R. Kelly co-defendant takes stand, says he was suspicious of sexual misconduct claims against singer

·9 min read

CHCAGO — R&B superstar R. Kelly had already been the target of several lawsuits alleging sexual misconduct when he told his then-business manager in December 2000 that his 14-year-old goddaughter “was being harassed” by police to admit they were having an inappropriate relationship.

The business manager, Derrel McDavid told a federal jury Wednesday that when he asked Kelly if the allegation regarding the girl, “Jane,” was true, the singer exploded.

“ ‘Are you out your goddamn mind?’ ” McDavid testified Kelly said at the time. “ ‘This is my goddaughter! Of course there’s no truth to this.’ ”

McDavid said Kelly was convinced that Jane’s aunt, Stephanie “Sparkle” Edwards, and his former personal manager, Barry Hankerson, who each had axes to grind against Kelly, were behind it. Police later interviewed the goddaughter, “Jane,” and her family, who denied it all, and no charges were ever brought, he said.

It all added up in his mind that there was “absolutely no truth to it,” McDavid testified.

“Every statement, every report, every lawyer’s letter, all said the same thing: She denied it. Her parents denied it,” he said. Asked what impact that had on Kelly’s strenuous denials, McDavid paused.

“I believed him,” McDavid said.

McDavid’s recounting of how the investigation into Kelly’s relationship with Jane is key to his defense against conspiracy charges, which hinges in part on his claim that he truly believed Kelly to be innocent at the time of the alleged coverup, and that he merely followed the advice of more experienced attorneys and investigators.

Earlier Wednesday, McDavid said that during his employment with Kelly, he came to believe that the slew of accusers who filed sexual misconduct lawsuits against the singer were untruthful, just out for a payday from his famous employer.

McDavid’s testimony, which comes on the 15th day of trial at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse, is a rare and risky move for a criminal defendant in federal court. Prosecutors are expected to cross examine McDavid at length on Thursday.

Dressed in a gray suit and light blue tie, McDavid, 61, was conversational and animated on direct examination, offering slight smiles and sometimes heavy sighs while describing the excitement and frustration of managing Kelly’s meteoric rise to fame.

At one point, when describing how Kelly was a rare “self-contained” star who could do it all, McDavid gestured toward Kelly at the defense table, saying he could “sit right there at that table and produce a song.”

McDavid said he also saw a darker side to Kelly’s fame.

The belief that the allegations against Kelly were “bulls--t” stemmed from the very first public claim against Kelly, he said, which came from Tiffany Hawkins in the late 1990s. Hawkins sued Kelly accusing him of having sexual contact with her when she was underage, and Kelly ultimately settled the suit for $250,000.

But, McDavid said, Hawkins’ original claim alleged that he had impregnated her — which Kelly strenuously denied, saying he would take a paternity test. That claim was later dropped, which made McDavid suspicious that she was not being truthful, he testified.

Kelly’s attorney at the time, Gerald Margolis, said he would prove her a liar but that they would still settle, which McDavid found confusing. But “this is the way it goes,” Margolis told him, according to McDavid.

McDavid scrunched his face in apparent disgust as he talked about women making stories up for “a payday,” at one point exhaling sharply and shaking his head as he described Hawkins in particular as “on some kind of bulls--t.”

McDavid had been slated to testify Tuesday, but the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse unexpectedly closed due to an unspecified “operational issue.” The delay means Kelly’s trial will almost certainly stretch into next week.

McDavid, who faces charges along with Kelly and Milton “June” Brown, is expected to testify that one of the tapes at the center of the indictment was in fact a video of Kelly and his then-wife ― not the child pornography that prosecutors have alleged.

Wednesday marks the second day of defense witnesses. Kelly and Brown said last week they do not plan to take the witness stand.

McDavid, a certified public accountant, began by telling jurors about his first encounter with Kelly, long before he became a superstar.

He first heard about Kelly in the 1980s, when a high-school friend from Kenwood Academy walked into a card game and said he had just signed a group called R. Kelly and Public Announcement.

“He was positive that R. Kelly was going to be a big player in the music industry,” McDavid said, swiveling in his chair and sometimes pausing to sip from a bottle of water.

A few years later, McDavid met with Kelly about becoming his accountant.

“The first words out of Robert’s mouth was, ‘Have you heard my music?’ And I said, ‘No, I haven’t.’ He kind of looked down on the floor like he was a little bit disappointed,” McDavid said.

At that time, Kelly was introverted and “humble,” McDavid said. “He was just trying to get in the music business and make it.”

But he warmed to McDavid during their first meeting, he testified, eventually asking: “So you the guy who’s gonna handle my money?”

“I said yes,” McDavid said. “He smiled. That was the extent of our conversation.”

In the years to come Kelly became a bona fide superstar, McDavid said, and became “self-contained” — that is, he could write, play instruments, and produce, he said.

McDavid recalled listening to a country music radio station with his wife, and in the middle of the country music, a song from Kelly’s debut solo album “12Play” came on.

“On a country station!” McDavid said. “I glanced over to my wife and said, ‘Looks like he’s made it.’”

In the mid-1990s, McDavid transitioned from Kelly’s accountant to his business manager, handling a wide scope of Kelly’s dealings: “anything to do with the finances,” McDavid said.

McDavid’s testimony and the ensuing cross-examination promises to be lively. McDavid worked closely with Kelly for years before their professional relationship dissolved around 2013.

But before jurors were brought in Wednesday morning, Judge Harry Leinenweber ruled on two hot-button requests. The first involved journalist Jim DeRogatis, who Leinenweber decided does not have to take the stand.

McDavid’s attorneys said they wanted to call DeRogatis strictly to cast doubt on the chain of custody for one of the tapes at issue — not to ask him about confidential sources or any other tricky topics. But Leinenweber had already ruled weeks ago that chain-of-custody issues were not relevant, and so there was no basis to call DeRogatis to testify, the judge said.

On Tuesday, the eve of McDavid’s expected testimony, Kelly’s defense attorneys filed paperwork asking the judge to prohibit McDavid from testifying about certain topics that they fear could unfairly prejudice the jury against Kelly — including any testimony “related to McDavid taking Kelly to get injections or any treatment to curb his sexual appetite.”

Among the other matters Kelly’s attorneys hope to keep jurors from hearing: Kelly’s marriage to 15-year-old singer Aaliyah; any lawsuits, settlements or sexual misconduct claims from other Kelly accusers, and “testimony regarding Kelly’s alleged sex addictions.”

Leinenweber said Wednesday morning that he would rule individually on many of those possibly prejudicial subjects later on. But something like “getting shots to control his sexual impulses” would likely be off-limits, he said.

DeRogatis earlier this week filed paperwork to throw out a summons to testify about a purported sex tape sent anonymously to him at the Chicago Sun-Times two decades ago involving Kelly and a then-14-year-old girl.

The motion, filed by DeRogatis and his current employer, The New Yorker, alleges that by subpoenaing the longtime journalist to testify, attorneys for McDavid are trying to put his “newsgathering” on trial.

“Because Mr. DeRogatis’ role has been as an investigative reporter, compelled testimony also is invasive as to his newsgathering methods and cumulative of the actual sources and their source materials,” the motion stated.

DeRogatis’ reporting on that tape helped break the investigation into Kelly’s alleged sexual misconduct wide open, leading to Kelly’s indictment — and eventual acquittal — on child pornography charges in Cook County. DeRogatis was called to testify in that case, but asserted his First and Fifth Amendment rights and did not answer questions.

That same videotape is one of several purported sex tapes at the center of Kelly’s current trial at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse, where Kelly, McDavid and another former employee, Milton “June” Brown, are accused of conspiring to hide Kelly’s sexual misdeeds by buying back incriminating evidence and paying off or intimidating witnesses.

Lawyers for the defendants have repeatedly tried to call into question the authenticity and chain-of-custody of the DeRogatis tape, in part because copies were made at the Sun-Times before one version was turned over to police.

Last month, McDavid’s attorneys also accused the former lead prosecutor on the case, Angel Krull, of improperly communicating with DeRogatis in early 2019 using a burner email account — “piedpiper312@gmail.com” — that was attached to a pseudonym, “Demetrius Slovenski.”

According to prosecutors, Krull had a short phone conversation with DeRogatis about possibly sharing the manuscript of his book, “Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly,” then had a brief email exchange. She did not respond to subsequent emails or voicemails from DeRogatis, according to prosecutors.

DeRogatis previously told the Tribune that he was the one to initiate contact with federal prosecutors, in an attempt to cultivate sources. That effort was unsuccessful, he said.

“Angel never gave me a damn thing. No federal prosecutor ever did,” he said.

Prosecutors abruptly rested their case-in-chief last week after calling only four out of the five Kelly accusers whom jurors were expected to hear from. The prosecution case has featured other surprises as well, though it remains to be seen whether any will make a difference for the verdict.

Defense attorneys for the three men called several witnesses Thursday before the case adjourned for the long weekend, including a former Chicago police officer who provided security to Kelly’s private investigator at McDavid’s request and an ex-Kelly employee who testified about the day-to-day functions of lower-rung employees.

In addition to DeRogatis, defense attorneys have hinted they may try to call disgraced attorney Michael Avenatti, who represented a man who turned the two other sex tapes included in the indictment over to federal authorities in 2019, as well as Krull, who left Chicago in 2020 to care for an ailing relative and is no longer handling the case.

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