In federal courtroom far from his hometown, remnants of R. Kelly’s superstardom evaporate in sweeping racketeering, sex crimes conviction

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Chicago-born R&B singer R. Kelly sat nearly motionless in a federal courtroom in New York on Monday, surrounded by his attorneys but looking very much alone.

Gone was the superstardom and all the trappings that for years had come with it: The entourage of bodyguards and managers, the drivers and runners, the sycophants and hangers-on, and, most of all, the girls.

What was left was Robert Sylvester Kelly, 54, dressed in a navy blue suit, some 800 miles away from his hometown, staring straight ahead as he awaited a verdict that was years in the making.

Moments later, the jury’s decision was read in Judge Ann Donnelly’s hushed fourth floor courtroom: Guilty of racketeering conspiracy and eight other counts alleging the singer used his organization to lure and trap girls and young women to satisfy his sexually predatory desires.

The jury deliberated for about nine hours beginning Friday before reaching the verdict in the case, which had attracted national media attention and played out over the past six weeks under strict security and COVID-19 protocols.

In addition to the main count of racketeering, the jury found Kelly guilty on all eight counts of violating the Mann Act, which prohibits travel over state lines for illegal sex.

Kelly, one of the biggest music stars Chicago has ever produced, faces anywhere from 10 years to life in prison when he’s sentenced on May 4, according to the U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn.

With pandemic rules in place, Kelly kept his face mask on and remained expressionless as the verdicts were read shortly after 2 p.m. Chicago time. As the jury filed out, Kelly stood and clasped his hands in front of him. He whispered something to one of his lawyers before being led from the courtroom with his hands behind his back by a court security officer.

Outside the courtroom, Kelly’s lawyer, Deveraux Cannick, told reporters his team was “disappointed with the verdict” and would be exploring options for appeal.

Another member of the defense team, attorney Thomas Farinella, tweeted out a statement saying the manner in which prosecutors used of the federal racketeering statute — commonly referred to as RICO — against Kelly was “an aberration.”

“The RICO ‘Enterprise’ was based on a series of independent relationships and events the (government) patched together like different types of fabrics and passed it off as silk,” Farniella wrote.

Donnelly gave the defense until Nov. 1 to file any post-trial motions.

In a brief news conference in front of the courthouse Monday afternoon, acting U.S. Attorney Jacquelyn Kasulis said the jury had “delivered a powerful message to men like R. Kelly” that eventually their crimes will catch up to them.

“Todays verdict forever brands R. Kelly as a predator who used his fame and fortune to prey on the young, the vulnerable and the voiceless for his own sexual gratification,” Kasulis said. “A predator who used his inner circle to ensnare underage girls, men and women for decades in a sordid web of sex abuse, degradation and humiliation.”

Kasulis said to Kelly’s victims that their “voices were heard, and justice was finally served.”

“We hope that today’s verdict brings some measure of comfort and closure to the victims,” she said.

After the news conference, a small but vocal contingent of Kelly’s supporters blasted music in the park across the street from the Brooklyn federal courthouse as they have for much of the trial.

One woman, dressed in a shirt emblazoned with Kelly’s image, held up two middle fingers toward the courthouse as she yelled, “We’re not giving up! The government (is) lying!”

In all, the seven-man, five-woman jury found Kelly guilty of 12 individual criminal acts involving the racketeering scheme, including sex with multiple underage girls as well as a 1994 scheme to bribe an Illinois public aid official to get a phony ID for 15-year-old singer Aaliyah so the two could get illegally married.

The jury found prosecutors had not proven two of the alleged racketeering acts, both involving the same victim, Sonja, who testified she was held captive in Kelly’s music studio in Chicago and later sexually assaulted by the singer.

The verdict marked Kelly’s first criminal conviction after more than two decades of allegations over his sexual exploits. In 2008, Kelly was acquitted by a Cook County jury of child pornography charges alleging he videotaped himself having sex with a girl as young as 13.

The Grammy-winning singer, whose hits include 1996′s “I Believe I Can Fly,” went on to sell millions more records after that shocking verdict. But questions about his misconduct continued to dog him, culminating with the 2019 Lifetime docu-series “Surviving R. Kelly” chronicling the alleged abuse of more than a dozen girls and young women, several of whom later became the focus of the federal investigation.

Six months after the series aired, Kelly was charged with racketeering in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn in July 2019. The trial, which was delayed several times by the COVID-19 pandemic, got underway last month and featured testimony from some 50 witnesses, including a number of alleged victims who told the jury that Kelly manipulated and controlled them and forced them to have sex with him and others — often on videotape.

Kelly’s legal woes are not over with the verdict, however. He also faces a pending case in Chicago’s federal courthouse, where prosecutors allege he and two others fixed his 2008 trial in Cook County, as well as four separate indictments alleging sexual abuse that are still pending at Chicago’s Leighton Criminal Court Building. Kelly also faces a solicitation case in state court in Minnesota.

Attorney Steve Greenberg, who along with his colleague, Michael Leonard, represents Kelly on his remaining Chicago cases, said they were “terribly disappointed” with Monday’s verdict. Greenberg and Leonard withdrew from the New York case after a dramatic shakeup of the defense team earlier this year.

“We thought when we were handling it that we had a good chance of prevailing, knowing what we know about the evidence,” he told the Tribune. “Unfortunately Robert made a choice to have other people handle it, and I leave it to others to Monday morning quarterback that decision.”

Meanwhile, Monday’s verdict could change the calculus significantly on the remaining cases against Kelly.

Facing so much time in prison, Kelly could choose to plead on some or all of them instead of going to trial; alternately, prosecutors in the other jurisdictions may choose to drop some or all of the other charges.

Another possibility would be for prosecutors in New York to try to use some of the allegations in other jurisdictions to get stiffer prison sentence, effectively turning his sentencing hearing next year into a mini-trial on the various other allegations.

“If they want to proceed (on the remaining cases), we’re going to be ready to defend them,” Greenberg told the Tribune. “... We’ll figure something out, how we’re going to proceed. I think everyone needs to take a deep breath and then go from there.”

The U.S. attorney’s offices in both Chicago and Brooklyn declined to comment on what direction the federal cases might go in light of Monday’s verdict.

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx told the Tribune her office had agreed to remain in “pretrial posture” while the federal cases play out.

“A lot of what happens is contingent on the the input of our victims,” Foxx said in a telephone interview.

Whatever Kelly’s final prison sentence ends up being, authorities in New York touted the conviction as an effective end to Kelly’s sexual misdeeds.

Peter Fitzhugh, special agent in charge for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in New York, said the jury’s verdict would not have been possible if his victims had not stepped forward and testified.

“Today a jury of Mr. Kelly’s peers confirmed what these courageous victims have known for far too long — Mr. Kelly is a prolific, serial predator,” Fitzhugh said.

Foxx said she was struck by how far back Kelly’s sexual misconduct stretched and how, in Chicago, his behavior was so well-known “that it almost became lore.”

“It is a very Chicago story,” Foxx said. “I mean, I think what it means for the city is having to contend with one of our own being held accountable . ... As much as it may be a part of Chicago folklore, there are people whose lives were impacted by this.”

The verdict was a clear repudiation of arguments by Kelly’s defense team that tried to paint the victims as gold-diggers and stalkers who wanted to get close to Kelly and now were lying to get a payday.

In his closing argument last week, Cannick said Kelly was an international sex symbol who may have been known for a playboy lifestyle, but his relationships were consensual. He repeatedly accused the government of allowing witnesses to come in and lie to win the big prize of a celebrity conviction.

“They gotta try to bring home the bacon,” he said. “But you can’t want it that bad. You really just can’t.”

But prosecutors blasted the assertion that the singer was just enjoying his fame, saying Kelly’s legal team was resorting to classic victim-blaming and had “taken a time machine back to a courthouse in the 1950s.”

“What they were basically insinuating was that all of these women and girls were asking for it, and they deserved what they got,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Nadia Shihata told the jury in rebuttal on Friday. “It’s not only absurd, it’s shameful.”

An hour before the verdict was announced, the judge released to the media graphic audio excerpts from video evidence that had been previous shown only to the jury depicting the singer spanking a young woman and forcing her to parade naked in front of him.

The alleged victim, who testified under the name Anna, was not one of the six victims that make up the racketeering counts, but offered instead by prosecutors as proof of other crimes committed by Kelly. The woman on the clips was 21 at the time, prosecutors have said.

“Keep your eyes closed,” Kelly can be heard saying early in one of the clips, which together run about 45 minutes. “Eyes open? Guess what — we start over.”

Kelly’s instruction was followed by the sound of a series of slaps, and the woman could be heard sobbing. Afterward, she is heard weeping as Kelly makes her say, over and over, “I’m a stupid (expletive) daddy, I want you to fix me.”

Kelly tells her to keep going, and that he loves her and has her back.

“Without a frown, without an attitude you do what the (expletive) I say,” Kelly could be heard saying on the tape.

In another audio clip involving Anna, Kelly could be heard directing the alleged victim where to put her leg. In the background, a television was tuned to ESPN, with hosts debating Michael Jordan and LeBron James.

The excerpts were released by Donnelly after a group of media outlets, including the Chicago Tribune, argued in a letter to the court that she had improperly ordered the evidence to be played only for jurors.

The evidence marked the only time at the trial that the jury heard directly from Kelly, who declined to testify in his own defense.,

“That wasn’t role play and that wasn’t consensual,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Nadia Shihata said in her closing argument about Anna’s alleged abuse. “You saw it with your own eyes.”

jmeisner@chicagotribune.com

mcrepeau@chicagotribune.com

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