BROOKLYN (CN) — A member of R. Kelly’s inner circle was sentenced to 20 months behind bars Thursday for trying to blackmail one of the disgraced R&B singer’s victims, including threatening to and ultimately releasing explicit photographs, ahead of Kelly’s sex trafficking trial last year.
Donnell Russell, 47, tried to pressure the unnamed victim to withdraw her civil lawsuit against Kelly and to stop participating in what he called a “negative campaign” against Kelly that included appearances in the Lifetime docu-series “Surviving R. Kelly.”
The woman ultimately testified at trial, even after receiving a series of messages that included cropped nude photos of her.
"Just a sample. We will seek criminal charges. You've been warned," one such message states. “Pull the plug or you will be exposed,” says another.
Russell used the alias “Colon Dunn” during the exchanges and claimed to be conducting an “investigation” into Kelly’s accusers. The photographs later appeared on the internet, including Facebook and YouTube.
In July, Russell pleaded guilty to interstate stalking charges in the Eastern District of New York. He asked U.S. District Judge Ann Donnelly for a below-guidelines sentence of probation, but prosecutors cautioned against this, highlighting a YouTube interview that the defendant gave titled, “Donnell Russell talks about the New York Trials & Why He Took A Plea Deal."
“As to this case, the defendant repeatedly minimizes his offense conduct and demonstrates an utter lack of remorse for harassing and threatening Jane Doe and for publicly posting sexually explicit photographs of Jane Doe to Facebook,” the government wrote in a court filing. “For example, the defendant refers to Jane Doe and her mother as ‘questionable’ and boasts about threatening Jane Doe and her mother.”
U.S. Attorney Breon Peace denounced Russell’s efforts to block a victim from speaking out about sexual abuse.
“The punishment meted out to the defendant today is a victory for crime victims, particularly those of sexual assault and abuse, who are often reluctant to come forward to law enforcement or pursue legal recourse, given the trauma and fear of retaliation associated with publicly discussing their experiences,” Peace said in a statement.
Kelly, known for chart-topping songs like the “Space Jam” anthem “I Believe I Can Fly,” is already serving a 30-year sentence following his sex trafficking conviction in the same court. He was ordered to pay victims at least $309,000 to cover projected costs of therapy and treatment for herpes. Multiple women say they contracted the disease from Kelly, who did not disclose his diagnosis before having sex with them.
For decades, Kelly was dogged by sexual abuse allegations — dating back to the 1990s when his first hit song, "Bump N' Grind," spent a record-breaking 12 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot R&B Singles chart.
Trial evidence showed that Kelly ran a career-spanning sex ring that included the late singer Aaliyah among scores of underage girls. Witnesses testified that Kelly maintained full control of their lives, including when they could eat or use the bathroom while staying at his home or studio. When out of the house, Kelly made them wear baggy clothes and face the wall to avoid eye contact with other men.
The singer made nearly constant videos of his sexual interactions, according to the testimony. He directed his girlfriends to have sex with each other and with men — sometimes strangers — with Kelly directing every move, even when the participants were unwilling.
The 55-year-old singer was also found guilty on federal child pornography charges in Chicago earlier this year, where he is yet to be sentenced. On Wednesday, Kelly filed for acquittal or a new trial in the Northern District of Illinois.
Both sets of federal charges followed the release of “Surviving R. Kelly.” Kelly’s attorneys at trial had called the series a work of fiction and accused the women who came forward of looking for a payday, and in fact “surviving off of R. Kelly.”
Adopting the same stance, Kelly’s supporters set up a Facebook page called “Surviving Lies” and attempted to debunk the women’s stories. Among those who remained on Kelly’s side was Russell, who fought and lost an earlier indictment after he threatened to “shoot up” the Lifetime show's December 2018 premiere in Manhattan.
The event at NeueHouse Madison Square would have featured a panel discussion after the screening with activist and #MeToo founder Tarana Burke and four R. Kelly accusers, Kitti Jones, Jerhonda Pace, Lisa Van Allen and Asante McGee. “Surviving R. Kelly” producer Brie Miranda Bryant and feminist writer Jamilah Lemieux and were also set to speak at the private event.
Just minutes in, however, the building was evacuated after Russell called in a bomb threat. Russell was convicted in July on one substantive count of threatening physical harm by interstate communication and acquitted on a related conspiracy charge.
The Manhattan conviction carries a maximum sentence of five years for Russell, who did not testify or argue any defense case during the proceedings. He is out on bail awaiting sentencing.
Back in Brooklyn, Russell is the last of the three R. Kelly associates who pleaded guilty to extorting and intimidating witnesses.
Michael Williams is serving an eight-year sentence for attempting to stop another victim from testifying by setting fire to a rental SUV outside her Florida home. Inside were six people, including two young children.Follow @NinaPullano
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