MANHATTAN (CN) — R. Kelly’s former manager received a one-year prison sentence Monday for calling in an active-shooter threat that halted the premiere of “Surviving R. Kelly,” a Lifetime documentary series that detailed the R&B star's decadeslong history of sexually, physically and emotionally abusing women and minors.
Though he must also pay a $10,000 fine, Donnell Russell can serve his new prison sentence concurrently with a 20-month term that he faces for unrelated charges. Russell previously pleaded guilty in Brooklyn to blackmailing one of Kelly’s victims, having released explicit photos of a woman in an attempt to stop her from testifying at trial and participating in the series.
Lifetime had been set to premiere "Surviving R. Kelly" on Dec. 4, 2018, at NeueHouse Madison Square in New York City, followed by a panel discussion with the 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.
The screening was abruptly called off just several minutes in, however, when Russell dialed in from a landline in Chicago, telling a NeueHouse employee that he “was going to shoot up the place."
Prosecutors said this “terrifying interstate threat to sabotage the event" came after Russell sent Lifetime a bogus cease-and-desist letter, posed as an attorney, and called the New York police and fire departments in the lead-up to the premiere date.
Rodgers, the mother of the woman whom Russell threatened with the release of nude photos, dialed into Monday’s sentencing hearing to describe the scene on the night of the NeueHouse screening.
“We all evacuated in sheer pandemonium. It was total chaos in that theater,” Rodgers said. “The victims were screaming, crying, not knowing which way to go.”
Rodgers urged U.S. District Judge Paul Gardephe to have Russell “held accountable to the fullest degree.”
Russell fought the charges related to the screening threats, but a jury convicted him in July after a two-day trial. He was acquitted on a conspiracy charge but found guilty of threatening physical harm by interstate communication. At his sentencing hearing, Russell argued that he should have had a chance to address the court at trial.
At his hearing Monday, Russell said the premiere of the series in 2018 triggered his feelings of indebtedness to Kelly. The men had come up together as musicians in Chicago, and Russell saw Kelly as a "superhero" who set a high bar for success and kept Russell out of trouble. Russell said the two had not been in recent close contact but that he had jumped in as his manager to help him sort out his finances, including for his legal defense.
“I didn't pay attention to drugs, violence, any of that stuff that I could have been involved in,” Russell said of Kelly’s influence. “You saved me then, I want to save you now.”
But Russell also said he did not know the extent of the “collateral damage” Kelly caused.
Known for hits like “Ignition: Remix” and “Trapped in the Closet,” Kelly was convicted on federal sex trafficking and child pornography counts at two separate trial in Brooklyn and Chicago, respectively. He is serving a 30-year sentence for the Brooklyn charges, and is yet to be sentenced in his hometown.
“When I got in the water to help him, he didn’t warn me that there were piranhas, and Moby Dick, and the great white shark … and he was bleeding out,” Russell said.
Kelly’s victims have described a life of total control under the “I Believe I Can Fly” crooner: He required them to get his permission to eat; he kept them in rooms for days at a time; and he directed them to have sex with him and others, often videotaping the encounters. If the women and girls broke his rules, he would physically abuse them, including spanking them so hard he left bruises and broken skin, punishments Kelly called “chastisements.”
Though Kelly was charged alone in Brooklyn, his racketeering conviction was based on his maintaining for decades an inner circle of assistants, producers and managers who knew that Kelly was abusing the women and minors who lived with him. Many would even hand out Kelly’s phone number at concerts, malls and McDonald's restaurants to recruit women and girls as sex partners for Kelly.
In Chicago, only Kelly was convicted, while his longtime former manager Derrel McDavid and personal assistant Milton Brown were both acquitted.
Russell called out that variation in outcomes at his sentencing.
“What’s crazy to me is I’m the one that got convicted. I worked with him six months, and I’m the only one that got convicted — six months at the end of his career,” Russell said.
Russell noted that he trusted his trial attorney, Michael Freedman, but that he disagreed with the lawyer's advice that he not take the stand. Had he done so, Russell said, he could have explained who he is and how he felt about his involvement with intimidating victims of sexual abuse.
“I think that makes a difference, when people can hear that from you,” Russell told the judge. “Now that a decision has been made on whether I deserve to be in prison or move forward with my life, I thought it made sense to let you know.”
Russell declined to comment on the sentencing, as did his wife, who attended the hearing, and lawyer Freedman.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.