(Adds statement from Smollett’s attorneys)
By Dan Whitcomb and Gina Cherelus
Feb 20 (Reuters) – Actor Jussie Smollett was charged on Wednesday with lying to police when he claimed he was attacked and beaten on the streets of Chicago by two masked men shouting racist and homophobic slurs, police said on Wednesday as they sought his arrest.
Smollett, a 36-year-old black, openly gay actor on the hip-hop TV drama “Empire,” ignited a firestorm on social media by telling police on Jan. 29 that two apparent supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump struck him, put a noose around his neck and poured bleach over him.
“Felony criminal charges have been approved by @CookCountySAO against Jussie Smollett for Disorderly Conduct / Filing a False Police Report. Detectives will make contact with his legal team to negotiate a reasonable surrender for his arrest,” police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said on Twitter.
The New York Times, citing unnamed law enforcement sources, said Smollett had been indicted by an Illinois grand jury that found probable cause that he had staged the attack.
“Like any other citizen, Mr. 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. Given these circumstances, we intend to conduct a thorough investigation and to mount an aggressive defense,” Smollett’s attorneys, Todd Pugh and Victor Henderson, said in a written statement.
Twentieth Century Fox Television, which produces “Empire,” declined comment when told earlier on Wednesday that Smollett had been formally named a suspect in the case.
Earlier in the day, the studio said: “Jussie Smollett continues to be a consummate professional on set and as we have previously stated, he is not being written out of the show.”
Smollett has stood by his account even as police failed to find any evidence of an assault and suspicions grew on social media that it was a hoax.
Last week, Chicago police questioned two Nigerian brothers recognized from surveillance footage near the scene of the supposed attack, but released them two days later, without charge, in light of what investigators said was new evidence.
TV station CBS Chicago on Wednesday released a videotape it had obtained showing the two brothers buying a red hat and ski masks from a hardware store days before the alleged attack.
Smollett told police his assailants were white, that one wore a red hat, and that they shouted something about “MAGA country” – an apparent reference to Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” – as they struck him to the ground, the New York Times has reported.
Chicago police say the charge of filing a false police report carries a maximum sentence of up to three years in prison.
“Empire” has earned multiple Emmy nominations since its 2015 debut. Smollett plays the character Jamal Lyon, a member of the family that is the focus of the show. (Reporting by Gina Cherelus and Daniel Trotta in New York and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Bill Tarrant, Richard Chang and Peter Cooney)