‘Empire’ star victim of racist, homophobic attack in Streeterville, police say

Actor Jussie Smollett told police he was beaten by attackers who yelled homophobic and racial slurs while walking in the 300 block of East North Lower Water Street downtown. | Sun-Times/Nader Issa; AP

An actor from the Fox series “Empire” was the target of an alleged racist and homophobic attack early Tuesday in Streeterville.

Chicago police are investigating the brutal incident as a hate crime. Meanwhile, the FBI is separately looking into a letter threatening the actor sent a week ago to the offices of the television show.

The actor, 35-year-old Jussie Smollett, flew into Chicago from New York on Monday to continue filming the new season of “Empire.”

Smollett went for a late-night meal sometime after midnight at a Subway restaurant at 511 N. McClurg Court, police said. The actor was walking back to a nearby apartment about 2 a.m. when two people walked up to him in the 300 block of East North Lower Water Street, yelling racist and homophobic slurs, Smollett told police.

“The alleged assailants made racially charged comments to the victim implying that they knew he was a star from the show,” police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said.

They then hit him in the face, poured a substance — suspected to be bleach — on him and put a rope around his neck, police said.

Smollett initially was “reluctant” to call police because of the attention he would generate as a public figure, Guglielmi said. But his manager eventually called at 2:42 a.m., about 40 minutes after the attack.

When officers showed up at the apartment, the rope was still around Smollett’s neck, said Guglielmi, who described the rope as a “thin, light rope.” Guglielmi said the rope didn’t necessarily resemble a noose.

Smollett asked officers to turn off their body cameras while interviewing him, which Guglielmi said is standard for many victims, especially inside a home.

After taking Smollett’s report, officers encouraged him to go to Northwestern Memorial Hospital for treatment to lacerations on his face and neck, Guglielmi said. Smollett’s manager took him to the hospital, and he was later released.

Smollett initially told police his attackers were two men wearing ski masks and all black clothing. In a follow-up interview in the morning, Smollett told detectives the men also yelled “this is MAGA country” after they attacked him, according to Guglielmi. Smollett didn’t provide any other description of the men, including their race.

Police also haven’t found any video showing the attackers in the surrounding areas or any witnesses to the attack. Guglielmi said police didn’t have enough information as of Tuesday night to put out a description of the attackers.

The block where the attack took place has some parking garage entrances but no retail businesses. But police were able to recover video from various business, residential and police cameras in the wider area. A surveillance camera at the Subway shows Smollett at the restaurant.

More than a dozen police detectives, some specializing in hate crimes, are working the case. They asked anyone with who has information or witnessed the attack to call detectives at (312) 747-8382 or submit an anonymous tip at cpdtip.com.

Meanwhile, the letter that the FBI is investigating was sent on Jan. 22 to Fox and “Empire” offices and used “threatening language” toward Smollett, police said. The letter was laced with some type of white, powdery substance, according to Guglielmi.

A celebrity website, GrapeJuice.net, published a picture of the letter with the words, “You will die black f–,” written in letters apparently cut from magazines.

The FBI declined to comment on the case.

Smollett’s role as the gay son of a record company mogul in the Fox drama propelled him to fame after it debuted four years ago. Smollett, who is gay, has been active in LBGTQ issues. He also released his debut album, “Sum of My Music,” last year.

“Empire” co-creator Lee Daniels voiced his disgust over the incident and his support for Smollett in an Instagram video.

“You didn’t deserve, nor anybody deserves, to have a noose put around your neck,” Daniels said. “You are better than that, we are better than that, America is better than that.”

“We send our love to Jussie, who is resilient and strong, and we will work with law enforcement to bring these perpetrators to justice,”20th Century Fox officials wrote in a statement. “The entire studio, network and production stands united in the face of any despicable act of violence and hate — and especially against one of our own.”

California Sen. Kamala Harris, a 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful, knows Smollett personally and called the attack “outrageous” and “awful.”

“He is one of the kindest, most gentle human beings I’ve ever met,” Harris said Tuesday.

More from the Chicago Sun-Times



You must subscribe to access this content.
Please take advantage of one of our subscriber options to access more of our content.