August 19, 2021 11:45:34 am
By Troy Closson and Emily Palmer
When Jerhonda Pace first met R. Kelly, she was 16 years old and excited to be in the presence of someone she idolized, she said. But over the next six months, she testified in a Brooklyn courtroom Wednesday, Kelly had sex with her while she was underage and physically and emotionally abused her.
After more than two decades of accusations, Pace, now 28, was the first of Kelly’s accusers to ever testify against the R&B star, whose long-awaited criminal trial began on Wednesday.
The singer, whose real name is Robert Sylvester Kelly, used his fame and musical talent to enable a sinister pattern of behavior, prosecutors said. Pace’s account offered an initial glimpse into the system of sexual and physical abuse that the once-prolific entertainer is accused of commanding for more than two decades.
As she testified, Pace described being forced to abide by rigid restrictions — what she called “Rob’s rules” — whenever she would visit Kelly’s home. She was forced to call him “Daddy,” she said, and acknowledge him whenever he entered a room.
But in one instance, she failed to do so.
“That’s when he slapped me and choked me until I passed out,” she said, recalling collapsing to the floor of Kelly’s Chicago-area home. “I remember him just putting his hand around my neck.”
She added: “He spit in my face and told me to put my head down in shame,” before Kelly forced her to perform a sex act on him.
The R&B singer’s appearance Wednesday marked only the second time his fate will be decided by a panel of jurors in criminal court. The trial has been highly anticipated since Kelly’s sexual conduct came under fresh scrutiny during the height of the #MeToo movement.
Kelly has staunchly denied all of the accusations against him, and his lawyers Wednesday described Pace and his other accusers as miffed fans and groupies seeking to capitalize on his fame.
The sweeping nine-count indictment he faces on charges of racketeering and violations of the Mann Act, an interstate anti-prostitution law, is centered on Kelly’s interactions with six women and girls, including Pace.
The other five women involved in the case include the singer Aaliyah, who died in a 2001 plane crash and whose brief marriage to Kelly at 15 years old was among the first revelations to fuel questions over his conduct, and four women referred to only by their first names or by pseudonyms at the trial.
“This case is about a predator,” Maria Cruz Melendez, an assistant U.S. attorney, told the jury during an opening statement. Kelly, she said, was a star whose public persona allowed him to use “his fame, his popularity and a network of people at his disposal to target, groom and exploit young girls, boys and women for his own sexual gratification.”
In her opening arguments, Cruz Melendez cast Kelly, 54, as a serial manipulator who used the access granted by his fame to prey on his fans. She said that he and his inner circle “used every trick in the predator handbook” to present himself as a mentor to girls and their families.
But once they entered into relationships with him, she said, they were often forced to abide by strict rules: being forced to receive his permission to use the bathroom; having sex with whomever he wanted, whenever he decided; demanding what Cruz Melendez called “absolute obedience.”
“He began collecting girls and women as if they were things,” she said, “hoarding them like objects that he could use however he liked.”
But over more than 2 1/2 hours, Kelly’s defense team spun through a prolonged cascade of issues in the case that they said cast doubt on the entire base of accusations.
Those included arguments that his accusers had willingly traveled to see him and “knew what they were getting into”; that some became spiteful after their relationships turned tense and sought “revenge”; and that the racketeering charge against Kelly did not hold up because his music career was interrupted by a foray in professional basketball.
Nicole Blank Becker, one of Kelly’s four lawyers, focused on the credibility and motivations of his accusers. She described them as once-enamored fans who each developed an “agenda” when faced with the prospect of media attention and financial gain.
“We believe their testimony will crumble,” Blank Becker told jurors. “There will be so many untruths told to you, ladies and gentlemen, that even the government won’t be able to untangle the mess of lies.”
As she took the stand on Wednesday, Pace, who was featured in the Lifetime documentary “Surviving R. Kelly,” described first meeting the R&B artist around the time of his first criminal trial in 2008. In that case, Kelly was acquitted of child pornography charges after the girl at the center of the case declined to testify.
Pace initially told him she was 19. But after Kelly performed a sex act on her one day in 2009, she revealed her age. “I felt uncomfortable,” she said.
But, she added, Kelly did not appear to care. “He asked me, ‘What is that supposed to mean?’ and told me to tell everyone I was 19 — and to act 21,” she said.
When Pace told him that she was a virgin, “He said, ‘That’s good,’ ” she recalled, adding that he told her he would “train” her on how to sexually please him. The two had sexual intercourse, she said, and “he took my virginity.”
Kelly’s defense team described Pace, referred to as Jane Doe No. 4 in court documents, as a “superfan” and a “groupie” who was consumed by her obsession with the singer.
His trial follows several similar high-profile cases over accusations of sexual assault, including the trials of the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and the comedian and actor Bill Cosby.
But the case also stands apart. In Weinstein’s case, which touched off a national reckoning around sexual abuse, many of the women who came forward were actresses and models, and they were mostly white — as were many of those at the center of accusations in the most prominent cases across business, politics, media and entertainment.
The majority of Kelly’s accusers are Black women.
“I do think it matters a lot — that this is the first high-profile MeToo-era trial where the accusers, for the most part, aren’t white women,” said Deborah Tuerkheimer, a professor of law at Northwestern University and former assistant district attorney in Manhattan.
“If you take these kinds of accusers who have traditionally been most dismissed, most disregarded, most cast aside — and those women are able to be believed and have jurors care enough to convict, that matters,” Tuerkheimer said. “And that would send a powerful message.”
Pace is one of the six women at the center of the racketeering case against the entertainer. The defense cast doubt on whether the charge — which Blank Becker noted has been previously used to pursue Mafia bosses — would apply to Kelly’s case.
“The evidence will show that this is uncharted territory,” Blank Becker said.
Still, the charge allows prosecutors to introduce acts from any relevant time period, including Kelly’s brief marriage to Aaliyah in 1994.
During her opening statement, Cruz Melendez portrayed their union as a last-resort effort by Kelly to avoid prosecution, after one of his associates warned him on a tour that Aaliyah believed she might have been pregnant.
“This was, of course, a huge problem for him,” Cruz Melendez said. “If she was pregnant that meant there would be questions. At the very top of that list of questions: Who is the father of that baby?”
He flew to Chicago and “got to work,” she said. His associates bribed a government employee in Illinois to obtain a fake ID for her, and in a hotel suite, he married her, Cruz Melendez said. Then, she said, he caught a flight and returned to finish his tour.
Another woman at the center of the case, referred to only as Zel, met Kelly at one of his concerts when she was 17, Cruz Melendez said. Kelly was 48.
She hoped to build a relationship with him to boost her career, Cruz Melendez said. But upon meeting him at a hotel, Kelly told her that “he needed to relieve himself” — and pressured her to have sex, Cruz Melendez said.
Kelly, she said, told the girl that he would “take care of her for the rest of her life” and vault her to becoming “the next Aaliyah.” She had sex with him, and contracted herpes — a disease that prosecutors say Kelly knowingly transmitted.
If he is convicted, Kelly could spend between 10 years and the rest of his life in prison.