“This case is not about a celebrity who likes to party a lot,” assistant US attorney Maria Cruz Melendez told the jury on the first day of R Kelly’s federal trial in New York. “This case is about a predator.”
At many points during the hearing, the allegations against the disgraced R&B singer were difficult for witnesses to speak about. Dozens of women, and men, gave evidence, the full horror of his crimes officially made public following years of rumours that had been silenced.
R Kelly – once one of the biggest music stars in the world, a three-time Grammy winner whose chart-topping hits include I Believe I Can Fly, Bump ‘N’ Grind and Ignition – had denied all the charges, his lawyers calling his accusers “disgruntled groupies” and saying they were lying, arguing that any “relationships” were consenting.
However, the jury believed the survivors. Robert Sylvester Kelly was found guilty of all nine charges brought against him – one charge of racketeering and eight counts of violating a law which prohibits transporting people across state lines for prostitution.
Nine months on from the September 2021 trial, he has now been sentenced to 30 years in prison. He is also facing another trial in Chicago later this year.
Ms Melendez had told the jury in her opening statement in the New York trial that the 55-year-old used his fame to entice his victims and that he “dominated and controlled them physically, sexually and psychologically”. He was a “predator” whose fame brought him “access to girls, boys and young women”, she said.
Here are some of the key allegations from the month-long trial in Brooklyn.
Warning: This article contains graphic content.
Marriage to Aaliyah
R Kelly’s marriage to the late R&B singer Aaliyah in 1994 had been speculated about for years. Aaliyah was 15, Kelly 27 when they wed in a secret ceremony following the release of her debut album Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number, which he produced.
During the trial, the singer’s former tour manager Demetrius Smith gave evidence about the relationship – telling the court he bribed a government official to get a fake ID card.
He was forced to testify against his will after being given immunity from future charges.
Recalling the events surrounding the marriage, Mr Smith said he went into a welfare office in Chicago in 1994 and asked an employee who was taking ID photos if they “want to make some money”, before handing over $500.
The welfare card was one of two fake IDs used to allow the R&B artist to marry Aaliyah – full name Aaliyah Dana Haughton – after he began a sexual relationship with her and believed she was pregnant, the court heard. A marriage licence listed Aaliyah as 18.
Prosecutors said Kelly wanted to use the marriage – later annulled by Aaliyah’s parents – to protect himself from criminal charges relating to having sex with a minor and prevent the singer from testifying against him.
Mr Smith repeatedly told the judge during his evidence that he was uneasy about taking the stand, but did not give a specific reason.
However, after further questioning, he revealed how Kelly came to him during a 1994 tour and told him Aaliyah was “in trouble” and that he needed to get home.
Mr Smith said they rushed back to Chicago after a concert in another city so they could arrange the marriage, which was meant “to protect him and Aaliyah”.
Later in the trial, another witness told the court that she saw Kelly in a “sexual situation” with Aaliyah in around 1993 – when Aaliyah would have been aged 13 or 14.
The witness, a former backing dancer for Kelly, also said that he had sex with her when she was 15.
Aaliyah later died in a plane crash in 2001, aged 22. In January 2016, Kelly was asked about his relationship with the young star in an interview with GQ, but did not comment. “Out of respect for her mother who’s sick and her father who’s passed, I will never have that conversation with anyone,” he said.
‘He slapped me and choked me until I passed out’
Kelly’s trial in New York came after years of suspicions and accusations against him. Many of the allegations were featured in the Lifetime documentary series Surviving R Kelly, which aired early in 2019.
While some of the witnesses were not identified in the media, and were referred to as “Jane Does” in court, Jerhonda Pace, who is now 28, was one of the women who appeared in the programme and has spoken out against the singer publicly.
She was the first accuser to give evidence during the trial, telling jurors that Kelly invited her to his mansion and ordered her to take off her clothes when she was a 16-year-old virgin, and a member of his fan club, in 2010.
“He asked me to continue to tell everyone I was 19 and act like I was 21,” she told the court. When she told Kelly she was a virgin, he said that was “good” and told her he wanted to “train her” sexually, she said.
Ms Pace told the jury he knew her age as she had shown him identification, and ordered her to call him “Daddy”.
She said they saw each other for another six months, but Kelly grew more and more controlling and would become violent when she broke what she called “Rob’s rules”. She recalled one time when “he slapped me and choked me until I passed out”. Afterwards, he spat in her face and forced her to have oral sex, she said.
Ms Pace also told the court that Kelly would often record their sexual encounters and sometimes ordered her to wear pigtails and “dress like a girl scout”.
‘It was almost like the Twilight Zone’
It was not just Kelly’s victims who gave evidence in court, with former employees describing the things they saw while working for the singer, too.
Anthony Navarro, a trained audio engineer who said he worked for the singer for more than two years until 2009, told the court that girls stayed at Kelly’s mansion in Chicago for long periods of time but could not eat or leave without his permission.
He described the inner workings of the property where the singer had a recording studio, saying it was like being in “the Twilight Zone” and that it sometimes made him “uncomfortable”.
Mr Navarro told the court he never witnessed Kelly sexually abusing victims, but said his job included picking up and driving girls to be with the R&B singer, as well as other tasks associated with his career.
“There’s been times where they (girls) wanted to (leave) but couldn’t because they couldn’t get a ride or we couldn’t get a hold of Rob,” he said.
He recalled being instructed not to talk to girls at the house and having to tell people when girls were no longer in rooms they had been escorted to.
“The things you had to do were just a bit uncomfortable,” he said. “The music and production stuff was really good. All the other stuff was kind of strange… It was almost like the Twilight Zone.”
Victim who contracted herpes
One witness, known as “Jane Doe #5”, told the court that Kelly gave her herpes on purpose and assaulted her while she was underage.
She also told the court that the singer once beat her with a shoe. On another occasion, he forced her to rub faeces on her face and videotape it, she said.
Ms Doe also said she was coerced into getting an abortion after Kelly said he wasn’t ready to have a child with her.
The pair first came into contact in 2015, when the witness, then 17, was invited to Kelly’s hotel in Orlando, Florida, following a gig during which the then-48-year-old paid “a lot of attention to her”, she told the court.
Ms Doe said she told the singer she was 18 when they met – the age of consent in Florida – and said she wanted to be a singer and hoped to advance her career. However, Kelly told her he needed to be pleased sexually before she could audition, she said.
“I just wanted to sing,” Ms Doe, aged 23 at the time of the trial, testified. “I genuinely wanted his input.”
After the initial abuse, which involved oral sex, Kelly was said to have had sex with the victim on more than one occasion. At one point, the court heard, Ms Doe started experiencing pain during sex, which “got worse to the point where I couldn’t walk”.
She was later diagnosed with herpes.
“This man purposely gave me something he knew he had,” she told the court. “He could have controlled the situation.”
Doe said that when she revealed her real age to Kelly, he slapped her across the face but kept her in his life.
In notes that Doe wrote to herself to follow Kelly’s rules, she had written: “Tell Daddy everything.”
Kelly promised a 17-year-old boy fame in exchange for sex
A male accuser, who testified under the pseudonym Louis, told the court he was just 17 when Kelly promised him fame in exchange for sex.
He said the singer had lured him to his Chicago-area home in 2007 with a false offer to help him with his music career.
Kelly had asked him “what I was willing to do for music”, he told the court, and said he had replied: “I’ll carry your bags… anything you need I’ll be willing to do.”
According to Louis’s testimony, Kelly responded: “That’s not it, that’s not it”, before asking him if he ever fantasised about having sex with men.
He said that Kelly had “crawled down on his knees and proceeded to give me oral sex”, adding: “I wasn’t into it.”
He also said that, on another occasion, Kelly had snapped his fingers to summon a naked girl to perform a sex act on himself and Louis.
The teenage boy continued to see the R&B star because “I really wanted to make it in the music industry”, the court was told.
The witness who didn’t testify due to panic attacks
Kelly threatened to “f*** up” one of his victims before assaulting her in an incident that was recorded in 2008, it emerged in court documents submitted during the trial.
The filing stated that prosecutors wanted the woman from Florida, referred to as a “Jane Doe”, to testify at Kelly’s trial, but decided against it after she “started to have panic attacks and appeared to have an emotional breakdown” as she listened to the tapes.
While the recordings were played in court, there was no audio for the press and public. A video feed showed Kelly not wearing the headphones that would have allowed him to listen to the evidence.
On tape, the singer was said to be heard saying: “If you lie to me, I’m going to f*** you up.” In a second tape, he was allegedly heard threatening her and accusing her of stealing his Rolex watch.
“You better not ever… take from me again or I will be in Florida and something will happen to you,” he said, according to the documents. “You understand what I’m telling you?”
Kelly allegedly told his victims he had cameras and other recording devices “everywhere” in his Chicago studio and other locations.
‘I was scared. I was ashamed. I was embarrassed’
One witness was a former radio station intern when she met Kelly in 2003, after contacting his representatives about an interview. She told the court she was locked in a darkened room and believes she was drugged and assaulted by Kelly while she was unconscious.
“I was sexually assaulted,” the woman, now 39, told jurors. “It wasn’t something I invited.”
Testifying without using her real name, she said she was a 21-year-old single mother from Salt Lake City, in Utah, when she approached Kelly’s entourage.
She was invited to fly to Chicago and meet Kelly at his music studio, all paid for by the singer, the court was told. When she arrived, she was greeted by someone who made her sign a non-disclosure agreement, demanded personal information about her family and surprised her by asking if she “needed protection” – specifically, a condom, she said.
“No, I’m not here for that,” was her response.
The woman said she was told to wait alone for Kelly in a windowless room. When she tried to step out, she discovered that the door was locked from the outside and that, after banging on the door with no response, she needed permission from Kelly to go to the bathroom or anywhere else, she said.
“I was scared. I was ashamed. I was embarrassed,” she told the court.
Two days went by before she was finally given something to eat, she told the court. After passing out, she says she awoke to find someone had taken off her clothes and that she saw Kelly pulling up his trousers.
It felt like another few days passed before she was put on a flight home, the court heard.
As she left, an employee warned her not to “f*** with Mr Kelly”, she said.