The first email from Jonjelyn Savage arrived in November of 2016. Jonjelyn — who goes by J. — was concerned about her daughter Joy, who was living with R. Kelly in Georgia. “He is still up to his same tactics,” she wrote, “he just makes sure they are over 17 or 18.”
J. and her husband Tim were the first of 14 sources who told me the same story: six women who slept with Kelly lived at his two Georgia rental properties, moving between a seven-bedroom French-style mansion in Johns Creek, a suburb 30 miles northeast of Atlanta, and a four-bedroom single-family home two miles away. The star denied the women, all legal age, any contact with friends and family, my sources said. He controlled every aspect of their lives, dictating what they ate, how they dressed, when they bathed, when they slept, and how they pleasured him in sexual encounters that he recorded. Kelly punished the women physically and mentally, my sources added, if they broke “his rules.”
Despite months of reporting with 14 sources on the record and extensive corroborating documentation, the story proved difficult to publish. I worked at length with three news organizations — MTV News, the Chicago Reader and Chicago Public Radio station WBEZ — all of which provided additional reporting help, and I got far down the line with editing, fact-checking and legal vetting at each before executives above the level of the editors I worked with pulled the plug. It was BuzzFeed News that finally published my investigation, under the headline “Inside the Pied Piper of R&B’s ‘Cult,’ ” on July 17, 2017.
Four other BuzzFeed pieces followed, and in the months after, some of my sources, including a few who’d been reluctant to talk on the record for months or years, embraced the spotlight. They spoke in the six-hour docuseries Surviving R. Kelly, which aired last January on Lifetime, as well as on radio, and on TV talk shows such as The View and Megyn Kelly Today. Some started websites, posted YouTube videos, opened Twitter and Instagram accounts, and made Facebook Public Figure pages. A few hired celebrity lawyers and publicists.
The singer’s second wife, Andrea, has yet to publish the book she promised in 2012, Under the Red Carpet, but she did make a “video memoir” that she posted online as a pay-per-view, and she screens it before speaking engagements. Kitti Jones self-published a book, I Was Somebody Before This, and she sold the film rights. Jerhonda Pace (née Johnson) wrote and published A Life Beyond Abuse, and she’s working on a sequel. Lisa Van Allen wrote Surviving the Pied Piper: The Untold Story, and Amazon is selling No Longer Trapped in the Closet: The Asante McGee Story. You can also add Sex Me: Confessions of Daddy’s Little Freak to your cart. That anonymous tome reads as such tawdry porn that I initially thought it was sick “fan fiction,” but one of my sources claims to have spoken to its author, who swears she lived with the cult for a time.
Dominique Gardner first emailed me on July 6, 2018, a few weeks after she left R. Kelly, writing in the subject line, “PRIVACY IS EVERYTHING!” We met in person, then traded texts, emails and phone calls for nine months before meeting again on March 7, 2019. She’d decided it was time to speak publicly, to “give my truth.” She was 27, and had been one of Kelly’s lovers for nine years.
Dominique and Kelly first became intimate when she was 17, the age of consent in Illinois, starting in 2009, not long after her friend Jerhonda passed along the singer’s phone number. In 2015, she became one of the six women living with the singer. The others included Joy Savage and Azriel Clary — whose parents shared their concerns with me in my BuzzFeed investigations. The most dramatic scenes in Surviving R. Kelly showed Dominique’s mother, Michelle Kramer, tracking her down to a Los Angeles hotel room and convincing her to leave the “cult.” Dominique rejected that word, as well as the word “brainwashing,” and she told me she hadn’t watched the documentary.
“What’s the point of seeing it when I lived it? People are using it as entertainment, when it wasn’t entertainment for me, you know?”
After graduating from Hillcrest High School in Chicago’s Southwest suburbs in 2009, Dominique wanted to be a poet and a writer, but her mother wanted her to study to be a dental hygienist. She was close to her family, and even though they didn’t approve of her dating an older man, she saw Kelly for several years while still living at home. The sexual relationship began after she watched him play basketball at a West Side gym. “I was never starstruck, because I didn’t see the R. Kelly side, I saw the Robert side. I was never with him for the fame, for his money.” Why had she wanted to meet him? I asked. “I was in love with him before I even met him, and when I met him, it was like, wow.”
After Kelly rented his getaway properties in the Atlanta suburb of Johns Creek, she began living with him there, as well as at Trump Tower Chicago and his recording studio on North Justine Street. “Atlanta is where he changed. It was like something switched,” she said. Before that, “I used to go home on a regular basis. I was able to call my family. Then, all of a sudden, it was ‘no.’ ”
We first met in July 2018 at a bar she chose in Rogers Park on the North Side. Dominique was startlingly underweight, and she spoke haltingly while looking out the big plate-glass windows, watching for black SUVs. “I wouldn’t put it past him to have his guys following me,” she said. Months later — after Surviving R. Kelly had aired — we met again. She looked much healthier, spoke more freely and laughed more. She no longer worriedly scanned the street outside the windows. We started talking about music — we both agreed Kendrick Lamar is brilliant — and our tattoos. A lion’s head on the back of her right hand protruded from the sleeve of her hoodie. I asked if she had others, and she said she does: two images of Kelly’s face, one on her left leg and another on her rib cage — a particularly painful place to get a tattoo, she noted.
The desire to convey her complex feelings about Kelly is what prompted Dominique to talk to me. She remained conflicted about the man she said she still loved. “He is a giver, because when everything between me and him was good — oh, my God, it was, like, perfect. But, as soon as he gets mad, he turns into a person like, oh, what up, the new Rob.”
People don’t really understand him, she insisted, at least not the way she does. “At the end of the day, I am not playing victim. I done did some shit,” she said, including sleeping with two other men in Kelly’s inner circle while she was one of his girlfriends. “Maybe he did hurt. Maybe he was in love with me. But I never gave him a fair chance.”
I asked if she regretted spending a third of her life with Kelly. She didn’t. “I loved him to death, you know what I’m saying? But he needs help. Who doesn’t need help?” She struggled to find a way to describe the situation, since she didn’t like the words people used. “I wouldn’t even say ‘mind games.’ It was just the fact that he tried to break me. I couldn’t be broken. He wanted that control over me, and I wouldn’t give him that power. So, he figured, like, If I don’t give her food, she’ll come around. Nope. I’d rather die than give you my soul.”
Dominique had heard about other women saying they had to follow Kelly’s “rules,” but she didn’t use that term, either, and she said some of what the singer’s accusers have said was wrong. For example, she was allowed to watch television and connect to the Internet. There were “no locks on no doors … If them two other girls, Joy and Azriel, want to walk out, they can do that.” However, she said Kelly did take away his girlfriends’ phones, replacing them with new ones to be used only with him; he did not allow them to contact their parents, family members or friends; he decreed that they should all wear baggy gym clothes, so other men could not admire their bodies; he did not want them to look at or speak to other men, and they had to ask for his permission to eat or go to the bathroom.
“I couldn’t even have a drink without his permission. I’m a grown-ass woman, and I’ve got to ask you if I want a drink? Everything you do, you have to ask him. That’s not living, that’s not normal. I’ve got to ask to use the fucking bathroom? Are you serious? I’m about to pee on myself if I can’t get in contact with you. What the fuck is this?”
Dominique said she was the “tomboy” among Kelly’s live-in lovers, and the most rebellious. She often disobeyed him and suffered what she called “consequences,” including spankings, beatings and being hit with an extension cord. Once, after she threw a piece of a Keurig coffeemaker at Kelly, “he grabbed me and he pulled my hair out, and I had, like, patches torn from my hair.”
Still, Dominique said, “I’m not going to sit here and act like I’m innocent. One time, I did hit him back. He’s like, ‘Are you crazy?’ Like, yeah! Me and him had an Ike and Tina moment, like they had in the limousine. I wasn’t afraid of him.”
After being reunited with her mother in May 2018, in the scenes captured in Surviving R. Kelly, Dominique returned to Kelly’s side three days later. She stayed with him for about two more weeks, until she finally walked away for good. She did not do it face-to-face; that would have been too hard, she said. “He went to sleep, and I just wrote him a letter: ‘You are a great man. No hard feelings, I am just over it. I am growing. This is not working.’ ”
Every time we talked, I asked Dominique why she stayed with Kelly for so long, and what she believes is the source of his hold over the women who live with him. Finally, she called up an image of the star on her cellphone — his most recent mug shot. “It’s like, I know them eyes. Every time I looked in his eyes, I knew he was sorry. Like, when he hit me, he apologized. I’m, like, you did! But enough was enough. Yes, you did say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’ But, then you do it again when shit don’t go your way.”
Kelly often discussed the sexual abuse he claims he suffered, as well as his difficulties reading and writing. “At the end of the day, he’s a victim, too, because he went through some shit, and people — they don’t understand.” She was stung by criticism from some, including the Savages and the Clarys, that she should have spoken out against Kelly sooner, and that she should be talking to the authorities. “I just want to heal. I just want my privacy,” she said. “People may disagree or hate me for what I’m saying. I’m not trying to defend him, but, at the end of the day, you don’t understand what he’s been through, as a child.”
Dominique felt sorry for Kelly and thought it was unfair that he was being deprived of his livelihood and his lifeline — his music. “I feel like he should be on house arrest in a studio, because, like I said, his music makes him get through the situations, what he’s going through. Jail time, no. He needs to have a 24-hour therapist at his house.”
She added, however, that Kelly at long last needs to be honest about his behavior. She leaned down and spoke directly into my recorder, as if talking to the man she said she still loves. “You can stop the cycle,” she said. “Just be honest. People don’t want you in jail.”
Kelly hired a new Chicago-based defense attorney in early 2019. “Steve Greenberg has made a career out of representing what many consider the lowest of the low,” read a profile by Lisa Bertagnoli in Crain’s Chicago Business. “ ‘The greatest rush in the business is when you know someone is guilty and you win the case,’ he says.” Greenberg vehemently denied the accusations against his client and branded the women accusing him as liars.
Kelly still seems to think he can spin his way out of trouble. Months before his infamous March 2019 CBS interview with Gayle King, he’d already made many of the same arguments in “I Admit,” a 19-minute song in the mock-operatic mode of “Trapped in the Closet.” At a point where RCA/Sony Music was reluctant to release his new music, the star floated it on SoundCloud on July 23, 2018.
“I admit I done made some mistakes,” Kelly begins, “and I have some imperfect ways.” He proceeds to try to evoke sympathy for his inability to read or write, as well as for the sexual abuse he says he suffered as a child. “Only God can mute me,” he sings, and never admits his actions were wrong. “I admit I fuck with all the ladies, that’s both older and young ladies/But tell me how they call it pedophile because of that/Shit is crazy.” The song goes on (and on and on). “I got some girls that love me to pull they hair,” he sings. “Some like me to spank them.”
Ultimately, he blames their parents. “Don’t push your daughter in my face/And tell me that it’s OK/Because your agenda is to get paid/And get mad when it don’t go your way.”
As the financial pressures mounted in 2018, property owners evicted Kelly from the mansion and the guest house in Johns Creek, Ga., for $30,000 in back rent and fees, not long after a former member of his crew allegedly stole all the furniture from those homes because he hadn’t been paid. The star also owed $170,000 in back rent for the recording studio on North Justine Street in Chicago, on top of fines levied by Cook County for illegally using a building zoned for manufacturing as a living space.
The last major-label album of Kelly’s career was 12 Nights of Christmas, released in late 2016. In early 2019, RCA/Sony Music dropped Kelly from its roster. Listeners had greeted “I Admit” as a bizarre curiosity. “Born to My Music,” a jaunty stepping song bragging about all the children conceived to his grooves, also fell flat when Kelly self-released it on New Year’s Day 2019. And that was only the start of a very bad year for him.
On Jan. 8, 2019, Cook County state’s attorney Kim Foxx held a press conference asking for victims hurt by the singer and witnesses to come forward. Foxx, a black, 46-year-old former sex-crimes prosecutor, said she’d watched all of Surviving R. Kelly. “I was sickened by the allegations. I was sickened as a survivor, I was sickened as a mother, I was sickened as a prosecutor.” Foxx vowed to hold the star accountable.
Kelly did not seem concerned. That night, he celebrated his 52nd birthday at a party at a South Side nightclub called V75, and performed his 1994 hit “Bump N’ Grind” to a taped backing track. The crowd sang along, and some of the women actually shouted, “Abduct me!”
I learned on Feb. 13 that Foxx’s office had convened a grand jury and was preparing to indict the singer. Prosecutors had a new videotape, one that dated from the time of the first sex tape for which Kelly had been tried and acquitted in 2008, and which featured the same then-14-year-old girl, Reshona Landfair.
On Feb. 21, I broke the scoop in The New Yorker that the singer was also under investigation by three federal agencies. Based on probes by the FBI and the IRS, federal prosecutors had convened a grand jury in the Southern District of New York, and it had issued at least one subpoena that I saw, to Kelly’s former manager Derrel McDavid. The investigative division of the Department of Homeland Security planned to convene a second federal grand jury in the Eastern District of New York, a senior official told me, to hear evidence against Kelly for sex-trafficking and violating the Mann Act, which felled Chuck Berry.
On Friday, Feb. 22, Foxx’s office held a mid-afternoon press conference to announce that the state of Illinois had indicted Robert Sylvester Kelly for a second time. He was charged with 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse involving four victims, three of whom were minors, for incidents that took place between 1998 and 2010. Each of the counts carries a sentence of three to seven years in prison.
Two investigators in New York told me they were frustrated that Foxx had “rushed” her charges, and that her office was not cooperating with them. They had hoped to issue joint state and federal indictments. “She was eager for the headlines,” one said. But everyone I talked to at the law enforcement agencies involved agreed: This was just the beginning of the end for R. Kelly.
The singer turned himself in to Chicago Police at 8 p.m. on Friday, and he spent the night in Cook County Jail, waiting until bond could be set next door in the Criminal Court Building on Saturday afternoon. Camera crews pitched their tents on the median strip across from the jail’s exit, waiting for him to emerge. When Kelly finally got out of jail on Monday night, he and several scruffy members of what was left of his crew went to what had been the Rock ’N’ Roll McDonald’s on North Clark Street. As always, the star seemed defiant, oblivious to his troubles — and pathological. He’d gone back to the scene of one of his alleged crimes, picking up a 16-year-old girl in 1998.
A few dozen fans who heard their hero was at the former Rock ’N’ Roll McDonald’s rushed to the parking lot and blasted his music from their cars. A quote from the singer resonated with me; he’d posted the video on his Facebook page in the spring of 2018. Cigar in one hand and what looked like a glass of cognac in the other, Kelly toasted a crowd of hangers-on at one of his own never-ending parties. “Like a lot of you motherfuckers, I am handcuffed by my destiny,” he said. “It’s too late. They should’ve did this shit 30 years ago. It’s too late. The music has been injected into the world.”