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R. Kelly sex abuse trial: Prosecutor describes R&B star as a ‘predator’

The openings came more than a decade after the singer was acquitted in a 2008 child pornography case in Chicago.
This file photo from  June 26, 2019, shows R&B singer R. Kelly arriving at the Leighton Criminal Court in Chicago for arraignment on sex-related charges. A prosecutor described sex abuse claims against R&B star R. Kelly Wednesday, saying the long-anticipated trial now underway was “about a predator" who used his fame to entice girls, boys and young women before dominating and controlling them physically, sexually and psychologically.
This file photo from June 26, 2019, shows R&B singer R. Kelly arriving at the Leighton Criminal Court in Chicago for arraignment on sex-related charges. A prosecutor described sex abuse claims against R&B star R. Kelly Wednesday, saying the long-anticipated trial now underway was “about a predator" who used his fame to entice girls, boys and young women before dominating and controlling them physically, sexually and psychologically. [ AMR ALFIKY | AP ]
Published Aug. 18
Updated Aug. 19

NEW YORK — R&B star R. Kelly is a predator who lured girls, boys and young women with his fame and dominated them physically, sexually and psychologically, a prosecutor said Wednesday, while a defense lawyer warned jurors they’ll have to sift through lies from accusers with agendas to find the truth.

The differing perspectives came as the long-anticipated trial began unfolding in a Brooklyn courtroom where several accusers were expected to testify in the next month about the Grammy-winning, multiplatinum-selling singer whose career has been derailed by charges that have left him jailed as he goes broke.

In this courtroom artist's sketch made from a video screen monitor of a Brooklyn courtroom, defendant R. Kelly, left, listens during the opening day of his trial, Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021 in New York. The prosecutor described sex abuse claims against Kelly, saying the long-anticipated trial now underway was "about a predator" who used his fame to entice girls, boys and young women before dominating and controlling them physically, sexually and psychologically. (AP Photo/Elizabeth Williams)
In this courtroom artist's sketch made from a video screen monitor of a Brooklyn courtroom, defendant R. Kelly, left, listens during the opening day of his trial, Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021 in New York. The prosecutor described sex abuse claims against Kelly, saying the long-anticipated trial now underway was "about a predator" who used his fame to entice girls, boys and young women before dominating and controlling them physically, sexually and psychologically. (AP Photo/Elizabeth Williams) [ ELIZABETH WILLIAMS | AP ]

Jerhonda Pace, the first government witness, told jurors Wednesday that she was a 16-year-old virgin and a member of Kelly’s fan club when he invited her to his mansion in 2010. He immediately told her to take off her clothing, Pace said.

“He asked me to continue to tell everyone I was 19 and act like I was 21,” she said. Kelly responded “that’s good” when she revealed her virginity, said that he wanted to “train her” sexually and ordered her to call him “Daddy,” she said.

They continued to see each other for another six months, with Kelly growing more and more controlling and erupting in violence when she broke what she called “Rob’s rules.” One time he grew so angry, “He slapped me and choked me until I passed out,” she said with no hint of emotion.

In this courtroom sketch Jerhonda Pace testifies against R&B star R. Kelly during the singer's sex abuse trial Wednesday in New York.
In this courtroom sketch Jerhonda Pace testifies against R&B star R. Kelly during the singer's sex abuse trial Wednesday in New York. [ ELIZABETH WILLIAMS | AP ]

Afterward, he spit in her face and forced her to have oral sex, she said. She kept a blue T-shirt from the episode that has provided DNA evidence of the misconduct, prosecutors said.

The Associated Press doesn’t name alleged victims of sexual abuse without their consent unless they have spoken publicly extensively. Pace has appeared in a documentary and participated in media interviews.

Prior to Pace’s testimony, lawyers gave jurors an outline of the trial in their opening statements.

“This case is not about a celebrity who likes to party a lot,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Maria Cruz Melendez told the Brooklyn jury as she explained the evidence to be revealed at his federal trial. “This case is about a predator.”

She said he distributed backstage passes to entice children and women to join him, sometimes at his home or studio, where he then “dominated and controlled them physically, sexually and psychologically.”

In this courtroom artist's sketch made from a video screen monitor of a Brooklyn courtroom, defendant R. Kelly, top left, listens as Assistant U.S. Attorney Maria Melendez, center, makes opening arguments, Wednesday in New York. The prosecutor described sex abuse claims against Kelly, saying the long-anticipated trial now underway was "about a predator" who used his fame to entice girls, boys and young women before dominating and controlling them physically, sexually and psychologically.
In this courtroom artist's sketch made from a video screen monitor of a Brooklyn courtroom, defendant R. Kelly, top left, listens as Assistant U.S. Attorney Maria Melendez, center, makes opening arguments, Wednesday in New York. The prosecutor described sex abuse claims against Kelly, saying the long-anticipated trial now underway was "about a predator" who used his fame to entice girls, boys and young women before dominating and controlling them physically, sexually and psychologically. [ ELIZABETH WILLIAMS | AP ]

The prosecutor said Kelly would often record sex acts with minors as he controlled a racketeering enterprise of individuals who were loyal and devoted to him, eager to “fulfill each and everyone one of the defendant’s wishes and demands.”

Related: Watch: A man claims to have a tape showing R. Kelly sexually abusing girls

“What his success and popularity brought him was access, access to girls, boys and young women,” she said.

But Kelly’s attorney, Nicole Blank Becker, portrayed her client as a victim of women, some of whom enjoyed the “notoriety of being able to tell their friends that they were with a superstar.”

“He didn’t recruit them. They were fans. They came to Mr. Kelly,” she said, urging jurors to closely scrutinize the testimony. “They knew exactly what they were getting into. It was no secret Mr. Kelly had multiple girlfriends. He was quite transparent.”

R. Kelly's attorneys Nicole Becker and Thomas Farinella arrive at Brooklyn Federal court for opening statements in the R&B star's long-anticipated federal trial arising from years of allegations that he sexually abused women and girls, Wednesday in New York.
R. Kelly's attorneys Nicole Becker and Thomas Farinella arrive at Brooklyn Federal court for opening statements in the R&B star's long-anticipated federal trial arising from years of allegations that he sexually abused women and girls, Wednesday in New York. [ MARY ALTAFFER | AP ]

It would be a stretch to believe he orchestrated an elaborate criminal enterprise, like a mob boss, the lawyer said.

Becker warned jurors they’ll have to sort through “a mess of lies” from women with an agenda.

“Don’t assume everybody’s telling the truth,” she said.

Related: Watch: Livid R. Kelly cries, calls sex abuse accusers liars

The remarks fit a theme set by the defense in court papers prior to the trial describing Kelly’s alleged victims as groupies who turned up at his shows and made it known they “were dying to be with him.” The women only started accusing him of abuse years later when public sentiment shifted against him, they said.

Kelly, 54, is perhaps best known for his smash hit “I Believe I Can Fly,” a 1996 song that became an inspirational anthem played at school graduations, weddings, advertisements and elsewhere.

The openings and testimony came more than a decade after Kelly was acquitted in a 2008 child pornography case in Chicago. It was a reprieve that allowed his music career to continue until the #MeToo era caught up with him, emboldening alleged victims to come forward.

The parents of R. Kelly accuser, Joycelyn Savage, appear outside Brooklyn Federal Court on Wednesday.
The parents of R. Kelly accuser, Joycelyn Savage, appear outside Brooklyn Federal Court on Wednesday.

The women’s stories got wide exposure with the Lifetime documentary “Surviving R. Kelly.” The series explored how an entourage of supporters protected Kelly and silenced his victims for decades, foreshadowing the federal racketeering conspiracy case that landed Kelly in jail in 2019.

Prosecutors in Brooklyn have lined up multiple female accusers — mostly referred to in court as “Jane Does” — and cooperating former associates who have never spoken publicly before about their experiences with Kelly.

They’re expected to offer testimony about how Kelly’s managers, bodyguards and other employees helped him recruit women and girls — and sometimes boys — for sexual exploitation. They say the group selected victims at concerts and other venues and arranged for them to travel to see Kelly in the New York City area and elsewhere, in violation of the Mann Act, the 1910 law that made it illegal to “transport any woman or girl” across state lines “for any immoral purpose.”

Azriel Clary, right, and Joycelyn Savage follow their attorney as they leave the Dirksen Federal Courthouse after R. Kelly was denied bail on July 16, 2019.
Azriel Clary, right, and Joycelyn Savage follow their attorney as they leave the Dirksen Federal Courthouse after R. Kelly was denied bail on July 16, 2019.

When the women and girls arrived at their lodgings, a member of Kelly’s entourage would set down rules about not speaking to each other, how they should dress and how they needed permission from Kelly before eating or going to the bathroom, prosecutors say. Also, they allegedly were required to call him “Daddy.”

An anonymous jury made up of seven men and five women was sworn in to hear the case. The trial, coming after several delays due mostly to the pandemic, unfolds under coronavirus precautions restricting the press and the public to overflow courtrooms with video feeds.

A court officer, left, stands guard as reporters and spectators line up to enter Brooklyn Federal court for opening statements in R&B star R. Kelly's long-anticipated federal trial arising from years of allegations that he sexually abused women and girls, Wednesday, in New York.
A court officer, left, stands guard as reporters and spectators line up to enter Brooklyn Federal court for opening statements in R&B star R. Kelly's long-anticipated federal trial arising from years of allegations that he sexually abused women and girls, Wednesday, in New York. [ MARY ALTAFFER | AP ]

The New York case is only part of the legal peril facing the singer, born Robert Sylvester Kelly. He also has pleaded not guilty to sex-related charges in Illinois and Minnesota.

Related: R. Kelly charged with 11 new sex-related crimes in Chicago

By TOM HAYS and JIM MUSTIAN, Associated Press. AP writer Larry Neumeister contributed to this report.