Chicago: US police on Wednesday accused a gay, black TV actor of lying about being the victim of a racist and homophobic attack on the streets of Chicago.
The alleged incident on January 29 initially seemed to confirm the worst fears of growing intolerance in America and led to an outpouring of support for actor Jussie Smollett.
But in the following weeks, the 36-year-old star of the TV drama “Empire” has gone from victim to suspect, and his case held up as a cautionary tale of rushing to judgment to indict the Donald Trump era.
Smollett could now face criminal charges for filing a false report.
“Jussie Smollett is now officially classified as a suspect in a criminal investigation ... for filing a false police report,” Chicago police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said on Twitter.
“Detectives are currently presenting evidence before a Cook County Grand Jury,” he added.
A grand jury could issue criminal charges.
Smollett reported to police that two masked men beat him on the streets of downtown Chicago while yelling racial and homophobic slurs.
He said his assailants poured bleach on him, tied a rope around his neck, and yelled “This is MAGA country” — a reference to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan.
Detectives grew suspicious of the account after interrogating two men who reportedly revealed that they were hired to stage the incident.
Chicago TV station WBBM said the men, brothers Ola and Abel Osundairo, claimed Smollett was unhappy that a threatening letter he had earlier received had not gotten enough attention.
Smollett has hired at least one prominent criminal defense attorney.
The initial news of Smollett’s claims led to wide-spread condemnation and shock. An outpouring of support came from public figures such as Emma Watson, Katy Perry, and Joe Biden.
Senators and Democratic 2020 presidential candidates Cory Booker and Kamala Harris both called the incident “an attempted modern-day lynching.”
President Donald Trump commented that the alleged attack was “horrible.”
But Smollett’s story appeared to unravel with a steady stream of leaks to US media, and has since become a cautionary tale in an era where incomplete information is quickly spread via social media.
“The symbolism of the crime as advertised was so awful that some observers showed little interest in verifying initial details of Smollett’s claim,” the Chicago Tribune newspaper said in an editorial.