At last, after 21 years, the girls’ voices have been heard.
Justice delayed for nearly 20 years finally has caught up with R&B superstar R. Kelly. He could face the rest of his life in federal prison for holding young Black women captive in his homes and studios and forcing them to serve him sexually. Kelly is now a convicted sexual predator; an adult whose victims were 14, 15 and 16 when he began abusing them.
So let’s call this what it was: Rape.
It was 21 years ago that Chicago Sun-Times rock critic Jim DeRogatis and I started ringing doorbells around Chicago, inviting Kelly’s victims to speak to us. Our first story ran in the Sun-Times Dec. 21, 2000.
How did this sexual predator manage to get away with it all for 21 years?
Over and over again, the victims told us: “Nobody matters less in our society than young Black women. R. Kelly was a hometown hero. Who was going to believe me?”
It was hard getting victims to talk to us when we started ringing doorbells. Some had signed non-disclosure agreements with Kelly and risked having to pay back hundreds of thousands of dollars if they agreed to be interviewed.
Kelly’s well-paid lawyers intimidated newspapers out of quoting the girls’ charges against him. His publicists preempted his victims’ charges in friendly media, calling the girls opportunists.
More generally in those days before “MeToo,” America was simply not taking such claims from women seriously. We broke our first big story in 2000, revealing the accusations of girls who said that Kelly had lured them into sexual relationships when they were as young as 15 and encouraged them to quit school.
We braced for other media to jump on the story. It never happened.
Kelly’s lawyers and publicists called the teens scheming hussies looking for a payday. Kelly’s fans called us and the Sun-Times racist “haters.” Our colleague, the dauntless columnist Mary Mitchell, caught hell for calling out the silence of Black clergy and community leaders.
And Kelly kept on victimizing more and more girls (and, we’ve since found, boys). We anonymously received a videotape of him apparently sexually abusing his 14-year-old goddaughter. Our story and the tape became the basis for child pornography charges against Kelly in 2002.
Had Kelly been convicted then in 2002, so many of his victims would have been spared. But the judge allowed Kelly’s lawyers to drag the case out a record-breaking six years before it went to trial in 2008.
During six years of legal maneuvering, I chronicled the judge ruling Kelly’s way on just about every motion, stripping out any mention of all the other girls R. Kelly had abused, making the trial about one tape of one girl — not the pattern of predatory behavior Jim and I had established in our stories.
The federal charges against Kelly in Chicago included a strong case that Kelly had bribed that girl’s family to make sure she never took the stand. With the prosecutors so limited in what they could present to the jurors — and no victim to put on the stand — jurors did not find him guilty.
Did Kelly use his bribed-lucky break to change his ways? No, he immediately resumed predatory sexual behavior with 15-year-old Jerhonda Pace, who’d been cutting class to watch the trial.
Jim and I moved on from the Sun-Times, but the girls and their families kept calling Jim and he kept trying to help them, even as Kelly’s camp insisted that there was nothing wrong with Kelly running cult-like compounds in Chicago and Atlanta that housed girls he may have taken in when they were 16 or 17 but were now 18 or older. He cut them off from the families. They were not allowed to leave their bedrooms without Kelly’s permission.
Jim’s relentless reporting on the plight of those girls, even as he taught full-time at Columbia College, became the basis for the charges in New York that ultimately held Kelly to account.
It took a national “Me Too” movement. It took Dream Hampton convincing survivors to come forward and tell their stories in her “Surviving R. Kelly” documentary. It took dedicated prosecutors in New York and Chicago.
But finally, this week, Kelly got the verdict that should have come so many years earlier: Guilty on all counts. Guilty of running a criminal enterprise to subjugate girls for his pleasure.
From 2002 to 2008, I walked past crowds of pro-Kelly protesters at every monthly court date. The precursors to today’s COVID-deniers, they worshipped their unworthy hero instead of feeling concern for his victims. They brought a busload of school children to serenade Kelly with “I believe I can fly” as he walked into court.
To the Survivors of R. Kelly, I’d finally just like to say this:
Ignore the dwindling handful of delusional celebrity-worshiping R. Kelly defenders. A jury in New York this week sent a thundering message on behalf of countless other Americans, a message that rewards your courage in coming forward:
We believe you!
Abdon Pallasch, who covered legal affairs and politics for the Sun-Times, is now director of communications for Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza.
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