crime

The Most Harrowing Testimony From R. Kelly’s Trial

R. Kelly Photo: E. JASON WAMBSGANS/AFP via Getty Images

Over nearly three decades, rumors of R. Kelly’s predation crystallized into an open secret. Somehow, the singer’s reputation withstood a brief marriage to a teenager in the ’90s and a video of him seemingly having sex with (and urinating on) a different minor in the early aughts that resulted in child-pornography charges. (He was later cleared of those charges by a jury in 2008.) But then, in 2017, journalist Jim DeRogatis published a bombshell investigation with BuzzFeed: For years, DeRogatis reported, Kelly full name Robert Sylvester Kelly used his own concerts as recruiting grounds for his “sex cult,” luring girls away from their families and holding them at his homes all around the country. Often, the victims’ parents believed the singer brainwashed their children, sequestering them from the outside world and dictating every detail of their lives, from diet to meal times to hygiene schedules. Lifetime’s 2019 documentary Surviving R. Kelly renewed scrutiny, and this time, criminal investigations followed.

In July of that year, federal prosecutors in Cook County, Illinois, and in Brooklyn announced indictments. And after two years of delays, Kelly’s New York charges — for racketeering, sex trafficking, bribery, and sexual-abuse allegations from more than a dozen victims whom prosecutors believe Kelly snared in an organized criminal enterprise — went to trial on August 18. On September 27, the jury announced its verdict: guilty on all counts. Given the testimony from 45 of the prosecution’s witnesses, this isn’t completely surprising, even if it does feel overdue. In 2008, a jury quickly cleared Kelly of any wrongdoing in a child pornography case without hearing from any of Kelly’s alleged victims. This time around, we heard testimony from both women and men Kelly abused along with former business associates, medical professionals, and even a minister. Here are the biggest moments from the trial.

One witness recalled being “slapped and choked” until she lost consciousness.

On August 18, the opening day of Kelly’s trial, 28-year-old Jerhonda Pace took the stand, accusing Kelly of sexually, physically, and emotionally abusing her, starting when she was 16 and a virgin. Pace said she met Kelly around 2008, and though she initially lied about her age, she told him she was a minor the following year, feeling “uncomfortable” as he performed oral sex on her. He “told me to tell everyone I was 19 — and to act 21,” she told the court, adding that he “train[ed] her to satisfy his sexual preferences.” Pace said she had to abide by “Rob’s rules” — call him “Daddy,” do not leave any room without his permission, always acknowledge his entrance — and that the failure to do so came with brutal consequences.

“He slapped me and choked me until I passed out,” Pace said, recalling one instance when she failed to meet Kelly’s greeting standards. “I remember him just putting his hand around my neck.” And before he allegedly forced her into sex, she said, “[he] spit in my face and told me to put my head down in shame.”

Pace also said that Kelly confiscated her cell phone. “He didn’t want me in contact with anyone but him,” she explained. “I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone I was spending time with him.” She also recalled Kelly filming them having sex, and said he wanted her to “put [her] hair up in pigtails and dress like a Girl Scout.”

R. Kelly’s longtime physician provided a timeline on the singer’s herpes diagnosis.

On August 19, Kelly’s physician of 25 years, Kris McGrath, took the stand. McGrath testified that he believes Kelly had been infected with herpes as early as 2000, despite receiving negative test results at the time, and that he treated the singer for the STI starting in 2007 — calling in pharmacy orders for Valtrax so often, McGrath said, “I had memorized the number to that Walgreens,” before reciting it. McGrath explained that he told Kelly in June 2000 to “inform your sexual partners so they can make a decision whether or not to have sex with you.” That Kelly hid his infection status from his victims fits with prosecutors’ case, and he would have been legally obligated to tell any partners about his diagnosis before sex.

A former assistant testified to Kelly’s strict house rules.

On August 20, Anthony Navarro, a former low-level assistant for Kelly starting in 2007, compared the environment at Kelly’s Illinois mansion to The Twilight Zone. “You went into the gate and it was just a different world. Just a strange place,” Navarro said. He allegedly chauffeured women at Kelly’s direction, but said he was “not supposed to talk to them.” Still, Navarro said, the women “had to get permission to do most things they wanted” and were not allowed to walk around Kelly’s home at will. “The general rule was if they’re not where they’re supposed to be, you’d have to call Rob (or a manager).”

His former tour manager said he helped Kelly procure fake ID for Aaliyah.

Kelly’s former tour manager, Demetrius Smith, has also taken the stand. On August 23, he weighed in on the singer’s marriage to minor Aaliyah, saying “it shouldn’t have happened. It was wrong.” Smith, who received immunity in exchange for his compulsory testimony, told the jury that he helped Kelly get fake identification — a welfare card and an ID claiming she worked for a courier company — for the teen after Kelly told him she was pregnant and he was “concerned” about the legal ramifications if he were discovered to be the father. Smith said Kelly wanted the marriage to “protect himself” and “to protect Aaliyah” from having to testify against him. They married in a hotel room in Rosemont, Illinois, on August 31, 1994 — the jury reportedly saw a marriage certificate listing Aaliyah’s age as 18.

Another woman said Kelly pressured her into an abortion when she was a teenager.

One woman, who reportedly defended Kelly until 2019, told jurors that he pressured and coerced her into getting an abortion she didn’t want in 2017. “He said, ‘You need to look into that abortion stuff because you need to keep that body,” the woman, now going as Jane, recalled. At that point, she was 18, and said he dangled the prospect of starting a family once “he got rid of the rest of the girls,” and also scolded her via text, calling her “hard-headed” and immature. Ultimately, one of Kelly’s assistants took her to the appointment.

Yet Kelly’s alleged mistreatment didn’t stop there. Jane said she was 17 when she met him at a music festival in 2015. She was allegedly given his phone number and invited to his hotel room for an audition. “I just wanted to sing,” she said, but Kelly “continuously tried and peer pressured” her to have sex with him. Jane relented, and said they had sexual contact on a near-daily basis for the next few months, as Kelly brought her with him all across the country. When she told him she needed to go back to school, Kelly allegedly arranged for her to be home-schooled with him in Chicago. She says she lived under strict rules — stay “beautiful” and “innocent” for him, wear loose clothing, accept that “anything Daddy says is to help me,” and never argue with him — and physical abuse if he perceived pushback. She told the jury he once locked her in a room for three or four days when he deemed her clothes too tight, and that he would viciously beat and spank her (once with a shoe) to the point that she could feel her “skin tear.” During periods of confinement, she said, Kelly often left her a large cup from a gas-station soda fountain to pee in.

Jane also accused Kelly of giving her genital herpes, saying she received her diagnosis at age 17 after experiencing extreme internal discomfort during sex. “It got to the point I couldn’t physically even walk,” she testified, adding that when she told Kelly, he “was agitated and told me I could have gotten that from anyone. I told him I had only been intimate with him.” When the outbreaks worsened and interfered with sex, he allegedly told her she was “broken.”

Taking the stand again on Tuesday, Jane added that Kelly made her have sex with someone he called “Nephew” on several occasions, including once as punishment for rule-breaking. That time, she testified, he filmed her on an iPad, providing explicit directions: “He wanted me to please ‘Nephew’ the same way I would please him,” she said. Other times, he would watch or even join in. Jane told prosecutors she “never” wanted to have sex with this person, but Kelly’s attorneys painted the woman’s involvement as voluntary: “After being violated, devastated and outraged, you flew out to meet him?”

But Jane said Kelly required her to produce blackmail material — letters claiming she’d stolen jewelry or money from the singer — as “insurance” against her seeking outside help. He also allegedly told her and his other victims that they “did not mean anything to” their families, discouraging them from trying to go home. Though Jane publicly defended Kelly in a 2019 interview with Gayle King after the Lifetime documentary (which the woman says they were not allowed to watch) aired, she told jurors that he coached her and others on the “proper,” often false, responses. Jane admitted she lied during the interview, which she said Kelly supervised. “He did a cough that he usually does,” she explained, “letting us know that he was in the room with us.”

But arguably the most astounding detail from Jane’s testimony so far is her allegation that Kelly forced her to smear feces on her face and “put it in my mouth and act like I liked, enjoyed that.” Jane said Kelly filmed the scene as punishment, and that he threatened to make her do another take because she didn’t seem “into it enough.”

A third woman said Kelly didn’t understand why his preference for ‘very young girls’ was a problem.

Testimony from a third woman — Stephanie, who says she met Kelly in 1999, when she was 17 and he was 32 — backed up much of what the previous two women to take the stand said. On August 26, Stephanie told jurors that someone initially approached her in a McDonald’s and gave her Kelly’s number. She didn’t pursue it at the time, but a year later, she approached Kelly at an event, on behalf of a friend who hoped to audition for him. “He said, yeah, that he thought he could arrange that, but also he’d like to get to know me,” she recalled, per the New York Times. “And also that he likes to cuddle and would I be okay with that?”

Stephanie explained that she had “been through sexual trauma within my family, by my first boss, by men on the street,” and “was very vulnerable.” She said he started having sex with her quickly, though he knew she was underage. “I’ve never been treated like that before or since,” she said. “He humiliated me, he degraded me, he scared me.” Stephanie said he wanted her to call him “Daddy,” and that his moods shifted rapidly between “nice and charming, jovial,” and “controlling, intimidating.”

“He would raise his voice at me and could put the fear of God in me very quickly,” she continued. He sometimes recorded their sexual encounters, and often forced her into specific positions, she alleged, occasionally leaving the room for hours. If she wasn’t still holding her pose when he returned, she said, he would become enraged.

Stephanie also shared a memory of a conversation Kelly allegedly had with rappers Sabrian “Boo” Sledge and Mwata “Gotti” Mitchell over dinner in 1999. She said she remembered Kelly saying he liked “young girls” and didn’t get why that mattered to other people. “Look at Jerry Lee Lewis,” Kelly allegedly argued, referring to the musician who tanked his career by marrying his 13-year-old first cousin in the 1950s. “He’s a genius and I’m a genius. We should be allowed to do what we want — look at what we give to the world.”

A fourth woman says Kelly raped her days after marrying Aaliyah.

On August 30, Addie told the jury that Kelly raped her when she was 17, after he invited her and a friend backstage at a concert. It was September 1994 — allegedly two days after his marriage to Aaliyah — and Addie said she told Kelly she was underage. When she told him she was an “aspiring artist,” and balked at visiting his hotel room, Addie says he cleared everyone out of the backstage area so he could “play a game” with the two teens. Addie said he told them he wanted to “see who could kiss better,” but quickly “started getting a little more aggressive.” Addie testified that Kelly held down her wrists, removed her pants, and raped her, not bothering to use protection. “At this point, I was in complete shock,” she continued. “I just went blank,” she said. When he finished, Addie said she and her friend “ran out of there,” but said she never went to the police because she “didn’t even know if they would believe me” and didn’t want to be “blacklisted” from the industry.

A male victim says Kelly asked him what he was “willing to do for music” before assault.

Also on August 30, a male witness testified that Kelly assaulted him when he was 17 and in high school. According to the man, Kelly lured him to his Chicago home in 2007, asking him what he was “willing to do for music” as a prelude to assault. The man said he told the singer, “I’ll carry your bags … Anything you need, I’ll be willing to do.” But that apparently wasn’t what Kelly meant. He asked the then-teen if he ever thought about having sex with men, “then “crawled down on his knees and proceeded to give me oral sex,” the witness said, adding: “I wasn’t into it.” After the fact, “he told me to keep it between him and me,” the witness stated. He explained that he kept seeing Kelly because he “really wanted to make it in the music industry,” and that, on one occasion, Kelly allegedly summoned a naked girl to give him and the witness oral sex, “snapp[ing] his fingers three times” to call her from where she’d been hiding, under a boxing ring.

A third woman said Kelly gave her herpes and never mentioned he was infected.

On September 1, a woman named Faith took the stand, testifying that she met Kelly at a concert in San Antonio in 2017. She was 19 at the time, and says Kelly invited her and a friend into his dressing room. Faith explained that after Kelly gave her two of his phone numbers, they began talking regularly, the singer telling her he loved her within a week. When she visited him in New York that May, Faith said, he pressured her into sex — allegedly without a condom, despite her request — which she noticed he was recording on his iPad partway through. Faith also noted that Kelly seemed keen for her to admit she was younger than 19, informing her that she could “tell Daddy” if she was “really 16.”

Though Faith continued to see Kelly, her misgivings about Kelly’s controlling behavior came to a head during a visit in California in early 2018, when Faith said he coerced her into providing him oral sex in a recording booth and grilled her about her sexual history with a gun beside him. The next month, when she went to see him in New York, Faith said she “clenched” to prevent Kelly having intercourse with her, which “pissed him off,” she explained. He masturbated to videos of other women he’d filmed on his iPad, and she decided she was done. But within days, she developed cold symptoms, and blisters all over her mouth. There were “bumps everywhere, and my tongue was inflamed with bumps,” she said. “My mouth looked disgusting.” Faith attributed her herpes diagnosis to Kelly, saying he never used protection and never told her about his status: “I knew it was him.”

The minister who married R. Kelly and Aaliyah described the wedding.

Minister Nathan Edmond also testified on September 1, explaining that a mutual friend had asked him to officiate a wedding as a favor, and he didn’t know whose it would be before the couple arrived at the hotel. “The door opened to the bedroom and out stepped Aaliyah and Mr. Kelly,” Edmond said, adding that they wore matching tracksuits for the occasion. Edmond also said he kept his promise to Kelly and never spoke publicly about the marriage until now, when a subpoena obligated him to do so.

One woman who testified did not cooperate with prosecutors.

On September 2, a 31-year-old woman going by the name Alexis took the stand, but seemed reluctant to answer prosecutors’ questions. Though she admitted that she met Kelly at a Florida concert when she was 15, she would not say when their relationship turned from “platonic” to sexual. Alexis said she did not specifically recall whether or not they discussed her age, how often they had sex, or where they first had it. She did attest to traveling with Kelly to different cities all across the country, and said they stopped talking after she became pregnant in 2010, then cut ties for good in 2015.

A fourth woman said Kelly gave her herpes, and paid her a $200,000 settlement for it.

Yet another woman testified that Kelly gave her herpes, but in this case, wound up paying $200,000 to settle her claim. On September 3, Kate told the court she met Kelly when she was 27, in Chicago in 2001. Though she declined on two occasions when the singer tried to get her to engage in group sex, she said the pair had intercourse later on. “I worried about multiple sexual partners and worried about the AIDS virus,” she recalled. “I had asked if he was going to wear something,” she continued. “At first, he just kind of looked at me quizzically. I repeated it. I said, ‘Are you going to use something?’ He just said, ‘No.’” She said she then asked him if he was “okay,” meaning clear of STIs, and that he didn’t give her a clear answer. She was diagnosed with herpes after the fact, and her lawyer negotiated a settlement in 2004. In contrast to what a number of the other women have said, Kate testified that Kelly allowed her to go to the bathroom when she needed to, and did not fly off the handle with her.

Another woman said Kelly imprisoned and raped her.

After breaking for the holidays, court reconvened on September 9, and a woman named Sonja took the stand. Sonja told the jury that she met Kelly when she was 21, while interning for a radio station in Utah. He was there on tour, and she went to his bus in an attempt to get an interview; there, someone slipped her his number. She said she “was relentless” in trying to set up the conversation, thinking it would “just kick-start [her] career.” After some back-and-forth, Kelly agreed, but Sonja said he arranged for her to come to Chicago so they could do the interview there. When she showed up at his studio, she said a man asked her if she “need[ed] protection,” a question she didn’t understand. “He came out and said, ‘Do you need a condom?’” she continued, and Sonja said she replied, “No, I’m not here for that.”

But then, Sonja said, Kelly’s entourage made her surrender her ID and cell phone, asking for addresses for the first five people in her call log. She got these items back, but she also had to sign an NDA, and made to follow certain rules: “I wasn’t allowed to look up. I wasn’t allowed to talk to anybody,” she said, and she wasn’t allowed to leave the room while she waited for Kelly. “A few minutes later, I tried to open the door,” she recalled. “Come to find out, it was locked from the outside.” At that point, Sonja said, she felt “scared,” “ashamed,” and “embarrassed.”

Sonja said for the next few days she remained trapped in the room, only allowed out to use the bathroom when Kelly gave her clearance. After at least two days, someone finally brought her food and a cup of soda. She said she took “just a couple bites, a couple sips” before immediately feeling “extremely full and tired.”

“The next thing I remember [is] waking up to some commotion in the room. I was extremely confused,” she recalled. Sonja said she was on the couch, and “looking over to my right, I see Rob. He’s pulling up his pants in the corner.” Sonja added that she felt like something had been “inside her,” and that “there was some wet stuff between my legs and on my thighs.” Kelly then left the room, she said, and never came back. Shortly thereafter, an employee allegedly came in and informed her that “some things came up” and she could leave. That person, Sonja testified, also threatened her: “Don’t fuck with Mr. Kelly.” His team had addresses and phone numbers for her and some of her loved ones, and Sonja said she did not go to the police, explaining, “I didn’t think anyone would believe me.”

When it came time for cross-examination, Kelly’s defense attorney, Deveraux L. Cannick, shamed Sonja for failing to report the incident. Cannick also suggested that the Chinese food she’d been given contained MSG that made her drowsy, a scientific improbability linked to baseless, racist notions about this cuisine.

A second witness attested to making humiliation porn.

Also on September 9, a woman named Anna testified, echoing many of the details other witnesses already shared. Anna said she met Kelly at a show in South Carolina in 2016, when she was 19 or 20. They began texting, she saw him in Atlanta, and moved into his home not long after. Anna spoke to Kelly’s alleged rules: She and the other “girlfriends” were forbidden from discussing social media. She was either spanked or barred from leaving the house if she did something wrong. She was sometimes made to pee in a cup. And on one occasion, Anna said, Kelly made her record a video where she was “being sexual and seductive with bodily fluids.” She said she stopped seeing him in 2018.

Another male witness said Kelly made him have sex with “zombie-ish” women.

On September 13, a second male witness — the man Kelly allegedly referred to as “Nephew” — took the stand, telling the court that Kelly coerced him into “countless” sexual encounters with women who appeared “zombie-ish.” The witness, who used the name Alex in court, said he first met Kelly at the age of 16, in 2007, but didn’t develop a sexual relationship with the singer until he turned 20. Alex said Kelly’s first advance, which allegedly happened at his Olympia Fields home, came as a surprise: “I recall him talking to me, and then forcefully kissing me and licking my face,” he stated, adding that Kelly told him to “just be open-minded.” Kelly then brought Alex to a bedroom and directed him to have sex with a woman, filming the whole thing on his iPad, Alex said. This kind of thing happened regularly, Alex explained; sometimes, Kelly would join in, he added. Alex said that he was supposed to call Kelly “Daddy,” and tell people he was the singer’s stylist if asked. In cross-examination, he admitted to lying to federal agents about being an employee of Kelly’s, saying he was “brainwashed for so long.”

One of Kelly’s back-up dancers said she saw him have sex with Aaliyah when she was 13 or 14.

The same day, a woman who toured with Kelly as a backup dancer in 1993 said she accidentally walked in on “a sexual situation” when she opened the door to his bus. The dancer, identified as Angela, said she saw Aaliyah — who would’ve been 13 or 14 at the time — sitting in a chair with Kelly kneeling in front of her, apparently performing oral sex on the teen. “I closed the door abruptly and pushed the girl behind me away from the door,” Angela said, adding that she never brought it up with him after the fact.

Angela said she first met Aaliyah on the late singer’s 13th birthday, when Kelly introduced them. Angela was only a few years older, having met Kelly in 1991, when she was 14 or 15. She said her friend Tiffany brought her to a party at his Chicago apartment, where, Kelly summoned “all of us, one by one, all of the young ladies” to join him in a separate room. “He asked me to climb on top of him,” Angela recalled. “I paused for a moment. I was a little startled,” but ultimately, she did. “The defendant asked me to straddle him and to ride him. I asked if I could grab a condom,” she continued, and when he said he didn’t have one, she allegedly told him she did. “After that, I proceeded to put the condom on the gentleman and straddled him.” They then had sex, she said, and continued to do so regularly for the next few years. Touring with him (Aaliyah allegedly came along so she could see “what traveling road life was like”) Angela said he would blow up at the young women who accompanied him. One night, for example, he caught them coming back from a food run he hadn’t signed off on, and allegedly told them “we would all have to put out that night … it was dues time.”

A talent manager said Kelly threatened her over a minor’s sexual harassment case.

On September 17, a witness named Cheryl Mack testified that Kelly seemed to threaten her into supporting him in a sexual-harassment lawsuit a 17-year-old girl brought against him in 2009 or 2010. Working as a talent manager at the time, Mack had introduced Kelly to an R&B singer named Precious, whom he allowed to use his Olympia Fields recording studio. But when Precious abruptly broke with Kelly, he summoned Mack to Chicago: “Everything happened so fast,” she said. “He told me that she was trying to file a lawsuit and I needed to pick a team.” Mack found out that the case involved “something along the lines of sexual harassment,” and that there would be consequences if she failed to back him: “Generally, in these situations, people come up missing,” she said he told her. “I took it as a threat.” He then had another of his employees drive her to his attorney’s office, Mack stated, to sign an affidavit asking whether or not she had witnessed Kelly give Precious alcohol, or seen the two of them have sex.

Though Mack worked with Kelly off-and-on for about ten years, she said she finally parted ways with him for good in July 2015, after she saw an earlier witness — Jane, who would have been 17 at the time — seemingly preparing to perform oral sex on the singer. Mack said she was in Kelly’s dressing room when she saw Jane move in toward Kelly’s lap, and felt “that was kind of [her] cue to leave.”

“I was very uncomfortable,” she said. “That wasn’t my business. I was there to work.” She quit the next day.

An investigator on the case reviewed letters Kelly allegedly made his victims write.

Throughout the trial, witnesses have mentioned the collateral Kelly allegedly compelled them to create — letters blaming themselves for signs of abuse and shielding the singer from accountability. Ryan Chabot, the lead federal investigator in Kelly’s case, reviewed troves of those letters, obtained at Kelly’s storage facility, in court. In some of those letters, the authors claim to have spanked themselves to the point of bruising (per one example) in an aborted attempt to blackmail the singer; others said they had stolen from him, or been neglected by their parents. One particularly outlandish seven-page sample reportedly stated, “At the age of 17, I never had sex with Robert Kelly,” before running down a list of individual sex acts she said she had never done with him. Clinical and forensic psychologist Dawn M. Hughes testified on September 17 that the letters gave Kelly something to hold over his alleged victims’ heads to keep them from leaving, “slowly sucking the oxygen out of the room and once you realize it, you can’t get out.”

The witnesses for Kelly’s defense seemed to repeatedly contradict themselves.

The prosecution having rested its case after calling 45 witnesses, Kelly’s defense got its turn on September 20. Larry Hood, a former Chicago police officer, told the court that he had never seen his old childhood friend hanging out with underage girls — except, of course, for Aaliyah and “little Aaliyah’s little hype girls.” Though Hood provided security for Kelly, he said that he didn’t learn that Kelly had married Aaliyah until years later, explaining: “I wasn’t checking IDs at the studio.” Hood also said he had never seen anyone held inside the studio against their will. “As a police officer, I would have had to take action against that,” he noted. Hood was expelled from the force in 2007 after pleading guilty to forgery charges.

The defense confined itself mostly to members — or would-be members — of Kelly’s entourage and his employees. Also on September 20, it called Dhanai “Da-Ni” Ramanan, who said he spent 15 years in Kelly’s inner circle and that he never saw his alleged mentor abuse women in any way. Yet when prosecutors cross-examined him, his claim to have hung out with Kelly “on a daily basis” for a decade and a half caved. He wasn’t in any of the photos prosecutors produced, showing the singer with his entourage. According to BuzzFeed, he couldn’t recall which tours he’d been on. His name had not previously come up at trial.

Similarly, audio engineer Jeff Meeks — who testified on September 21 — seemed to have had little day-to-day experience with Kelly and the women in his orbit, except for one incident where a woman in a recording studio wanted to leave and he didn’t know whether or not she was allowed to. There was the music consultant who claimed Kelly never abused anyone, but also admitted he’d never seen the singer engage in any sort of sex act. And then, there was the accountant who was supposed to cast doubt on the allegation that Kelly ran an organized criminal enterprise. Instead, the witness was left to explain a diagram he prepared for Kelly, explaining how his RSK Enterprises, LLC, worked. Per BuzzFeed, the document featured a large red octopus, its tentacles corresponding with various employee names and departments, and its brain bracketed with Robert S. Kelly, CEO.

This article has been updated.

The Most Harrowing Testimony From R. Kelly’s Trial