By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – The family of television actor Jussie Smollett, who plays a gay character on the hip-hop musical drama “Empire,” spoke out on Thursday to condemn the assault he reported suffering in Chicago at the hands of two men yelling racial and homophobic slurs.
Chicago police said detectives have been unable to obtain cell phone records to “independently verify” a key part of Smollett’s story – that he was talking with his manager by phone at the time he was accosted.
Smollett, an African-American who is openly gay in real life, has not commented publicly, but his publicist issued a statement attributed to his family that read:
“Our beloved son and brother, Jussie, was the victim of a violent and unprovoked attack. We want to be clear, this was a racial and homophobic hate crime.”
It added that Smollett had “told the police everything” and that “his story has never changed.”
But NBC News, citing police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi, reported Smollett himself had refused to turn over his cell phone or phone records to investigators to confirm the call to his manager.
“Cell phone records were not provided to investigators when asked,” Guglielmi confirmed in an email to Reuters while declining to clarify who failed to furnish them.
Guglielmi also said police had “no reason to doubt” the accounts of both Smollett and his manager that they were on the phone together at the time of the alleged attack in the early hours of Tuesday.
Late on Wednesday, investigators released a pair of images from surveillance video showing two “potential persons of interest” sought for questioning in what police said they are treating as a “possible hate crime.”
The two figures, seen only in silhouette, are pictured walking together down a dimly lit sidewalk between a snow-covered median strip and the side of a building. Police said footage from additional cameras was being reviewed.
Police accounts say Smollett reported two men approached him on the street shouting racial and homophobic slurs, then struck him in the face, doused him with an “unknown chemical substance” and wrapped a rope around his neck before fleeing.
Smollett took himself to a hospital but was not seriously hurt, police said.
The news spread quickly on social media, with many expressing outrage while others suggested the story was a hoax. In releasing the surveillance camera images on Twitter, police said detectives “are taking this development seriously.”
President Donald Trump gave further credence to the incident in remarks to reporters, saying the attack on Smollett was “horrible” and “doesn’t get worse,” Variety reported.
“Empire” debuted on the Fox network in 2015 and has earned multiple Emmy nominations. Smollett plays the character Jamal Lyon, a member of the family that is the focus of the show.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)