Police Say Indicted R. Kelly Manager Called in Threat to Derail Docuseries

R. Kelly surrenders to authorities at Chicago First District police station on Feb. 22, 2019, in Chicago. (Photo by Tyler LaRiviere/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)

MANHATTAN (CN) — R. Kelly’s manager called in a shooting threat to thwart the 2018 premiere of the Lifetime documentary series that detailed sexual abuse allegations against the singer, New York prosecutors announced Friday morning. 

The six-part docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly,” which details Kelly’s alleged operation of an abusive sex cult, set the wheels in motion in the multiple criminal cases against the embattled Grammy winner, whose full name is Robert Sylvester Kelly. 

Not long into the series’ Dec. 4, 2018, premiere, however, staff hosting the event at New York’s NeueHouse Madison Square evacuated the building and canceled the screening after receiving a call that a gunman “was going to shoot up the place.” FBI Special Agent Kerry Calnan recounted the day’s events in an 11-page complaint unsealed Friday against the singer’s Chicago-based manager Donnell Russell.

Announcing the charges Friday, FBI Assistant Director William Sweeney said: “It defies logic that a threat like the one alleged here could stop victims from speaking about their alleged abuse.

“The violence Mr. Russell allegedly threatened succeeded in shutting down one airing of the documentary, but he was unable to silence the women featured in the film,” Sweeney added. 

Prosecutors allege that in the minutes before the 7 p.m. screening, Russell first attempted to halt the event by sending cease-and-desist emails “from a person purporting to be an attorney” to NeueHouse Madison Square.

Russell then used two cellphones, according to the complaint, to call 311, the New York City information service; the fire department; and two police precincts surrounding the venue in the Flatiron District, “seemingly in a further effort to disrupt the screening.”

He even dialed *67 first in an attempt to block his number, prosecutors say.

Finally at 7:37, Russell used a landline associated with his Chicago home address to call NeueHouse Madison Square directly, claiming that there was a gunman at the event prepared to shoot up the premiere. 

No shooting occurred, Agent Calnan notes in the complaint, but the screening was canceled.

Prosecutors say Russell then texted an unnamed co-conspirator at 8:05: “delete those messages about 50,” a reference to the police.

A recording found on Russell’s iCloud account includes the co-conspirator later remarking that Kelly himself was unaware of the coordinated threats. 

“Don [Russell] got identified as the person who called in the fucking gun threat which was stupid as fuck and Rob didn’t know shit about it … they said the NYPD traced it back to him,” the co-conspirator said, as quoted in the complaint.

A month after the docuseries premiered, Illinois prosecutors charged Kelly in January with 10 counts of aggravated sexual abuse following decades of misconduct allegations swirling around the Chicago native. 

Six months later, prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York announced separate charges against Kelly in August 2019. 

Russell was charged Tuesday with one count of threatening physical harm by interstate communication and one count of conspiracy to threaten physical harm by interstate communication. 

Activist and #MeToo founder Tarana Bruke was set to appear on a panel after the screening, alongside 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 to speak at the private event. 

A second season of the docu-series, “Surviving R. Kelly Part II: The Reckoning,” premiered in January 2020. 

Russell was one of three man charged in Brooklyn federal court earlier this week for allegedly attempting to intimidate and extort multiple Kelly accusers. 

Russell’s attorney did not immediately respond to request for comment Friday. 

Kelly is famous for hits such as “Trapped in the Closet” and “I Believe I Can Fly.” But allegations of sexual abuse, including of minors, have dogged the Grammy-winning star for decades. 

He had been previously charged by Cook County prosecutors, going on trial in 2008 for 21 counts of child pornography before being acquitted. 

The 53-year-old singer’s case in Brooklyn is presided over by U.S. District Judge Ann Donnelly, an Obama appointee.  

Jury selection in the trial is set to begin Sept. 29. 

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