In a matter of seconds, the prosecutor in R. Kelly’s Brooklyn federal court case painted a harrowing picture of a musician who used his clout to commit unspeakable sex crimes. “This case is about a predator, a man who for decades used his fame, his popularity, and a network of people at his disposal to target, groom, and exploit girls, boys, and young women for his own sexual gratification,” prosecutor Maria Cruz Melendez told jurors Wednesday morning to kick off one of the biggest celebrity trials in recent memory. “That man, that predator, is the defendant, Robert Sylvester Kelly — more commonly known as R. Kelly.”
Cruz Melendez’s remarks were in opening statements for Kelly’s trial, where he faces nine counts in this case: one racketeering and eight Mann Act violations. (The Mann Act bans shuttling people across state lines for illegal sexual activity.) The Feds stated that Kelly’s racketeering “enterprise” extended from 1994 until his arrest in 2019.
Prosecutors maintain that Kelly’s alleged abuse was conducted as an orchestrated criminal enterprise. They are relying on specific alleged incidents of sexual misconduct — including his purported targeting of minors and psychological manipulation — to make that claim.
Kelly and his crew shared a “common purpose of achieving the objectives of the Enterprise” to prop his music and brand while bringing girls and women into illegal sexual activity, federal prosecutors stated in court papers. They contended that Kelly’s accusers “were not permitted to leave their room without receiving permission … including to eat or go to the bathroom,” and “were required to wear baggy clothing when they were not accompanying Kelly to an event or unless otherwise instructed by Kelly.”
In her opening, Cruz Melendez argued that as Kelly’s career took off, so did his pattern of abuse, saying that what “success and popularity brought him was access to girls, boys, and young women” across the country. After luring them into his world, she said, Kelly would use them sexually “to exert power over them.” Kelly allegedly often recorded video of his sexual encounters, to lord over victims so that they wouldn’t speak out. Sometimes, he had them write letters that were falsely self-incriminating, as another form of collateral, Cruz Melendez alleged.
“This case is not about a celebrity who likes to party a lot or about the defendant’s sexual preferences,” Cruz Melendez said. “The sexual conduct at issue in this case is illegal.”
“He began collecting girls and women as if they were things,” she said, “hoarding them … for his sexual and other needs …” He used “every trick in the predator’s handbook.”
As Cruz Melendez detailed allegations against Kelly, 54, he appeared expressionless. Sometimes he whispered to his attorneys; he could be seen leaning back in his chair at other times.
The first minor Cruz Melendez described in detail was the late singer Aaliyah.
“Aaliyah had a gift,” Cruz Melendez said, explaining that people thought she was talented and could rise to superstardom. She started to work with R. Kelly, then 27. Shortly thereafter, he engaged in sexual activity with the 15-year-old, Cruz Melendez said.
One night, in 1999, while Kelly was on tour, he learned that Aaliyah thought she was pregnant. This created a “huge problem for him,” Cruz Melendez stated, given that she was a minor. People would ask questions about her pregnancy, including: Who was the father? So Kelly and his cronies came up with a plan. “The defendant decided he needed to marry Aaliyah,” Cruz Melendez said.
Kelly thought that Aaliyah would not be able to testify against him if she were his wife. He flew back to Chicago in the middle of the night. Aaliyah was waiting for him at an airport hotel. They had a meeting. Cruz Melendez stated that Kelly and his team worked to gather information to make the marriage happen — which included getting identification for Aaliyah that said she was 18 years old. His tour manager paid a clerk, whom he knew, $500 to get this fake ID.
“In that hotel suite, the defendant, a 27-year-old man, married Aaliyah, a 15-year-old girl,” Cruz Melendez said.
An adult accuser in this case, identified by the name Sonya, allegedly met Kelly in 2003, at the Salt Lake City, Utah, mall. She was a radio-station intern and was given Kelly’s number; on a later date, one of his employees flew her to Chicago. When Sonya got to Kelly’s studio, “one of the defendant’s employees asked her if she needed condoms,” Cruz Melendez said, maintaining that the woman was there for professional reasons, not sex. Sonya was allegedly escorted to a small room.
“She soon discovered that the room was locked,” Cruz Melendez said.
Prosecutors said that Sonya spent approximately three days locked in that room, “pleading to get out, to go home, to get some food, to go to the bathroom.” Three days after she was locked in there, an employee brought her some “cold Chinese food and [a] Coke.”
Sonya “fell immediately asleep.” When she woke, she noticed a “wetness” between her legs and Kelly in the corner of the room, “pulling up his pants.” It was clear to Sonya that she had been sexually assaulted, Cruz Melendez said.
Some of Kelly’s victims were so terrified about Kelly’s wrath if they broke any of the rules — such as going to the bathroom without his permission — that they would “urinate in a cup,” Cruz Melendez said in her 45-minute opening.
Kelly’s lawyer, Nicole Blank Becker, presented a dizzying array of counterarguments in her opening, which were peppered with rhetorical faux pas. She told jurors that they would likely hear a “number of half-truths” and exaggerations from women who were motivated by attention and money, saying, “Some enjoyed the notoriety of being able to tell their friends that they’re with a superstar.”
She argued that Kelly, in fact, had a track record of positive romantic interactions; even when they ended, Becker said, he often remained friends with his exes. “You are also going to hear that some of these relationships that Mr. Kelly had — they were beautiful,” she said.
Becker also claimed that Kelly wasn’t shuttling people across state lines for illicit sex. She described him as a “man that had a very, very busy schedule.” When you work on the road, as Kelly did, “you bring them into wherever you’re working,” she said of romantic partners.
“We believe that you will hear that the relationships [Kelly] had with the Jane Does were consensual relationships,” she said. “These were individuals who knew what they were getting into.”
Becker also slipped up when explaining how the evidence she would present about his relationships would prove his innocence. She accidentally said “the girls” in reference to his partners, quickly correcting herself by saying, “Excuse me, the women.”
As for women being forced to urinate in buckets, Becker said that Kelly feared airplanes, meaning most of his travel was via bus; sometimes, a sprinter van without a bathroom would travel alongside the bus. So, she argued, urinating in a bucket or a bus wouldn’t be bizarre.
“Does that [seem] like what might happen in your vehicle when you drive on a long vacation?” she said rhetorically.
Shortly before court broke for lunch, as she was explaining why jurors would have to acquit Kelly, Becker had another misstep.
“You ultimately will have to find Mr. Kelly guilty — excuse me, not guilty,” she said.
At one point during Becker’s two-hour opening, Kelly actually appeared to doze off.
When Becker finally wrapped, around 3 p.m., prosecutors called their first witness — accuser Jerhonda Pace, who alleges that Kelly had multiple sexual encounters with her over the course of six months, starting when she was 16 years old.
Pace met Kelly when she was just 14 years old, at his 2008 child pornography trial in Chicago. An avid fan — she was in an R. Kelly MySpace fan club — she went to court on multiple days. She started talking to him.
“He would just speak to me. He would just say ‘hi’ to me. He said, ‘Thank you for your support,’” Pace said. “I said it was my birthday coming up. He said, ‘Happy early birthday.’”
She wound up getting invited to a party at his house in spring 2009, and later, was asked over privately. He told her to bring a bathing suit and to put it on when he came to meet her by the pool. Pace had told him that she was 19.
“He sat down on a lounge [chair] and he told me to walk back and forth and to remove a piece of my bathing suit each time,” she recalled. When she was fully nude, she continued, Kelly grabbed Pace and started kissing her. He then picked her up and took her into the game room. There, he performed oral sex on her, Pace said.
“I felt uncomfortable, and I told him I was actually 16,” she said.
Asked how Kelly reacted to her revelation, Pace said: “He asked me: ‘What is that supposed to mean?’ And to continue to tell everyone I was 19 and to act 21.”
Pace told him that she was a virgin.
“He told me that he was going to train me on how to please him sexually,” she said.
During her second day of testimony, on Thursday, Pace described Kelly’s predilection for youthfulness when they allegedly had sex in one of his recording studios.
“He recorded us having sexual intercourse,” she said. “He wanted me to put my hair up in pigtails and dress like a Girl Scout.”
Pace made the shocking claim when prosecutors questioned her about whether Kelly made any requests during sexual encounters.
Later, prosecutors asked Pace to read an entry from a journal that she had prepared in early 2010, at the advice of civil attorneys she hired after leaving Kelly that winter. The entry recounted the events of January 23, 2010 — the last day Pace allegedly went to Kelly’s suburban Chicago house.
“I went to Rob’s house and Rob called me ‘silly,’ he called me a ‘silly bitch’,” Pace recalled. Pace choked up while reading the diary entry — marking a departure from the calm and collected demeanor she showed on the stand throughout the duration of her lengthy, painful testimony. “Rob slapped me three times and he said if I lied to him again, it’s not going to be an open hand next time.”
“He spit in my face and in my mouth. He choked me during an argument. I had sex with him. I had oral sex with him.
“I became fed up with him. I went home and confessed,” she said, without specifying to whom she confessed.
This is a developing story and will be updated accordingly.
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