A prosecutor in the high-profile federal sex trafficking trial against R&B singer R. Kelly said Wednesday the case was “about a predator” who used his fame and money to lure and sexually abuse girls, boys and young women and “hide his crimes in plain sight.”
“This case is about a predator who for decades used fame, popularity and a network of associates to groom girls, boys and young women for his own sexual purposes,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Maria Cruz Melendez said Wednesday morning in a Brooklyn, New York, courthouse during the federal trial.
Cruz Melendez said R. Kelly used his money, clout and public persona to “hide his crimes in plain sight” and surrounded himself with a team whose purpose was to promote his music and brand and fulfill his wishes and demands. R. Kelly learned he could take advantage of this and had his pick of “young fans around the country,” and when he had those fans alone, he used them “physically, psychologically and sexually,” she said.
The prosecutor said the case was not about a “celebrity who likes to party” or R. Kelly’s sexual preferences: “The sexual conduct was illegal. He engaged with minors in their teens and recorded it to produce child pornography and crossed state lines and exposed them to incurable herpes,” she said.
R. Kelly, 54, whose real name is Robert Sylvester Kelly, denies any wrongdoing. R. Kelly, who has been in federal custody since 2019, pleaded not guilty to racketeering, bribery, coercion, enticement and sex trafficking. He looked somber Wednesday seated between his attorneys, with a shaved head and blue suit and tie.
He also has pleaded not guilty to sex-related charges in Illinois and Minnesota.
Cruz Melendez said R. Kelly relied on his inner circle to cover up his crimes and used lawyers to distribute “hundreds of thousands of dollars in hush payments.” The girls were told they could never look at other men and had to keep their heads down and were forced to wear baggy clothing and ask permission to use the bathroom, she said.
R. Kelly also kept videos and photos to protect himself and keep his victims quiet or he would pay his victims off so his criminal conduct would not become public, she added.
R. Kelly was charged in July 2019 with racketeering based on sexual exploitation of children, kidnapping, forced labor and Mann Act violations — charges involving the coercion and transportation of women and girls in interstate commerce to engage in illegal sexual activity, according to a Department of Justice news release.
The charges involve six women and girls.
On Wednesday, the prosecution detailed R. Kelly’s interactions with the six girls and women, including the late singer Aaliyah, who was 15 when she and R. Kelly were married.
Cruz Melendez said prosecutors will present witnesses including victims, associates, forensic psychologists, experts in DNA, official documents proving Aaliyah was 15, telephone records, travel records, medical and prescription records, physical evidence from searches of R. Kelly’s apartment and studio and storage facilities, video and audio recordings and letters from the defendant.
“We are going to ask you to hold him accountable for sexually abusing girls, boys, young women, and we will ask you to find him guilty on all counts,” she said.
R. Kelly’s defense was expected to begin its opening statement later Wednesday.
Douglas C. Anton, one of the singer’s lawyers, has blasted the accusers as “disgruntled groupies” who were “dying to be with him” and accused them of coming forward with their allegations to join what he described as the #MeToo “bandwagon.”
“Your Honor, this N.Y. case amounts to nothing more than groupie remorse,” Anton wrote in part in a letter to U.S. District Judge Ann M. Donnelly dated July 30, 2019, according to a public court filings.
The Brooklyn trial is the second time R. Kelly has been prosecuted. He was acquitted on child pornography charges in 2008, when he was 41.
The singer’s alleged pattern of abuse drew intense public scrutiny with the rise of the #MeToo movement, leading to the #MuteRKelly social media campaign, boycotts of his hit records, protests across the country and, perhaps most notably, “Surviving R. Kelly,” a Lifetime documentary series featuring testimony from several accusers.
CORRECTION (Aug. 18, 2021, 2:10 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the name of an alleged victim of R. Kelly. Her name is Aaliyah, not Aailyah.