Whitey Bulger, John Gotti and… R. Kelly? As the disgraced R&B hitmaker’s federal trial kicked off in Brooklyn on Tuesday, front and center was the charge of racketeering — unusual for someone person accused of sex crimes, and more commonly reserved for mobsters and other organized crime syndicates.
For the “I Believe I Can Fly Singer” born Robert Sylvester Kelly, however, it could mean 10 years to life in prison if convicted on all charges. The trial also includes 14 underlying acts — including kidnapping, sex trafficking and forced labor — and eight counts of violating the federal Mann Act, which outlaws sex trafficking across state lines. In New York, Kelly is alleged to have committed these crimes against six women and girls, including the late singer Aaliyah, whom Kelly married when she was 15 and he was 27. (Kelly faces additional federal charges, including the sexual exploitation of children, in a separate case brought in Illinois.)
Racketeering was established as a crime in 1970 under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, designed to crack down on organized crime in the U.S. To convict a defendant of the charge, the government must prove that said defendant engaged in two or more instances of racketeering activity — a list that includes, pertinently for Kelly’s case, human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of children — as well as “directly invested in, maintained an interest in, or participated in a criminal enterprise affecting interstate or foreign commerce.”
Kelly, claimed Assistant U.S. Attorney Maria Cruz Melendez in her opening statements, led a criminal enterprise where he enlisted his close associates to cover up his crimes while employing lawyers to distribute “hundreds of thousands of dollars in hush payments” to his alleged victims. Per the indictment brought against the singer in 2019, “The purposes of the Enterprise were to promote R. Kelly’s music and the R. Kelly brand, to recruit women and girls to engage in illegal sexual activity with Kelly and to produce pornography, including child pornography.”
Nicole Blank Becker, Kelly’s defense attorney shrugged off these assertions during her opening statement Wednesday (August 18), saying Kelly’s alleged actions were not part of a “continuous, ongoing enterprise” of the sort used to convict Gotti and other organized crime figures. As for the prosecution witnesses’ testimonies, she said there were “so many untruths told that even the government won’t be able to untangle the mess of lies.”
The first witness to take the stand on Wednesday, Jerhonda Johnson Pace, provided testimony backing up the prosecution’s claim that Kelly was indeed the leader of an orchestrated criminal enterprise that preyed on young women and girls. During her time on the stand, Pace claimed that one of Kelly’s associates, Bubba, extended an invite to a party where the singer had sex with her despite learning that she was only 16, below the age of consent. Later that night, she alleged, another of Kelly’s employees slipped her $50 in an envelope and told her someone would take her to the train.
Becker is just the first of several prosecution witnesses scheduled to take the stand at the trail, which continues Thursday (August 19). While the trial promises to be unpredictable, what’s clear is that to score a conviction on the racketeering charge, the prosecution will need to convince jurors that Kelly is not only guilty of the acts of sexual violence he is accused of — but that his inner circle was key to enabling and obscuring his crimes.
Additional reporting by Neena Rouhani.