A woman has told a court that she was a 16-year-old virgin and a member of R Kelly’s fan club when the singer first sexually abused her.
Jerhonda Pace was the first of the R&B singer’s alleged victims to begin giving evidence as his long-awaited trial started at a federal court in Brooklyn, New York, on Wednesday.
Her testimony came after opening statements from both the prosecution and defence. While Assistant US Attorney Maria Cruz Melendez described Kelly as a “predator” who used his fame to get “access to girls, boys and young women”, defence lawyer Nicole Blank Becker said his accusers had been “consenting” and enjoyed the “notoriety of being able to tell their friends that they were with a superstar”.
Ms Pace, who is now 28, was one of the women who appeared in the 2019 documentary series Surviving R Kelly.
In her testimony, she told the court she was 16 when the singer – whose real name is Robert Sylvester Kelly – invited her to his mansion in 2010 and ordered her to take off her clothes. She claimed he knew her age as she had shown him identification.
“He asked me to continue to tell everyone I was 19 and act like I was 21,” Ms Pace told the court. When she told Kelly she was a virgin, he said that was “good” and told her he wanted to “train her” sexually, she said. He also ordered her to call him “Daddy”, she said.
Ms Pace said they continued to see each other for another six months, but Kelly grew more and more controlling and would become violent when she broke what she called “Rob’s rules”. She recalled one time when “he slapped me and choked me until I passed out”. Afterwards, he spat in her face and forced her to have oral sex, she said.
A blue T-shirt from the episode in question, which prosecutors say has provided DNA evidence of the misconduct, was shown in court.
Kelly’s trial, which is set to last for about a month, is expected to include testimonies from several female accusers and at least one male accuser, with some allegations going back 20 years.
The 54-year-old three-time Grammy winner, whose hits include I Believe I Can Fly, Bump ‘N’ Grind and Ignition, has pleaded not guilty to charges of racketeering, sexual abuse and bribery, and strongly denied any wrongdoing.
Opening the case, Ms Melendez told the jury that the singer used his fame to lure his alleged victims and that he “dominated and controlled them physically, sexually and psychologically”.
He would often record sex acts with minors and controlled a racketeering enterprise of managers, bodyguards and other people who were eager to “fulfil each and everyone one of the defendant’s wishes and demands”, she said, adding that “what his success and popularity brought him was access – access to girls, boys and young women”.
“This case is not about a celebrity who likes to party a lot,” Ms Melendez said. “This case is about a predator.”
She described the singer as “a man who used lies, manipulation, threats and physical abuse to dominate his victims and to avoid accountability for years”.
Following Ms Melendez’s speech, Ms Blank Becker presented a very different perspective, and told jurors they will have to sift through “a mess of lies”.
Kelly did not “recruit” his accusers, she told the court. “They were fans,” she said. “They came to Mr Kelly.”
The lawyer urged jurors to scrutinise the testimonies they will hear during the trial. “They knew exactly what they were getting into,” she said, adding that “it was no secret Mr Kelly had multiple girlfriends. He was quite transparent”.
Ms Blank Becker also warned jurors: “Don’t assume everybody’s telling the truth.”
In previous court papers, Kelly’s legal team has characterised his accusers as “disgruntled groupies” who were “dying to be with him”. They only started accusing him of abuse years later when public sentiment shifted in the #MeToo era, they say.
Kelly’s trial in New York comes after years of suspicions and accusations against him. In 2008, he went on trial in Illinois facing child pornography charges, but was acquitted.
Many of the allegations were featured in Surviving R Kelly, which aired early in 2019. The first of the latest charges against him were brought shortly afterwards.
Nine charges describe the singer’s alleged mistreatment of five female accusers – identified as “Jane Does” in court, although some, such as Ms Pace, have spoken out publicly – three of whom were said to be underage at the time. One accuser said Kelly failed to tell her that he had herpes when he had unprotected sex with her.
The singer is accused of requiring his alleged victims to demonstrate “absolute commitment” and obey strict rules, including that they eat or go to the bathroom only with his permission, not look at other men, and call him “Daddy”.
Prosecutors say alleged victims were selected at concerts and other venues and arrangements were made for them to travel to see Kelly in the New York City area and elsewhere, in violation of the Mann Act, the 1910 law that made it illegal to “transport any woman or girl” across state lines “for any immoral purpose”.
The singer’s 1994 marriage to Aaliyah is also expected to come up during the trial. Prosecutors are aiming to show he bribed an official to obtain fake identification for the singer, who was 15 at the time – he was 27 – so that they could get married. Kelly believed he had got Aaliyah pregnant, and hoped a marriage would keep her from having to testify against him, prosecutors will argue.
Aaliyah, identified as Jane Doe #1 in the indictment, died in a plane crash in 2001.
Kelly, who last released a studio album in 2016, could face years in prison if he is found guilty.
However, the New York case is only part of the legal issues the singer is facing, with sex abuse charges brought in Illinois and Minnesota, too – to which he has also pleaded not guilty.