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Friends of R. Kelly say they never saw sex ring, mounting singer’s defense

The next phase of trial for the "I Believe I Can Fly" artist follows a month of testimony from dozens of people who described a pattern of recruitment, blackmail and sex abuse.

BROOKLYN (CN) — Prosecutors rested their case on Monday in the federal trial of singer R. Kelly, more than a month after testimony began in the Eastern District of New York. 

The 54-year-old whose full name is Robert Sylvester Kelly is charged with violating federal anti-racketeering law and the Mann Act, stemming from an alleged sex ring that operated for decades. Following opening arguments on Aug. 18, women who lived with Kelly and traveled with him on tour said the singer had strict rules, enforced by his employees, that dictated their every move — they had to wear baggy clothing, avoid eye contact or speaking with other men, and text Kelly or one of his staff when they wanted to eat or use the bathroom. 

They all called him “Daddy” — and when he wasn’t around, he was to be referred to as “Mr. Kelly.” Though they all lived together with the singer, the girlfriends weren’t allowed to discuss him, or anything personal, with one another. 

Female employees of Kelly’s testified that they would go out shopping with Kelly’s guests and live-in girlfriends so that they could interact with male store clerks. Assistants would book flights and hotels for Kelly’s female guests, and carry sheets of paper with his phone number to hand to women — or girls, as in the case of “Jane,” who began living and traveling with Kelly when she was 17 years old. 

Jane told the court that Kelly forced her to have an abortion after he got her pregnant. She also discussed the punishments she received for breaking rules or otherwise angering the singer. 

Describing how Kelly physically abused her and other girlfriends, she said he would slap and punch them as well as drag women by the hair. Kelly beat Jane using a shoe and a cord, and would regularly spank victims hard enough to leave bruises and break skin, calling it “chastising” them. 

Also as a punishment, Kelly directed Jane to have sex with a man she had never met, she said — an individual Kelly called “Nephew,” who later testified at trial. He backed up the women's accounts that Kelly instructed him to have sex with them in front of the singer, who sometimes recorded the interactions. 

Several other alleged victims’ testimony mirrored a similar pattern of grooming and abuse. Some described forced assault. A witness who testified as Faith accused Kelly of forcing her to give him oral sex at a music studio in Los Angeles after placing a gun nearby.

“Don’t look at it,” Kelly ordered. He then instructed Faith to undress and “moved the gun by him” while instructing her to pose and perform sex acts. 

Sketch shows R. Kelly sitting between his defense attorneys during the defense's first day presenting evidence in his sex trafficking case on Sept. 20, 2021, in Brooklyn, New York. (AP Photo/Elizabeth Williams)

Another to testify was Sonja, who was a 21-year-old radio intern when she traveled to visit Kelly in Chicago, hoping to score an interview with the “I Believe I Can Fly” singer. 

After arriving at his music studio, Sonja said she was escorted to a room that was locked from the outside, and waited two and a half days without food or water. 

When she was finally given something to eat — Chinese food and a soda — Sonja said she began to feel drowsy. She she woke up to discover that Kelly had sexually assaulted her: Kelly was in the room doing up his pants, and her underwear had been removed. 

A woman testifying as Addie said Kelly raped her backstage at a 1994 concert in Miami, days after Kelly married the underage singer who would become an R&B superstar in her own right, Aaliyah Houghton. 

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Kelly was 27 at the time he married Aaliyah, then just 15. A former tour manager who helped secure a fake ID for Aaliyah, which is the basis for one of the charges against Kelly, told the court that Kelly thought Aaliyah was pregnant with his child. Aaliyah died in a plane crash in 2001 at the age of 22.

Prosecutors called a total of 45 witnesses, including almost a dozen accusers; former employees; federal agents; and DNA and medical experts. Victims and employees both described being told to write letters to protect Kelly, in which they falsely admitted to stealing from him or accused family members of trying to extort the singer for money. Kelly told them what to write, word for word, witnesses said. 

During victim witness testimony, defense attorneys often asked versions of the same question on cross-examination: Why would someone stay in, or return to, an allegedly abusive relationship? 

In calling their final witness, the government offered a response to those lines of questioning. Dawn Hughes, a clinical and forensic psychologist who has worked with hundreds of victims of abuse, discussed how relationships that involve abuse can self-perpetuate. 

Grooming, for instance, happens over a period of time.

“It’s not an event, it’s a pattern,” Hughes said last Friday. “It’s not a single incident, it’s a process.” 

Self-doubt and self-blame “circles” around victims, and can lead to disorders later in life including anxiety, depression, PTSD and substance abuse. 

“It has a very chronic deteriorating effect of the psychological status of the victim,” Hughes said. 

Victims can also rationalize abuse as a way to make sense of the situation, and dissociate in order to hold on to the good parts of a relationship, she said. And even if someone wants to leave an abusive relationship, they may have difficulty believing they can safely get away — especially if other adults around aren’t stepping in to end the abuse, and the victims have been isolated from their families, as Jane described at trial. 

Though Hughes didn’t speak to specific aspects of the abuse described by R. Kelly’s accusers, she commented on what it could mean when spanking is used as a form of punishment, responding to questions raised by Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Geddes. 

“The punishment dynamic should not be present if it’s not a parent and child,” Hughes said. “The power balance between an adult and a child is inherent … if someone is going to be an abuser, they can exploit that dynamic.” 

After Kelly’s attorney cross-examined the psychologist for less than a minute — Hughes said she had not evaluated or observed anyone related to the trial, nor read transcripts — the government entered several pieces of evidence, and then rested their case. 

Sketch shows Larry Hood, former security and body guard for R. Kelly, testifying for the defense during the singer's sex trafficking trial on Sept. 20, 2021, in Brooklyn, New York. (AP Photo/Elizabeth Williams)

The defense team called two witnesses on Monday: an aspiring artist who said he was Kelly’s mentee — and never witnessed the abuse described during weeks of testimony — and a Chicago police officer who grew up with Kelly, and later worked security for him. 

The officer, Larry Hood, said he traveled around with Kelly, worked to “make sure that we didn’t have any unruly fans,” and recruited other Chicago officers to help out with security. 

Hood told defense attorney Calvin Scholar that he had retired in good standing in 2007. 

On cross-examination, however, Hood admitted to Assistant U.S. Attorney Nadia Shihata that he retired after pleading guilty to a felony forgery charge, related to using counterfeit $100 bills to buy money orders. 

Though he pleaded guilty, Hood said, he did not actually know that the bills were fake. 

“So you weren’t telling the truth, under oath, in court?” Shihata asked. 

“Yes,” Hood said. 

Shihata then confirmed that Hood — who testified that he had never seen Kelly with underage girls, but was there when the singer met Aaliyah in 1992 when she was 12 or 13 — was again under oath. 

The defense will continue presenting their case on Tuesday. U.S. District Judge Ann Donnelly said she plans to charge the jury by the end of the week.

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