Jim DeRogatis at his Northwest Side home with boxes of his research on R. Kelly, about whom he first reported in 2000, when he was pop music critic for the Sun-Times.

Jim DeRogatis at his Northwest Side home with boxes of his research on R. Kelly, about whom he first reported in 2000, when he was pop music critic for the Sun-Times.

Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

R. Kelly: Tale of the tape; reporter Jim DeRogatis recounts how it began

Three teams of criminal defense lawyers have tried to cast doubt on the origins of the central video, questioning who gave it to me before the Chicago Sun-Times turned it over to the police. Here’s the story behind the tape.

SHARE R. Kelly: Tale of the tape; reporter Jim DeRogatis recounts how it began
SHARE R. Kelly: Tale of the tape; reporter Jim DeRogatis recounts how it began

Much of the prosecution’s case during the first two weeks of R. Kelly’s second federal trial has focused on a 26-minute, 39-second videotape that allegedly shows the R&B superstar having sexual contact with a then-14-year-old girl.

In 2008, the same tape was at the center of the Cook County case against Kelly, which, unlike the current proceedings, focused on one tape and one victim, whom prosecutors now call Jane.

Kelly was acquitted in that trial, largely, jurors said, because Jane never testified.

In this trial, she spent six hours on the stand. She confirmed that she’s the girl on the tape, and that she had sexual contact with Kelly “hundreds of times” while underage.

What else is different now? Prosecutors still intend to present evidence of four other underage victims. The jury saw 17 clips not only from the first tape but also from two others, and the government contends that Kelly and one of his co-defendants, Derrel McDavid, conspired to obstruct justice during the 2008 trial. A second co-defendant, Milton “June” Brown, is charged with conspiracy to receive child pornography.

Jim DeRogatis

Jim DeRogatis was pop music critic of the Sun-Times for 15 years and is the author of the book “Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly.” He has been subpoenaed to testify in the current trial by Kelly’s co-defendant, his former business manager Derrel McDavid.

The three defense teams have tried to cast doubt on the origins of the central video, questioning who gave it to me before the Chicago Sun-Times turned it over to the police. So it’s worth recounting the tale of the tape from my decades of reporting.

Two weeks after my then-Sun-Times colleague Abdon M. Pallasch and I wrote the first story about Kelly’s abuse of underage girls for the newspaper in 2000, a FedEx envelope empty except for an unmarked VHS tape arrived at the paper’s mailroom. Whoever sent it typed my name as both the sender and the recipient. That person paid cash at a dropoff center, a FedEx spokesperson told me, but he couldn’t say where it originated other than “somewhere in Los Angeles.”

The brief video showed a young woman having sexual contact with Kelly in what has come to be known as “the log-cabin playroom” of the mansion he owned in Wrigleyville.

Pallasch and I could not determine her age or identity. Journalists do not generally do the work of police, but our editors decided that, since she could be underage and subject to ongoing abuse, the tape could be evidence of a felony. So we gave it to the Chicago Police Department to investigate.

That tape has not been mentioned in court, and the Sun-Times didn’t report its existence until I received the second, notorious tape.

On a Friday in late December 2001, I got a call from Stephanie Edwards, a singer who records as Sparkle.

“When you talked to me last year, I couldn’t say anything,” she said, referring to our reporting for the first story. “But I’ve since gotten proof. This is not a rumor. This is something that I totally seen with my eyes” — a videotape allegedly showing Kelly abusing her underage niece.

The previous day, Sparkle said, a man visited her, saying he’d been sent by a law firm in which Ian Alexander was a partner. At his previous firm, he had filed the first lawsuit against Kelly accusing the singer of sexual abuse of a minor, Tiffany Hawkins. The Sun-Times had been the first to report the contents of that suit in the 2000 story, after Kelly paid Hawkins $250,000 in exchange for a nondisclosure agreement.

The man showed Sparkle the tape, which she said disgusted and infuriated her. She told me and said in her sworn testimony at the 2008 trial that she didn’t know the man, and he left with the tape, though he gave her a business card from Alexander’s firm.

Years later, Alexander told me that two men he didn’t recognize had come to his office in late 2001 with a video showing Kelly having sexual contact with two women — the first allegedly Jane, Sparkle’s niece, and the second legal-age gospel singer Deleon Richards, then the wife of New York Yankees outfielder Gary Sheffield.

Alexander said he wanted nothing to do with the video of Richards and Kelly.

“I told the guys who brought it that I would not be a part of what seemed like a scheme to extort/blackmail Kelly regarding a consensual sexual relationship,” Alexander said.

Later, a Chicago man named Derrick Mosley was convicted of attempting to extort $20,000 from Sheffield for that video, and he spent two years in prison.

Alexander told the men he did not want to keep the tape, but he would represent the underage girl in the second scene. He said he booked a meeting with her and her parents and ordered a car service to bring them from Oak Park to his office, but the meeting never happened.

That’s because attorney Ed Genson, who led the defense team that represented Kelly at the time and in the 2008 trial, “intercepted” the family and coaxed them into silence, Alexander said he learned in a later phone call with Genson. Alexander said that, during the call, Genson apologized for “hijacking” the meeting, saying “it was just business, no hard feelings.”

On his deathbed in 2019, Genson told Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg that Kelly had been “guilty as hell.”

The day after Sparkle saw the tape of her niece, she made three calls. First, she phoned the state’s attorney’s office and talked with prosecutor Robert Heilingoetter.

Years later, Heilingoetter, who is now retired, told me, “I worked murder cases, not sex crimes, but I took Sparkle’s cold call.” He said told her, “Well, if what you’re saying is true, you have to come forward. And we’d have to see this tape,” which she said she didn’t have.

Next, Sparkle called the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and spoke to a woman named Kim, who told her the same thing: That office could act only if it had a copy of the tape.

Finally, Sparkle called me. There was no story if there was no tape, and the rest of Jane’s family had consistently refused to talk to Pallasch and me. Throughout January 2002, we called all of the sources we’d developed in months of reporting on Kelly, and none said they had the tape, though several said it was now circulating “on the streets.”

By the early spring of 2002, bootlegged copies of the tape appeared for sale on street corners and at flea markets not only in Chicago but also in other big cities.

Jim DeRogatis displaying copies of the first story that he and reporter Abdon M. Pallasch wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times on R. Kelly in 2000.

Jim DeRogatis displaying copies of the first story that he and reporter Abdon M. Pallasch wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times on R. Kelly in 2000.

Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

On the first Friday in February 2002, I was working at my home on the Northwest Side. The phone rang. A gruff male voice said, “Go to your mailbox,” then hung up. I found an unmarked VHS tape in a blank manila envelope. I popped it into a VCR and saw the stomach-churning 26-minute, 39-second scene of Kelly allegedly victimizing Jane.

I rushed to the Sun-Times office. Since the precedent had been set with the first tape, within four hours of that call to go to my mailbox, an editor and I handed the original unmarked tape and blank envelope to three members of the police department’s Special Investigations Unit, including Detective Dan Everett, who has since testified twice about that exchange.

Before the police arrived, I made a copy of the tape in what everyone in the newsroom called “the video closet,” a small room with multiple TVs and VCRs where an editorial assistant taped each night’s television newscasts. That was because we needed to report on the tape and verify its contents.

The following Monday, Sparkle came to the newsroom, and I watched the copy with her to confirm it was the one she’d seen with her niece. It was. She trembled and broke down in tears several times. She said her niece hadn’t worn her hair that way since age 14, and she was infuriated at the scene in which Kelly handed her money. “She is not a f---ing whore!” her aunt yelled.

“He has to stop,” Sparkle said when she caught her breath. “There have been too many to count.”

She said Kelly had told her “he likes them when they are ripe and young because he can mold them into what he wants them to be and control their minds and make them do what women ‘should’ do.”

During the 2008 trial and in the current proceedings, lawyers for Kelly and his co-defendants have said Sparkle or Barry Hankerson, the key manager who oversaw the singer’s rise to stardom, or both were behind the video finding its way to me, the newspaper and thus the police.

Among many other charges, Kelly was convicted last year at his first federal trial in New York of abusing Hankerson’s niece, the singer Aaliyah, when she was 15.

Sparkle and Hankerson denied they dropped the tape in my mailbox, and I didn’t see who did.

But it really doesn’t matter. Given that the tape began to appear for sale on the streets shortly after the Sun-Times revealed its existence, it was only a matter of time before it made its way to the media, law enforcement or both.

And it was never the only video evidence against Kelly.

While the tale of the tape is fascinating for what it says about the people around the singer — opportunistic, disgusted by his behavior, out for retribution or all of the above — what matters most is what’s on it.

It might have passed through many hands, but it was always a dirty bomb poised to shower Kelly with its poisonous fallout.

If convicted at his current trial in Chicago, it could add decades to the 30-year sentence he’s already received in New York.

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