Will R. Kelly Survivors Finally Get Justice?

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S1: Hey, everyone. Just a heads up that we are talking about the R. Kelly trial in this episode. That means you’re going to be hearing about sexual abuse and assault. You’ll also hear a few expletives, OK, onto the show. Jim DeRogatis has always wanted to be a music journalist. You can tell he’s a fan just by looking at his tattooed arms. They’re covered in album art. Like he’s an illustrated man. There’s the tongue in lips. The Rolling Stones made famous the public enemy logo. Then there’s the Velvet Underground’s banana.

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S2: I needed to remind myself that music is a reason for living. That’s what I called my first fanzine when I was, you know, a wee young lad of 20. And so there’s Brian Eno and 13th Floor Elevators and Flaming Lips and who? Skardu and Ride and Nirvana and wow everything.

S1: But R. Kelly

S2: and R. Kelly is in my psyche, unfortunately, but not on my arms.

S1: R. Kelly is in Jim’s head because for two decades, Jim has been breaking story after story about the way the RnB phenomenon has abused and manipulated women and girls. When Kelly went on trial in Chicago 13 years back, it was because of a sex tape that had been dropped in Jim’s mailbox. Some of Jim’s more recent reporting, but Kelly was behind what some have called a sex cult, landed the singer back in custody. Now, R. Kelly is on trial again in New York. Jim says after talking to dozens of accusers, it surprises him how much he’s still learning. You say it’s 48 women

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S2: that I know.

S1: I get the sense you could name all of them.

S2: Yeah, I, I certainly could. Tiffany, Patrice and Tracy. Martina, Ali. You know, at your Honda, Dominique, Faith, Kitty, Asante, Lanita of the 20 Jane Doe’s and to John Doe’s listed in the indictment by the Eastern District of New York, the current trial. I only know 10 of them. I can only identify 10 of those 22 victims. And I am certain that even after 20 years and my book chronicling this sad story that I’ve only ever gotten to the tip of the iceberg.

S1: Do you think this time is going to be different?

S2: I think Robert Sylvester Kelly will never breathe fresh air again.

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S1: Do you get any satisfaction from that?

S2: What I think is irrelevant, what the women who I’m in contact with are telling me is they are glad he is finally facing justice. But it is too little, too late. Of the 48 victims that I know, forty seven of them are African-American and one is a Latina from Miami. They are all black and brown women. I am unaware of any white girl. And what those girls have told me, those women now have told me is, you know, one white girl from a wealthy Chicago suburb, Winnetka, and this would have been a different story. But they were black. They didn’t matter.

S1: Today on the show Inside the R. Kelly trial with one of the few people who may know as much about these allegations as the prosecution. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next. Stick around. I want to establish a little bit about who you are in this story, because you’re really more than a reporter, like back in 2000, you get a fax, which first of all, that just that just shows how long it’s been. You got a fax. I can’t imagine getting up to touch.

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S2: Tell me about it. I got it somewhere in a file box. So, you know, all brown and curled up and rolled up and and disappearing.

S1: And at the time, you were a music critic at the Chicago Sun-Times, and it started you on this two decade long reporting journey. The facts contained these tips about about girls who’d been abused by R. Kelly. And you almost didn’t follow up, right?

S2: Yeah. I mean, you have to understand, I was the pop music critic at the Chicago Sun-Times. I covered all the popular music and Roger Ebert did all of the movies. Right. And, you know, any time I wrote about a hip hop act or an R&D act, I the hip hop especially, I got, you know, these these letters and faxes before email. You know, that’s not music. That’s noise, you know, and a lot of hate mail. You know, I thought this was a player hater, somebody trying to down a successful black superstar.

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S1: But then you saw this line in it and it stood out to you, right?

S2: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, I had compared Kelly to Marvin Gaye and Al Green. You know, it was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. I threw that fax in the slush pile. I went home and something about that fax bothered me the entire Thanksgiving weekend. And it was the line, you know, Marvin Gaye had his problems, but they’re nothing like Roberts Roberts problem is young girls. Hmm. And so I went back Monday morning and read it very carefully.

S1: What Jim found reading through that fax were the first few on the record hints that Robert Sylvester Kelly was a serial abuser. This anonymous tipster pointed Jim towards a lawsuit that had been filed by a woman named Tiffany Hawkins. She was alleging sexual abuse when she was a minor. Tiffany had been a promising backup singer who dropped out of high school to go on tour with Kelly. She’d also been a friend to Kelly’s protege. The young R&D star. Alia Aleah herself had married Kelly when she was just 15.

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S2: A 27 year old man married a 15 year old student at the Detroit High School’s Performing Arts. This was the the salacious gossip bite in every newspaper and music publication, and nobody did any reporting on it, including me. I interviewed Leah shortly afterwards, and she said to me, she said, you know, we were close. He was a big influence on me. Don’t believe all that mess. All right. And I didn’t press further and nobody else did. Not until 2000 when I got the annulment papers slipped to me from the courts in Michigan and Illinois that broke up the bond, annulled the marriage, and each promise never to sue each other in exchange for a hundred dollars.

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S1: One hundred dollars,

S2: one hundred dollars. It was a nominal sum, which is odd. I heard that the behind the scenes number was three million. That that was off the books. But, you know, I didn’t understand even then when I had those papers, and neither did my partner, Abdeen Palace, or the editors at the Sun-Times. There was a block of text in which a promised never to sue Kelly. And they both promise never to speak about it, but Alea promise never to sue Kelly for further damages, including physical abuse. And we thought it was boilerplate divorce language, because it wasn’t until years later, many years later, where I began to hear many stories of Kelly physically abusing his victims, you know, slapping, hitting, spitting in the face of these women.

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S1: It sounds like you keep having these. It’s a gradual realization. It’s like looking back and being like, oh, this makes sense now. Mm hmm. A sick kind of sense.

S2: Yeah. I mean, yeah. Realizations sometimes decades apart. And the haunting stories of these brave young women who did the hardest thing any woman can do, which is to rip out their soul and tell a fat white rock critic with tattoos of can and Noye on his arms. Their story. And, you know, it’s about the women Mary. And why did I stay on this story for so long? Because the women didn’t stop calling. And I don’t think you’re a journalist. Well, I don’t think you are a human being. If you do not take the call from someone who says, I have been hurt by a powerful man and no one is listening to me. Can I tell you my story? You know, fuck you. Fuck you if you don’t take that call. So, I mean, I had heard it for the first story in 2000. I kept hearing about the girl from Miami. Right. I did my best to track down the girl from Miami. And it wasn’t until after the cult story in 2017 that I got a call from Lisette Martinez and that that was me. She said, you know, this beautiful Latina, extremely talented singer who met Kelly at a shopping mall in Miami and was invited to the studio like many of the victims, like 46 out of 48. They dreamed of being a singer. Kelly had made Aliyah a star. He may do that for me, you know, but Lisette called me and said, I’ve never spoken and I’ve read your work for at that point, fifteen years or whatever. And let me tell you my story and her story involved Kelly impregnating her and leaving her to miscarry alone in a hotel room in Chicago while he was out partying with the boys bleeding on the floor. Hundreds of miles from her home in Miami alone at age 16.

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S1: Eventually people started sending you video tapes you’ve gotten, I think, too. And of course, one was used as the basis for the case that was brought against R. Kelly in Chicago, where he was acquitted in 2008. I want to talk about that because. You’ve said R. Kelly changed after that acquittal. And of course, you’ve done so much reporting up to that point. So can you talk to me a little bit about, you know, you’ve done all this reporting. It came to this kind of crescendo of someone on trial. And then what happened?

S2: Well, that video, which is often misreported by others, was 26 minutes and 39 seconds long. A lot of people write that it was grainy video. I was working at home. I had just finished transcribing an interview with Alicia Keys and I got a phone call. Go to your mailbox. Gruff baritone voice hung up. I went to the front stoop. I went to the mailbox. It was a manila envelope and a VHS cassette. No markings whatsoever. Twenty six minutes and thirty nine seconds of crystal clear video filmed at Kelly’s home in Lakeview. At that point, in his log cabin playroom, he called it, of him sexually abusing a 14 year old girl.

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S1: Did you recognize the girl immediately?

S2: Yes. Yes, because several weeks before that videotape arrived in February 2002, I had begun hearing about, quote, a tape on the streets. I had heard about the girl for the first story in 2000. I had called her and the singer SPARQL, another of Kelly’s proteges. And I said, I’m hearing stories that your niece is being abused by Kelly. And she said, you’re talking about my blood. You’re talking about the light of my life. That’s my sister’s kid. I don’t know what happens between closed doors. And she hung up. A year and a half later, she called back and she said, oh, my God, I hung up on you last year. I didn’t want to believe. I have now seen a tape that has forced me to believe I was the last call she made. She first went to the sex crimes investigators at the Chicago police. She went to the Illinois Division of Family Services. Right.

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S1: What happened when she did that?

S2: They all said, you ain’t got a tape. We ain’t got nothing to look at or go after. They didn’t do

S1: anything. Well, then they did have a tape.

S2: Well, they had a tape after it appeared in my mailbox. And we turned it over to the Chicago Police Department, and then they investigated for six months. And Kelly was indicted in 2002 that summer for on very narrow charges, not on pursuing underage girls for illegal sexual contact. There had been. Eventually there were four civil lawsuits filed, three of them accusing illegal minor sex, the other accusing Sarah Tish’s illegal videotaping of sex.

S1: So this is 2002. Yeah. And then over the course of the next six years, eventually Kelly goes on trial.

S2: Yeah. That that that that that that weight, that delay, which was because of two things, an incredibly expensive defense team and a lousy judge who consistently bent over backwards to cater to the defense that that that delay, that six year delay broke every record in the Cook County court system for the length of time between indictment and trial. And then he was acquitted.

S1: When we come back, how the trial going on right now stacks up against the Chicago case that let Kelley off the hook. Jim says that after R. Kelly was acquitted of making child pornography in that 2008 case, he became more brazen in his treatment of women, brazen enough that he actually picked up a teenaged girlfriend while he was on trial. Now, a twentysomething mother, that girlfriend became the first witness against Kelly this past week in a new trial where he stands accused of racketeering and transporting women across state lines for the purpose of prostitution. Jim says the prosecutors in this new case, they seem to have learned from what happened last time around the case in New York. It’s quite broad. In 2008, he says, the Chicago D.A. focused narrowly on one accuser with one sex tape.

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S2: The government, you know, was either cocky, thinking there’s no way Kelly could get out from under nearly a half hour of video. But it was also being stymied by what the government now calls a criminal enterprise that Kelly ran, you know, threatening, bribing, intimidating, silencing witnesses. And you had an asshole, judge, no other way to put it.

S1: The judge in 2008 seems like this mystery to me. Were you able to figure out what happened?

S2: I mean, the judge was star struck. It was like the judge in the O.J. Simpson trial after the trial ended with an acquittal. And his you know, he had ruled numerous times that no other evidence of no pattern of behavior of sex with sexual contact with minors would be allowed. He consistently ruled for the defense. Afterwards, the judge threw an open bar party for both the defense, the prosecution and all the reporters who had worked so hard.

S1: No, no.

S2: Yes, he did. Yes, Judge Vincent Cohen never should have been on the bench. It was a typical Chicago political story.

S1: One major difference this time around in this trial is that Robert Kelley is detained. He’s he’s not out and about. Is that making a difference?

S2: No, I’ll tell you, the thing that’s making the biggest difference, the reason he has been detained ever since he was arrested outside his luxury apartment at Trump Tower, Chicago in the summer of 2019, the reason he’s been detained is he’s broke. He can’t afford the sort of mafia connected by their own bragging lawyers, high powered lawyers he had in 2008. His legal team is not of the same caliber. They keep making mistakes that my colleagues who were there every day are reporting, mistaking the math and figuring someone’s age. At one point in her opening argument, the lead defense attorney said, you know, you know, when you see all this evidence, you must declare Kelley guilty. She she meant to say innocent. That’s not a mistake. You want to make in your opening argument, what I keep hearing from all of the women and from many witnesses is if Kelly had the same amount of money and level of power and fame that he had in 2008, this would not be happening now. But it’s happening because he’s broke.

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S1: Hmm. I mean, you’ve said you’re prepared to have your mind blown by what you see at this trial, because there are witnesses you don’t even know the identities of. And you’ve been reporting on this for so long and digging so deeply. Has there been a moment like that yet where you’ve thought, I didn’t expect this?

S2: I didn’t expect the doctor’s testimony. Doctor Chris McGrath, one of the most respected allergist and immunologists in Chicago, testify on Thursday about what he described as not only a doctor patient relationship with Kelly for 25 years, but a friendship he and his wife accepted concert tickets 10 or 12 times, flew around the country to see Kelly, went out to eat at fancy restaurants with him, went to parties at his mansion in Olympia Fields, visited his recording studio regularly. The doctor made house calls. He never charged Kelly any money, even though Kelly had health insurance. He just you know, they were friends. He was sitting in a Chicago cigar bar with Kelly, their last social interaction in 2019. Even as surviving R. Kelly was airing on Lifetime, this 68 year old wealthy white doctor politically connected in Chicago had to have known Mary. It was in the newspapers since 2000. He started treating Kelly. Two weeks after those weird headlines in 1994 about Kelly’s illegal marriage to 15 year old Aleah. And yet this man never had a pang of conscience. And he was in a position where he could have acted. He didn’t.

S1: What is he testifying to in the trial?

S2: Oh, he testified at great length about Kelly’s sexually transmitted diseases. One of the many charges in this New York case is that Kelly willingly and knowingly passed herpes on to some of his victims, many of them under age. And, you know, the doctor said it was not his response, but this is on the stand. This is testimony that it was not his responsibility to notify Kelly’s sexual partners. He told Kelly to do that and he educated him on safe sex. And Kelly’s response and this was quoted in many of the media stories and I have the trial transcript was. You mean I can’t put it in raw. I got to put a hood on it. Ouch. And yet this doctor, this this doctor called Kelly a friend, and he and his wife socialized with him. It is emblematic, that story of the countless I have said thousands of people in Chicago for 30 years knew what Kelly was doing.

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S1: I wonder, with that testimony of the doctor, whether you see it as just damning proof of. Why Kelly was able to get away with this for so long, because people like that propped him up.

S2: Yeah, that’s my column, you know, Judge Vincent gone, Dr. Chris McGrath. Oh, you know, McGraths brother in law is the vice mayor of Chicago right now. You know, I mean, there was a

S1: there was a superstructure.

S2: There was a superstructure. I’m sorry that the Reverend Jesse Jackson and his wife are in the hospital suffering from Covid. But his number two, the Reverend James Meeks, was Kelly’s, quote, spiritual adviser, appeared with him on television, would bring in buses of kids from Operation Rainbow, push in school buses with T-shirts saying Free R. Kelly kindergartners I’m talking about to stand in front of the court. Whenever Kelly made a court appearance in 2008, there were thousands, every layer of society in Chicago, the courts, some of the cops, not all the cops, the schools, the medical profession, journalism, every element of Chicago society let down these young black victims. He was a star and there was money to be made.

S1: It’s important to note that R. Kelly denies the allegations against him. But every time Jim sits down with another accuser, he’s surprised by how similar their stories sound. Many have a kind of loyalty to in the last couple of years, Jim has gotten to know women who chose to live with Kelly after his 2008 trial. One of those women, Dominique Gardner, seemed almost torn between revulsion at Kelly’s behavior and what she considered love. Having spoken to nearly 50 women now, Jim says that’s common.

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S2: Yes. You know, the most frequent phrase I ever heard, Mary was not, you know, lousy, horrible, miserable son of a bitch monster. It was brother has a problem. Brother needs help. I first heard that in November 2000. I heard it from Dominique when she and I sat down for three hours.

S1: So empathetic.

S2: Yeah. Well, yeah. I mean, the man is a genius. The man is a musical genius. And obviously he is someone with charm and charisma. I’ve increasingly come to understand that those are tools of predators, whether it’s the Catholic priest or the pop superstar. Right. If he was 100 percent monster, I mean, Charles Manson was not 100 percent monster. There is an appeal, a charisma, a way that that this man touched people’s souls. And Dominique was among them. And Tiffany Hawkins a million years ago was among them. Hmm.

S1: So I wonder when you look at the the whole. Spectrum of women you’ve spoken to, you’ve said there are commonalities. How long does it take for a woman to go from? Yeah, he needs help, too. He victimized me.

S2: Oh, I think they say both at the same time. You know, to some degree, I think there is a residual magic or hold that Kelly has over them. I mean, Lisette, you know, is a middle aged mom now. Was that Martinez who had that miscarriage in the hotel room? And she still will talk about he would sit at the piano and sing and it was amazing. Right. And I would write down the lyrics that he was spinning off the top of his head, because by his own admission, Kelly can’t read and write. And when she says that, even if it’s followed by, I still can’t, you know, Jim, I’m still having a hard time today. I am still we are all fucked up. She will tell me there is a network now. They are now healing to some degree because they can talk about their experiences, even the ones that were 25 or 30 years apart. You know. Yeah. I mean, I think the help they’re getting is coming from each other and also from finally being believed.

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S1: Jim, I’m really grateful for your time.

S2: I wish we’d been talking about the new Yolla album instead, but it was it was a pleasure talking to you. Next time, yes, I’m game.

S1: Jim DeRogatis is the author of Soulless The Case Against R. Kelly.

S3: And that is our show.

S1: What Next is produced by Davis Land, Alaina Schwartz, Danielle, Hewitt, Mary Wilson and Carmel Delshad. We are led by Alison Benedictine Alicia McGorry. And I’m Mary Harris. You can go track me down on Twitter and that Mariz desk. And I’m going to be back in this feed to say hey to you tomorrow.