CHICAGO — For nearly two decades, R. Kelly was hounded by whispers: persistent accusations that the R&B legend abuses, controls and sexually exploits teenage girls.
In recent years the whispers have grown to shouts, leading to mass boycotts of his music, an explosive TV docuseries and four pending Cook County sex-crime cases.
But two blockbuster federal indictments unveiled Friday promise to eclipse all of his recent troubles — and potentially could put Kelly behind bars for the rest of his life.
“For the federal government at this point to become involved in two separate, very serious cases, they must absolutely believe that they have the goods on him,” said Steven Block, a former federal prosecutor who also served as head of special prosecutions for Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx.
“The Department of Justice does not want to swing and miss on a case like this.”
Prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York charged Kelly under an anti-racketeering law, alleging that the singer was the head of a criminal enterprise that systematically abused victims across the country.
Meanwhile, federal prosecutors in Illinois allege Kelly, his former manager and a former employee, among other staff, schemed to cover up extensive video evidence of Kelly sexually abusing young girls, and persuaded witnesses in his 2002 child-pornography case to lie to grand jurors. Kelly eventually was tried and acquitted.
The singer, whose full name is Robert Sylvester Kelly, strenuously has maintained his innocence throughout his recent legal woes.
He and his lawyers “look forward to his day in court, to the truth coming out and to his vindication from what has been an unprecedented assault by others for their own personal gain,” his attorney Steven Greenberg said in a statement Friday morning.
But federal charges ratchet up the legal pressure on Kelly significantly. Not only do the new cases carry considerable penalties — he faces a maximum 195 years in prison in the new Illinois indictment alone — they allege overarching patterns of abuse, rather than individual, discrete criminal acts.
“The federal charges are, I would use the term ‘sweeping,’” said Sabra Ebersole, a former Cook County sex-crimes prosecutor now in private practice. “(They are alleging) a much broader course of conduct.”
The state charges are a chapter, Ebersole said, but the federal indictments are a book.
Kelly faces four separate indictments in Cook County alleging that he sexually abused four victims — three of whom were underage girls — over more than a decade. But experts said the state cases likely will be put on hold or slowed significantly now that federal indictments have come down.
In a statement Friday, Foxx did not address whether the federal charges could affect the singer’s pending county cases, but noted that her office worked with federal authorities to obtain the new indictment.
Foxx in January publicly called for Kelly’s accusers to come forward, and the office was inundated with tips — which helped lead to Kelly’s federal charges, Foxx said Friday.
“As a prosecutor and a survivor of sexual assault, I recognize the courage it takes to come forward, and I understand the trauma of doing so,” the statement read. “ … We will remain a compassionate resource for survivors as they regain their power and heal.”
Legal experts told the Chicago Tribune it is likely that all three prosecutors’ offices will maintain contact as the cases progress. And if Kelly decides to take a plea deal, he likely would want a “global resolution,” said former federal prosecutor Jeffrey Cramer — that is, a deal that will resolve his cases in all three jurisdictions.
Any such agreement still would carry significant prison time, he said.
“(There are) three offices after him,” Cramer said. “Depending on what the judges, plural, do on bail, he could certainly never see the light of day again.”
The New York indictment has the broadest scope, experts said, and could very well become the leading case and the first Kelly faces in court. It also carries an intriguing legal twist, charging Kelly under an anti-racketeering law that historically has been used to prosecute Mafia bosses and street gangs for running criminal enterprises.
“The enterprise, as they define it, is him and his entourage that had the legal purpose of running a singing career, and an illegal purpose of recruiting people to engage in illegal sexual activity,” Block said, calling it a “novel” use of the statute.
The fact that only Kelly is named in the New York indictment indicates that some of his former colleagues likely are cooperating with authorities, and their plea agreements or immunity deals could be unveiled down the line, Block said.
The indictment connects Kelly and his colleagues to multiple alleged victims and says he committed criminal acts in California, Connecticut, Illinois and New York.
It is also the first formal criminal complaint related to what Kelly’s critics have alleged was a “sex cult” — an operation by which he allegedly manipulates young women into staying under his control.
Kelly banned his victims from looking at other men, made them call him “Daddy” and kept them from leaving their rooms without permission, even to eat or go to the bathroom, prosecutors allege.
Similar allegations first surfaced in an explosive 2017 Buzzfeed piece by Chicago journalist Jim DeRogatis, who has written about the accusations against Kelly for years.
Kelly’s attorney on Friday called the New York indictment an abuse of the anti-racketeering statute, characterizing it on Friday as an “unfair piling-on.”
“It’s a scary use of that law,” Greenberg said.
The charges from federal prosecutors in Illinois shine a grim light on Kelly’s alleged behind-the-scenes maneuvering in his 2002 child-pornography case.
The singer and those around him allegedly paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to cover up videotapes of Kelly’s sexual contact with teenage girls, and even instructed the victim in his 2002 case — as well as her father — to lie to the grand jury, according to the 13-count indictment.
The singer was acquitted in a 2008 trial in part, jurors said afterward, because the alleged victim was nowhere to be found.
Also charged Friday were Kelly’s former manager, Derrel McDavid, and a former employee, Milton “June” Brown, according to the Chicago indictment.
The indictment alleges that Kelly paid McDavid and Brown to help him hide his sexual crimes, including forcing those he allegedly abused to submit to lie-detector tests to show they had turned over all of the sex tapes in their possession.
The indictment includes allegations of a conspiracy, which paves the way for prosecutors to introduce a wide array of evidence that Kelly tried to cover up his wrongdoing, Block said.
“The underlying crimes alleged are incredibly serious, sexual abuse, but when you add an effort to obstruct justice and cover it up, it makes it that much worse,” he said. “(Jurors are) going to hate the guy from the get-go based on the underlying facts, and then they’re hearing he’s paid people hundreds of thousands of dollars, it really does strengthen the case.”
Kelly is expected back in federal court early next week, when prosecutors are expected to argue he should remain in custody as his cases are pending.
While the two federal indictments altogether allege crimes against 10 separate victims, federal prosecutors have additionally unearthed evidence of much more widespread abuse, according to a memo filed Friday arguing that he poses a threat to public safety if released.
Kelly’s “psychological abuse and control of the young girls, who are now adults, is real and ongoing,” prosecutors state. “(He) spent many years of his adult life exploiting and manipulating young girls.”
Megan Crepeau writes for the Chicago Tribune. Madeline Buckley contributed to this column.