Attack on Empire actor a 'racial and homophobic hate crime,' family says

Jussie Smollett's family said Thursday that the attack on the black and gay Empire actor in downtown Chicago this week was a "hate crime," and they pushed back against any suggestion that he was anything but honest with the police.

Jussie Smollett's family also pushed back against suggestion he was less than honest with police

The family of actor Jussie Smollett has called the attack on the black and gay Empire actor a 'hate crime.' (Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP)

Jussie Smollett's family said Thursday that the attack on the black and gay Empire actor in downtown Chicago this week was a "hate crime," and they pushed back against any suggestion that he was anything but honest with the police.

Smollett, 35, who plays the gay character Jamal Lyon on the hit Fox television show, hasn't spoken publicly about the early Tuesday attack, though his representative said Wednesday that he was recovering at home.

Smollett's family issued a statement through a spokesperson Thursday saying they believe he was the victim of an unprovoked "racial and homophobic hate crime" and that he has been forthright with police, who are still searching for surveillance video of the attack. 

"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," the family said. 

They thanked the public "for their prayers" and said they are "so grateful that God saw him through this cowardly attack alive."

"We want people to understand these targeted hate crimes are happening to our sisters, brothers and our gender non-conforming siblings, many who reside within the intersection of multiple identities, on a monthly, weekly and sometimes even daily basis all across our country," the family said. "Oftentimes ending fatally, these are inhumane acts of domestic terrorism and they should be treated as such."

The family said such incidents will continue to happen until people are held accountable.

'A puzzle'

Detectives have recovered more surveillance footage of Smollett walking home from a Subway restaurant that morning, including video of him arriving at his apartment building with a rope around his neck, said police spokesperson Anthony Guglielmi. 

Smollett told police that two masked men jumped him on his walk home at around 2 a.m. CT on Tuesday. He said they punched him, subjected him to racist and homophobic insults, threw an "unknown chemical substance" on him and put a thin rope around his neck before fleeing.

Smollett's manager called police about 40 minutes after he got home, Guglielmi said. When officers arrived, the actor had cuts and scrapes on his face and the rope around his neck. Smollett later went to a hospital for treatment.

Detectives, who are investigating the case as a possible hate crime, have watched hundreds of hours of footage from private and public surveillance cameras, but gaps remain, and they still haven't seen video of the attack or men who match Smollett's description of his assailants, Guglielmi said.

Empire cast members from left: Smollett, Gabourey Sidibe, Trai Byers, Taraji P. Henson, Bryshere Y. Gray and Ta'Rhonda Jones pose with their award for outstanding drama series at the 47th NAACP Image Awards in California in February 2016. (Chris Pizzello/Associated Press)

The area is home to many high-end hotels and restaurants and has hundreds of cameras, so there are still many more videos for investigators to collect and go through as they try to get a complete picture of Smollett's walk home, Guglielmi said.

It is tedious work that is made more difficult because the time stamps on various cameras may not be in sync, meaning detectives have to figure out the exact times of events, he said. 

"It's like putting together a puzzle," he said. 

Guglielmi said Smollett and his manager told detectives they were talking on the phone at the time of the attack, but that the 36-year-old actor declined to turn over his phone records to the detectives, who routinely ask for such information during criminal investigations. 

Show will go on

Police are hoping to identify and talk to two people who were walking in the area at the time of the attack and whose grainy image the department released. Guglielmi stressed that the people are not considered suspects and that police want to question them because they were in the vicinity and might have useful information.

Chicago has one of the country's most sophisticated and extensive video surveillance systems, including thousands of cameras on street poles, skyscrapers and buses and in train tunnels.

Reports of the attack drew a flood of outrage and support for Smollett on social media. Some of the outrage stemmed from Smollett's account to detectives that his attackers yelled that he was in "MAGA country," an apparent reference to the Trump campaign's "Make America Great Again" slogan that some critics of the president have decried as racist and discriminatory.

The FBI is investigating a threatening letter targeting Smollett that was sent last week to the Fox studio in Chicago where Empire is filmed, Guglielmi said. The FBI has declined to comment on the investigation.

In addition to his acting career, Smollett has a music career and is a noted activist, particularly on LBGTQ issues. Smollett's representative said his concert scheduled for Saturday in Los Angeles will go on as planned.