’s case, the police statement said that the grand jury was considering a felony count, which carries a maximum sentence of three years in prison.
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