Empire star Jussie Smollett arrested in Chicago after he was charged with lying to police when he claimed he was attacked and beaten by two masked men shouting racist and homophobic slurs, Chicago police have said.
Smollett, 36, who stars in the TV drama Empire, ignited a firestorm on social media by telling police on 29 January that two apparent supporters of Donald Trump had struck him, put a noose around his neck and poured bleach over him.
Chicago police say Smollett, who is gay, turned himself in on Thursday morning to face a charge of making a false police report when he said he was attacked. Police superintendent Eddie Johnson plans to hold a morning news conference and Smollett is expected to appear in court later on Thursday. He was charged with felony disorderly conduct on Wednesday.
The charge could bring up to three years in prison. It could also force Smollett to pay for the cost of the investigation into his report.
In less than a month, Smollett went from receiving an outpouring of support for being the apparent victim of a hate crime, to being accused of fabricating the entire scenario.
Initial reports of the assault drew outrage and support for him on social media, including from California senator Kamala Harris and the TV talkshow host Ellen DeGeneres. Referring to a published account of the attack, Trump told reporters at the White House: “It doesn’t get worse, as far as I’m concerned.”
But doubts about Smollett’s claim started with reports that he had not fully cooperated with police after telling authorities he was attacked. Then detectives in a city bristling with surveillance cameras could not find video of the beating.
Later, two brothers were taken into custody for questioning but were released after two days, with police saying they were no longer suspects. Police announced a “significant shift in the trajectory” of the investigation last week after the brothers were freed.
The charge emerged on the same day detectives and the two brothers testified before a grand jury. Smollett’s attorneys met with prosecutors and police, but it was unknown what they discussed or whether Smollett attended the meeting.
In a statement, attorneys Todd Pugh and Victor Henderson said Smollett “enjoys the presumption of innocence, particularly when there has been an investigation like this one where information, both true and false, has been repeatedly leaked”.
The announcement of the charges followed a flurry of activity in recent days, including lengthy police interviews of the brothers, a search of their home and their release after officers cleared them.
Smollett, who plays a gay character in the hit Fox show, said he was attacked as he was walking home at 2am from a downtown Subway sandwich shop. He said the masked men beat him, made derogatory comments and yelled “This is Maga country”, an apparent reference to Trump’s campaign slogan, before fleeing.
Earlier on Wednesday, Fox Entertainment and 20th Century Fox Television issued a statement saying Smollett “continues to be a consummate professional on set” and that his character was not being written off the show. The series is shot in Chicago and follows a black family as they navigate the ups and downs of the recording industry.
The studio’s statement followed reports that Smollett’s role was being cut amid the police investigation.
After reviewing hundreds of hours of video, detectives did find and release images of two people they said they wanted to question and last week picked up the brothers at O’Hare airport as they returned from Nigeria. Police questioned the men and searched their apartment.
The brothers, who were identified by their attorney as Abimbola “Abel” and Olabinjo “Ola” Osundairo, were held for nearly 48 hours on suspicion of assaulting Smollett.
Police said one of the men had appeared on Empire, and Smollett’s attorneys said one of the men was the actor’s personal trainer, whom he hired to help get him in shape for a music video. The actor released his debut album, Sum of My Music, last year.
Smollett was charged by prosecutors, not the grand jury. The police spokesman said the brothers appeared before the panel to “lock in their testimony”.
Speaking outside the courthouse where the grand jury met, the brothers’ attorney said the two men testified for about two and a half hours.
“There was a point where this story needed to be told, and they manned up and they said we’re going to correct this,” Gloria Schmidt said. She said her clients did not care about a plea deal or immunity. “You don’t need immunity when you have the truth,” she said.
She also alleged her clients received money from Smollett, but she did not elaborate.