BROOKLYN, New York — The federal trial against R. Kelly kicked off Wednesday morning, with federal prosecutors beginning to lay out the decades of allegations they say illustrate that the singer is a “predator” who abused and controlled his victims for years.
“This case is about a predator,” Assistant US Attorney Maria Cruz Melendez said in her opening statement for the racketeering and sex trafficking case.
In a Brooklyn courtroom over the next several weeks, the government will present their case arguing that Kelly was the ringleader behind an “enterprise” that exploited his fame to sexually abuse numerous victims, many of them underage.
Kelly “used his fame, power, and a network of people” as well as “lies, manipulation, threats, and physical abuse” to control his victims, a number of whom were aspiring singers or fans who met him at his own concerts, Melendez told the jury.
“The defendant quickly learned he could take advantage of this access — and he did,” she said.
Kelly’s defense team has been in chaos over the past few months, with two of his lawyers withdrawing from the case just weeks prior. But one of the attorneys representing him, Nicole Blank Becker, offered an opening statement on Wednesday in which she sought to cast doubt on Kelly’s accusers, saying their allegations are a “mess of lies” that “will crumble” under cross-examination.
She encouraged the jury to be suspicious of the alleged victims, saying they “have an agenda” and claiming many “became angry, resentful, and even spiteful” when their “relationships” ended, and “that’s when they took advantage of their situation.”
“Don’t assume that everyone’s telling the truth,” she said.
While prosecutors plan on presenting evidence that Kelly allegedly abused 22 victims, the charges laid out in the indictment center around six victims, most of whom will be referred to solely by their first names.
Among the singer’s alleged victims are Aaliyah, the late singer Kelly married when she was 15 and he was 27 (Kelly has denied he knew her age at the time), as well as Jerhonda Pace, who publicly spoke out in the docuseries Surviving R. Kelly.
Pace was the first to testify on Wednesday, sharing her story of how she first met Kelly as a 14-year-old fan at his 2008 child pornography trial, which ended in Kelly being found not guilty due to a lack of sufficient evidence. She said she attended every day of the trial, meeting Kelly’s manager and an adult fan there.
Pace said she went to Kelly’s home for the first time when she was 16, nearly a year after his acquittal, when her adult fan friend invited her to one of his parties. She initially lied to Kelly about her age, saying she was 19.
“He told me he remembered me from court,” Pace said.
Pace said she and Kelly exchanged phone numbers, and he invited her back to his house a few days later.
Back at his house, Kelly told her to put on her swimsuit, she said. He then allegedly sat on a lounge chair and told her to walk back and forth while removing her swimsuit. The two then began kissing, and he performed oral sex on her, she said.
At this point, Pace said, she “felt uncomfortable” lying about her age, so she told him she was actually 16 and showed him her state ID as proof.
“He asked me, ‘What is that supposed to mean?’” Pace said, saying that he told her to keep saying she was 19 and “act 21.” She then performed oral sex on him, and he told her he “was going to train me on how to please him sexually.” They then had intercourse, and Kelly “took my virginity,” she said, which he liked.
Pace said she continued to see and have sex with Kelly over the next several months, with Kelly often filming their encounters.
He allegedly instituted strict rules, making Pace wear baggy clothes, call him “Daddy,” give him her phone, and forbid her from eating food or using the bathroom without his permission. She said she was also made to sign a nondisclosure agreement, as well as a letter full of false admissions claiming she’d stolen money and jewelry from him. Prosecutors have alleged this was a form of blackmail by Kelly.
Pace said she usually followed Kelly’s rules, but on the rare occasion she did not, she was harshly punished. Once when Pace said she preferred the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Chicago Bulls — the latter team being Kelly’s favorite — he allegedly backhanded her across the face and said she was being disrespectful.
Another time, she said, Kelly said he wanted her to use a dildo on him while they had sex. Pace expressed hesitancy, she said, saying she was “taught that was gay,” and he slapped her in the face again. “I’m not fucking gay,” she recalled him saying to her, before making her give him oral sex while using a dildo on him.
On the last day she spent in Kelly’s house in 2010, Pace said she was texting a friend when Kelly entered the room. She didn’t hear him come in, so she didn’t immediately acknowledge his presence. “That’s when he slapped me and choked me until I passed out,” she said.
He then spat in her face and told her to “put my head down in shame,” she said, before making her perform oral sex on him and ejaculating on her face. She said she wiped Kelly’s spit and semen on the T-shirt she was wearing — the same T-shirt that was then presented in court Wednesday as evidence.
Pace left the house for good that day when Kelly told her he would be throwing a party that night and wanted her to wear a particular set of heels. The teen lied that they were at her uncle’s house nearby, and Kelly permitted her to go retrieve them. “I left and I didn’t return,” she said.
Pace’s testimony is expected to continue Thursday, and several more alleged victims are expected to appear over the next several weeks of the trial. Pace, like others described in the indictment, alleges that Kelly knowingly infected her with genital herpes as well.
It is unknown yet who else will be testifying in the trial, though it will likely include several others who have spoken out publicly before, and possibly someone close to Aaliyah, who died in a plane crash in 2001.
Prosecutors are alleging Kelly first met Aaliyah when she was 12 and began a sexual relationship with her when she was a young teen. They also claim he married her when she was 15 because she believed she was pregnant, and he thought “if she’s his wife, she can’t testify against him — or so he thought,” Melendez said.
Kelly allegedly bribed an employee at a local public assistance office $500 for a fake ID stating she was 18 so they could obtain a marriage license.
In her opening statements, Melendez previewed several of the allegations the jury will hear over the next several weeks, including claims that the singer had sexual encounters with other underage girls, sometimes filming them; that he may have drugged one of the alleged victims; and also that he may have threatened another with a gun while she was naked.
Becker, Kelly’s defense attorney, criticized many of the alleged victims, calling one a “self-proclaimed liar,” and telling the jury “you’ll hear about her dance moves” in reference to a then–17-year-old who met Kelly when she was brought onstage at one of his concerts.
Becker went so far as to say the relationships Kelly had with many of his accusers were “beautiful” and called the “sex cult” description a buzzword created by the media.
“They all became like a family,” Becker said.
Becker did not acknowledge that several of the alleged victims were underage at the time.
Over the course of decades, Kelly has been accused of sexual misconduct multiple times. But the very fact that he has yet to face criminal consequences, Becker argued, should be taken as proof he is innocent.
“If Mr. Kelly was involved in a crime back in 1994,” she said, “would we be here today?"