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R. Kelly manager found guilty of making threat to ‘shoot up’ documentary premiere

A New York City event space had to call off its 2018 screening of “Surviving R. Kelly” after getting a menacing call from someone who said he was in the audience with a gun. The docuseries went on to spur criminal charges that will keep the R&B star behind bars for decades.

MANHATTAN (CN) — Just two and a half hours into deliberations following a two-day trial, a federal jury found onetime R. Kelly manager Donnell Russell guilty on Friday of calling in a shooting threat to sabotage the docuseries premiere of the gut-wrenching “Surviving R. Kelly.”

While the jury convicted Russell on one substantive count of threatening physical harm by interstate communication, it acquitted him on a related conspiracy charge.

The conviction carries a maximum sentence of five years for Russell, who did not testify or argue any defense case during the proceedings. He remains free on bail until sentencing slated for Nov. 21 at the lower Manhattan courthouse.

Russell, 47, was indicted in 2020, two years after a New York theater abruptly canceled its plans to premiere the Lifetime docuseries "Surviving R. Kelly" and evacuated the building minutes into the screening because someone had called in a threat.

The Dec. 4, 2018, event at NeueHouse Madison Square was set to feature a panel discussion after the screening with activist and #MeToo founder Tarana Bruke 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.

Prosecutors say it was Russell who threatened over the phone that he “was going to shoot up the place” after he spent the day undertaking various other “escalating desperate attempts to stop the screening.”

Russell's first attempt to cancel the premiere of the docuseries involved a bogus cease-and-desist letter that he sent to Lifetime from the phony name and email address of a fake lawyer. He then called the New York police and fire departments to disrupt the screening, before he called in a “terrifying interstate threat to sabotage the event,” prosecutors said.

According to the government, the motive for all this was so that Russell "could continue to profit off R. Kelly” in his capacity as the disgraced singer’s manager.

Despite the premiere night fiasco, "Surviving R. Kelly" is credited with building the public outrage that led to Kelly's criminal indictment in multiple jurisdictions. The six-part series detailed three decades of sexual, physical and psychological abuse claims surrounding Kelly’s relationships with underage girls and vulnerable women, and several of Kelly’s victims participated in in-depth interviews.

While Kelly faces multiple indictments, only one so far has gone to trial. Last month, the Grammy winner was given a 30-year prison sentence at the close of those proceedings in Brooklyn.

Phone records used as evidence in the Russell case show that he called the Midtown South precinct of the NYPD to get the screening event canceled, then called a fire station on 14th Street with his phone number blocked using *67.

Prosecutors said he also called a neighbor of NeueHouse, the Fire Bell Club of New York two blocks south on 23rd Street, along with the Fire Department of New York headquarters in Brooklyn.

R. Kelly's ex-manager Donnell Russell leaves federal court on July 20, 2022, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Throughout the day of the premiere, according to the government, Russell was communicating from his Chicago home with “a mole” who was attending the New York City screening. This individual was identified at trial as R. Kelly’s former publicist, Kash Jones, an unindicted co-conspirator whom Russell later urged to delete all text messages sent that day.

Russell’s defense attorney did not deny that his client he asked Jones to delete their text conversations or that he made calls seeking to shut down the screening due to purported copyright infringement.

“It doesn’t make him a saint, but it doesn’t make him guilty,” Los Angeles-based attorney Mark Freedman told jurors during the defense’s 50-minute summation on Friday morning.

Freedman’s closing statement mostly reprised his claims from Wednesday’s opening arguments that the government had not proved beyond reasonable doubt that Russell himself called in the shooting threat to the NeueHouse.

The defense attorney pointed to what he called “big holes” in the prosecution’s case, including testimony that the voice on the threat called sounded different than Russell’s calls earlier that day.

The NeueHouse employee who received the threat call testified at trial that the caller sounded “like a thug, or a rapper, like someone from the Wu Tang Clan, someone from Brooklyn,” Freedman pleaded to jurors during the closing argument.

“The government’s theory is that the call from a landline ... even though the only person that heard the call said the voice sounded like someone from outside and someone from Brooklyn.”

On rebuttal, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lara Pomerantz swiftly rebuked the different voice defense. “You change how your voice sounds,” she said matter of factly, noting that Russell had been “pretending to be different people all day.”

“You can walk outside with a landline,” she continued. “You can open a window.”

U.S. District Judge Paul Gardephe presided over Russell’s trial.

Separate from this case in Manhattan, Russell faces an indictment in the Eastern District of New York for allegedly harassing a Kelly accuser whose identity has been closely guarded. Prosecutors say Russell threatened to reveal sexually explicit photographs of this woman and to publicly reveal her sexual history if she did not withdraw her lawsuit against Kelly and “cease her participation and association with the organizers” of a “negative campaign” against the singer.

Prosecutors in Brooklyn allege that Russell sent a letter to the victim’s Brooklyn-based lawyer in November 2018. An attachment to the letter included cropped nude photographs of victim with the text: “the next two pictures have been cropped for the sake of not exposing her extremities to the world, yet!!!” 

By December 2019, the accuser and her mother received the same photographs in a series of text messages.

The next trial for Kelly, 55, is set next month in the Northern District of Illinois on 13 federal charges related to sexual abuse, child pornography, coercion, conspiracy and destruction of evidence.

Additional charges are also pending in Illinois and Minnesota state court.

The Chicago native, whose full name is Robert Sylvester Kelly, denies all the charges and has pleaded not guilty. He was initially charged in Illinois a month after the docuseries premiered. Prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York announced the next charges against Kelly in August 2019. 

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