In another puzzling twist in the investigation of a reported attack on “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett, the Cook County state’s attorney recused herself from the case Tuesday as prosecutors in her office began questioning two brothers who had been possible suspects.
State’s Atty. Kim Foxx said little about why she made the decision to stay out of the intensely covered case, releasing a one-sentence statement through a spokeswoman that read: “Out of an abundance of caution, the decision to recuse herself was made to address potential questions of impartiality based upon familiarity with potential witnesses in the case.”
Foxx did not elaborate on the “familiarity” and did not name the potential witnesses. Her first assistant, Joe Magats, will oversee the case, the office said.
Hours earlier, two brothers who had been under arrest in the case appeared at the criminal courthouse to talk to prosecutors and detectives, authorities said. They and their attorney, Gloria Schmidt, were seen near the grand jury rooms Tuesday afternoon, but police said they did not appear before it.
Schmidt declined to comment as she left the courthouse around 3:40 p.m. Foxx’s statement was released around the same time.
Authorities have said they have more questions for Smollett, 36, after questioning the brothers while they were in custody for two days last week. The two men, aged 25 and 27, were released late Friday, hours after police had called them “possible suspects.” The Tribune is not identifying them because they have not been charged with a crime.
Smollett, who is African American and openly gay, has said he was walking from a Subway sandwich shop to his apartment in the 300 block of East North Water Street at about 2 a.m. on Jan. 29 when two men walked up, yelled racial and homophobic slurs, declared “This is MAGA country,” hit him and wrapped a noose around his neck.
Police initially said they were investigating the reported attack as a hate crime, but after talking with the brothers, Chicago police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said the “trajectory” of the investigation changed. A source said detectives were now investigating whether Smollett paid the brothers to stage the attack.
Information from the brothers allowed investigators to discover where the rope used for the noose had been purchased, according to the law enforcement source.
The shift in the investigation’s focus came amid growing skepticism on social media — doubts that Smollett addressed in a national TV interview and in a strongly worded statement after the brothers were released.
The statement said one of the brothers was Smollett’s personal trainer, the first time he has acknowledged knowing either of them. The two also reportedly worked with Smollett on “Empire.”
The brothers, who are also black, were taken into custody Feb. 13 after detectives tracked their movements on surveillance cameras on a quiet Streeterville street east of Michigan Avenue, where Smollett says the attack took place.
After the brothers were released from a South Side police station Friday night, their lawyer was vague about what information they turned over to police. Pressed about whether Smollett set up the attack, Schmidt said, “There’s still a lot of moving parts to this. ... I’m not part of Jussie’s defense. I’m not part of what’s going on with him. I can just tell you that my guys [are] innocent of the charge and they’re going home.”
A week before the incident, 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. Federal authorities are investigating the origin of the letter.
Jeremy Gorner and Megan Crepeau write for the Chicago Tribune. The Tribune’s Tracy Swartz contributed to this report.