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Police say 2 brothers being questioned in reported Jussie Smollett attack are now 'potential suspects'

Chicago Tribune

Update: Chicago police late Friday released two brothers they had been questioning about a reported attack on “Empire” star Jussie Smollett, saying they were no longer considered suspects.

In an unusual statement, Chicago police said Friday that the two brothers being questioned about a reported attack on “Empire” star Jussie Smollett are now “potential suspects,” and detectives have “probable cause” that they may have committed a crime.

The statement, tweeted by police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi, did not say what charges the brothers, both in their 20s, could face. A law enforcement source said they have been held since Wednesday night on suspicion of battery but have not been formally charged.

On Thursday, police were describing them only as “persons of interest,” and Guglielmi emphasized then that they were not suspects. It was not known what has changed since then.

Detectives tracked them down through surveillance cameras in the Streeterville area, where Smollett says two men shouted racial and homophobic slurs at him late last month, hit him and wrapped a rope around his neck while yelling, “This is MAGA country!”

Smollett, in his first TV interview Thursday, said he believes the two people captured by those cameras are his attackers. “’Cause … I was there,” he told “Good Morning America” co-anchor Robin Roberts. “I don’t have any doubt in my mind that that’s them. Never did.”

But police sources have said detectives are investigating the possibility that Smollett staged the incident with the help of the brothers, who according to their attorney know the actor from working on the show and also have spent time with him at a gym.

In his tweet, Guglielmi acknowledged that detectives “haven’t found any video documenting the alleged attack,” but he added “there is also no evidence to say that this is a hoax. The alleged victim is being cooperative at this time and continues to be treated as a victim, not a suspect.”

He said detectives were “working to corroborate the allegations and investigative timeline as our investigation continues.”

A law enforcement source told the Tribune the two men, who are black, were brought in for questioning Wednesday night from O’Hare International Airport.

Guglielmi said the two were spotted in the area of the attack, which occurred around 2 a.m. Jan. 29 in the 300 block of East North Water Street. He released no other details, but a source familiar with the investigation said at least one of the men was traced through his use of a ride-share service.

Both brothers, 27 and 25, have had run-ins with the law.

The older one pleaded guilty in 2012 to aggravated battery and was sentenced to two years of probation for a stabbing that occurred a year earlier about a block away from the brothers’ North Side home, according to Cook County records. The younger brother was ticketed for a DUI in 2015.

The stabbing occurred on May 6, 2011, according to police. A 17-year-old boy was walking when he was confronted by a group of five people who followed him, then beat and stabbed him. The victim was taken to Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center for treatment.

The brothers are of Nigerian descent. The oldest received his secondary education in Nigeria and the younger brother attended high school here, a few blocks away from their North Side home. They both played football for Quincy University, a small liberal arts college in western Illinois, and since then have offered online courses in bodybuilding.

Smollett follows the brothers’ bodybuilding page on Instagram.

The brothers are both aspiring actors who have posted auditions online, including a scene in which each of them were interrogated by police for a murder. They signed with the Babes 'N Beaus Model and Talent Agency in 2016, according to Don Underwood, one of the owners of the Hinsdale-based agency. They each appeared on an episode of NBC’s “Chicago P.D.” last year.

The younger one’s episode initially aired Nov. 14, while the 27-year-old’s episode premiered a year ago. They both had roles in the 2017 indie movie “The Worst Nightmare.” One of them also had a part in Spike Lee’s 2015 film “Chi-Raq.”

Neither brother has been credited for work on “Empire,” though the older brother said in a 2015 interview that he played the prison bodyguard for Chris Rock’s character. Rock guest-starred on the Season 2 premiere of “Empire” in 2015.

The brothers also have struggled with their finances, filing for bankruptcy in 2016, federal court records show.

They owed thousands in student loans — one owed about $85,000 and the other’s exceeded $39,000. But the two reported earning just $160 and about $140 a month, respectively, money they often earned with odd jobs, the records show. One of the men reported having $300 in investments, including a single share of investment giant Berkshire Hathaway.

The two also had a business, a party and decoration store that was established in 2015 but dissolved last year, according to state records. At the time the brothers filed for bankruptcy, records described the store as “operating at a loss.”

On the day police announced they had taken the brothers into custody, Smollett gave his first TV interview about the incident and tried to end doubts that have grown about the attack.

“I respect too much the people who — I am now one of those people — who have been attacked in any way,” he told “Good Morning America” co-anchor Robin Roberts. “You do such a disservice when you lie about things like this.”

A week before the attack, Smollett told police he received a threatening letter at work. Witnesses told police a postal worker dropped off the letter at the Chicago studio where “Empire” is filmed. It was postmarked in southwest suburban Bedford Park on Jan. 18 and bore two American flag stamps. The letters “MAGA” were written in the upper-left corner of the envelope.

Smollett said a stick figure was shown hanging from a tree with the words, “Smollett Jussie you will die black (expletive).”

“Did I make that up too?” Smollett asked in the interview with Roberts.

Police have not said whether they believe the two incidents are related, and so far they are being investigated separately — the letter by the FBI and the alleged attack by Chicago police.

Chicago detectives have sought Smollett’s phone records since shortly after he reported the attack because he said he was on the phone with his manager when it occurred. But police said this week that the records Smollett and his manager provided were redacted PDFs that were not sufficient for solving the case.

“They wanted me to give my phone to the tech for three to four hours. I’m sorry but — I’m not gonna do that,” Smollett said. “Because I have private pictures and videos and numbers: my partner’s number, my family’s number, my castmates’ numbers, my friends’ numbers, my private emails, my private songs, my private voice memos.”

He added: “I don’t know what that’s gonna be, to hand over my phone for — and honestly, by then, inaccurate, false statements had already been put out there.”

asweeney@chicagotribune.com

jgorner@chicagotribune.com

tswartz@tribpub.com

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