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Trial kicks off for R. Kelly manager on threat to ‘shoot up’ documentary premiere

Donnell Russell is accused of terrorizing the people responsible for "Surviving R. Kelly," a 2018 Lifetime series that went on to reignite the criminal investigations for which the R&B star is behind bars today.

MANHATTAN (CN) — A man who stood as the manager, adviser and friend to R. Kelly in the time just before the singer's public downfall for a litany of sex crimes went on trial Wednesday morning for crossing the line in a bid to protect Kelly's reputation.

Donnell Russell, 47, faces a federal indictment in the Southern District of New York that says he called in a December 2018 shooting threat to thwart the Manhattan premiere of “Surviving R. Kelly," a Lifetime documentary series that detailed three decades of sexual, physical and psychological abuse claims surrounding Kelly's relationships with underage girls and vulnerable women.

The six-part series boasted in-depth interviews with several of Kelly’s victims and is credited for building the public outrage that led to the Grammy winner's criminal indictment in multiple jurisdictions. Kelly was given a 30-year prison sentence last month in the first of these cases to go to trial in Brooklyn.

Some four years earlier, however, prosecutors say Russell tried to stop the premiere of "Surviving R. Kelly" at NeueHouse Madison Square. The screening at the members-only space was only a few minutes underway on Dec. 4, 2018, when it was abruptly canceled and attendees evacuated because someone had called to say he “was going to shoot up the place.”

Prosecutors allege that Russell made a series of escalating attempts to shut down the December 2018 premiere of the docuseries, starting with sending a bogus cease-and-desist letter from a fake lawyer, then calls to New York police and fire departments to disrupt the screening, before he called in a “terrifying interstate threat to sabotage the event.”

“While in his home in Chicago, he picked up his phone and called the theater here in Manhattan,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Lara Pomerantz told jurors on Wednesday morning

“But this call was different," she continued. "This time, the defendant didn’t just threaten a phony lawsuit. This time, the defendant uttered words that no one working in a crowded theater wants to hear. On that call, the defendant told the employee that someone at the event had a gun and was going to shoot up the place.”

Russell was “dedicated to stopping the event,” Pomerantz said, because the documentary was going to damage R. Kelly’s reputation and his own “financial future very much depended on R. Kelly being about to perform and to make money.”

Denying that Russell made the gunman threat, defense attorney Michael Freedman told jurors on Wednesday that Russell is only responsible for making calls to Lifetime and to NeueHouse “to alert someone to this copyright infringement that he believed was occurring."

The voice on the threat call “sounded like he was aggressive, and sounded like he was outside and sounded like he was from Brooklyn,” Freedman said, trying to distinguish the voice on the threat call from his client.

“The evidence is not sufficient to find Mr. Russell guilty,” Freedman told jurors. The attorney likened the government’s case to the children’s whisper game of telephone: “It’s going to get a little garbled.”

Prosecutors expect the trial before U.S. District Judge Paul Gardephe to take a week or less.

Separate from this case in Manhattan, Russell faces an indictment in the Eastern District of New York with regard to 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.

Prosecutors say Russell used the alias “Colon Dunn" to write these messages. “Just a sample. We will seek criminal charges. You’ve been warned,” he allegedly wrote, as well as “Publishing soon” and “this is Colon.”

The same nude photographs were published on Facebook and YouTube, among other websites, and the government says Russell put them there.

Kelly, 55, faces a separate federal trial as well. His is set next month in the Northern District of Illinois on 13 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, pleaded not guilty and denies all the charges. 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. 

Last November, Kelly’s associate Michael Williams was sentenced to eight years in prison on a guilty plea for arson counts for setting fire outside of the Florida home of one of R. Kelly’s accusers.

Williams was indicted by Brooklyn federal prosecutors in tandem with Russell for intimidating potential victim witnesses, including those who ultimately testified at trial using pseudonyms or first names. 

Richard Arline Jr., a third Kelly associate indicted at the same time as Russell and Williams, pleaded guilty in February 2021 to offering half a million dollars in hush money to stop a woman from telling investigators about her relationship with the jailed R&B star.

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