Detectives piecing together 'digital puzzle' in attack on 'Empire' star
World / 1 February 2019, 08:35am / By Rosemary Sobol, Tracy Swartz and William Lee
Chicago - About a dozen Chicago police detectives have been sifting through footage from nearly every surveillance camera in Streeterville [a neighborhood in the Near North Side community area of Chicago] these last few days, piecing together "a digital puzzle" they hope will solve what happened outside the apartment building of "Empire" actor Jussie Smollett.
So far they've been able to track stretches of Smollett's walk from a Subway shop to his apartment in the 300 block of East North Water Street early Tuesday, according to Chicago police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi.
Somewhere along the way, Smollett said, two men walked up, yelled racial and homophobic slurs, hit him and wrapped a rope around his neck.
None of that has been caught by any of the cameras detectives have checked.
They did spot two people walking near the area around the time of the incident, but the images are dark and the faces are not clear.
Celebrities and politicians have condemned the attack and voiced their support for Smollett, who is black and openly gay and an activist for LGBTQ [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer] rights.
Representative Bobby Rush, Democrat-Illinois, has called on the FBI to investigate the attack as a hate crime. President Donald Trump, asked about it at a news conference, said, "It's horrible. Doesn't get worse."
Taraji Henson, who plays Smollett's character's mother on the show, tweeted: "I wish what happened to my baby was just one big bad joke but it wasn't and we all feel his pain right now. @jussiesmollett is pure love to the bone."
But the lack of progress in the case has fuelled some harsh skepticism on social media. Smollett's family acknowledged that in releasing its first public statement about the incident Thursday.
"We want to be clear, this was a racial and homophobic hate crime," the statement said.
"Jussie has told the police everything from the very beginning. His story has never changed, and we are hopeful they will find these men and bring them to justice. Our family thanks everyone for their prayers and the huge amount of love he has received."
For now, the only lead police appear to have are pictures from a surveillance camera on New Street near Illinois Street, taken between 1:30 am [0730 GMT] and 1:45 am Smollett, who plays Jamal Lyon on Fox's "Empire," said he was attacked about 15 to 30 minutes later around the corner.
"They are outside on a street walking," Guglielmi said. "They are in the area that we have determined it could have taken place ... in the time and the area. It certainly leads us to have questions for them."
Smollett told police he had just left a Subway when two men in dark clothes approached and yelled the slurs. Smollett told police he was hit and a chemical - maybe bleach - was poured on him. They put a rope around his neck and yelled, "This is MAGA country," he told detectives. The initials stand for Make America Great Again, a Trump campaign slogan.
Police were called just after 2:30 a.m. A friend of the actor told responding officers that "a noose was placed over the friend's neck."
So far, police detectives have used at least three surveillance cameras to piece together what Guglielmi called "a digital puzzle," tracking the movements of Smollett and the two people of interest. Smollett is seen walking in one direction on a street and the two other people are walking the other way.
"One was going north and one going south," Guglielmi said. There are times when Smollett and the two people are out of range.
"They kind of all go off camera and reappear in different cameras," he said. "You almost have to watch them at the same time" because each camera shows the same time stamp but from different angles.
There is no footage so far of any attack, he said.
Guglielmi said footage from the apartment building is sharp and shows Smollett walking in with a white rope around his neck. "We can confirm that, yeah, it was a rope, tied as a noose. It was tied that way," he said. "You can tell it's a rope tied as a noose."
Forty minutes later, as officers responded with their body cameras turned on, Smollett still had the rope around his neck, but it was untied.
"It was draped around his neck still, but it's not fashioned as a noose," Guglielmi said. "It was loosely dangling rope." Officers took the rope and some of Smollett's clothing as evidence.
Smollett went on his own to Northwestern Memorial Hospital nearby and was treated for cuts to his face, according to Guglielmi.
The actor told police he was on the phone with his manager during the attack, but both of them have refused to turn over their phone records, Guglielmi said.
"Both the victim and his manager have made statements to detectives that they were on the phone with each other," the police spokesman said in an email. "We were not able to independently verify that because they did not turn over cellphone records to police when asked.
"That being said, we have no reason to doubt the statements given, and the reason that detectives requested cellphone records is because the manager and the victim have a financial relationship with each other," he added. "Because of that, independent verification was needed for the investigation."
Brandon Moore, Smollett's music manager, declined to comment to The Chicago Tribune. "Nothing I can tell you," he said by phone.
A week before Smollett reported the attack, a letter containing white powder and making racial and homophobic threats was mailed to the actor at Cinespace Chicago Film Studios, where "Empire" is filmed, according to police. The letter triggered a hazardous materials call, but fire crews determined the powder was not dangerous.
The FBI has since taken over the investigation into the letter while Chicago police continue to look into Tuesday's incident, authorities said.
"Empire," which premiered on the Fox network in 2015, is a musical drama that films in Chicago for most of the year. Smollett plays a gay musician.
Production on "Empire" resumed Thursday after Chicago's subzero temperatures shut down filming of TV shows across the city Wednesday. "Empire" filmed scenes at Cinespace, a source told the Tribune.