The first accuser in the high-profile federal sex trafficking trial against R. Kelly took the stand Wednesday and said the R&B singer knowingly had an underage sexual relationship with her when she was just 16 years old.
Jerhonda Johnson Pace, 28, told jurors R. Kelly had sex with her when she was 16 years old in May 2009 and that they continued to have sex for six months.
Pace is one of six women and girls whose interactions with R. Kelly are the subject of the trial.
During opening statements, a prosecutor said the case was “about a predator” who used his fame and money to lure and sexually abuse girls, boys and young women and “hide his crimes in plain sight.”
“This case is about a predator who for decades used fame, popularity and a network of associates to groom girls, boys and young women for his own sexual purposes,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Maria Cruz Melendez said Wednesday morning in a Brooklyn, New York, courthouse during the federal trial.
During opening statements for the defense, a lawyer for R. Kelly said the witnesses’ testimony will “crumble” under cross examination and the government “won't be able to untangle the mess of lies.”
R. Kelly, 54, whose real name is Robert Sylvester Kelly, denies any wrongdoing. R. Kelly, who has been in federal custody since 2019, pleaded not guilty to racketeering, bribery, coercion, enticement and sex trafficking. He looked somber Wednesday seated between his attorneys, with a shaved head and blue suit and tie.
He also has pleaded not guilty to sex-related charges in Illinois and Minnesota.
Cruz Melendez, the prosecutor, said R. Kelly used his money, clout and public persona to hide his crimes and surrounded himself with a team whose purpose was to promote his music and brand and fulfill his wishes and demands. R. Kelly learned he could take advantage of this and had his pick of “young fans around the country,” and when he had those fans alone, he used them “physically, psychologically and sexually,” she said.
The prosecutor said the case was not about a “celebrity who likes to party” or R. Kelly’s sexual preferences: “The sexual conduct was illegal. He engaged with minors in their teens and recorded it to produce child pornography and crossed state lines and exposed them to incurable herpes,” she said.
Cruz Melendez said R. Kelly relied on his inner circle to cover up his crimes and used lawyers to distribute “hundreds of thousands of dollars in hush payments.” The girls were told they could never look at other men and had to keep their heads down, and they were forced to wear baggy clothing and ask permission to use the bathroom, she said.
R. Kelly also kept videos and photos to protect himself and keep his victims quiet, or he would pay his victims off so his criminal conduct would not become public, she added.
R. Kelly was charged in July 2019 with racketeering based on sexual exploitation of children, kidnapping, forced labor and Mann Act violations — charges involving the coercion and transportation of women and girls in interstate commerce to engage in illegal sexual activity, according to a Department of Justice news release.
The charges involve six women and girls.
On Wednesday, the prosecution detailed R. Kelly’s interactions with the six girls and women, including Pace and the late singer Aaliyah, who was 15 when she and R. Kelly were married. The others were identified by first name only as Stephanie, Sonja, Zel and Faith, according to the Eastern District of New York.
Pace said the two first met at the courthouse when he was at trial in 2008 on child pornography charges, and she later met him in his tour bus and got his autograph.
Eventually, she went to his home in Olympia Fields, Illinois, for a party and the two exchanged numbers. Pace said she initially told R. Kelly she was 19 years old.
R. Kelly invited her back to his home after that, she said. He performed oral sex on her in a room where he had an indoor pool, Pace said. She testified that she told him she was a 16-year-old virgin and showed him her state identification, she said.
Pace said Kelly then asked her, “What's that supposed to mean?” and told her to keep telling people she was 19 and to act as though she was 21 years old.
Pace said they then had intercourse. She said she stayed until 6 a.m. and a runner gave her $50 to go home. She said R. Kelly told her he did not want her to have a phone because he did not want her to be in contact with anyone.
Cruz Melendez said prosecutors will present witnesses including victims, associates, forensic psychologists, experts in DNA, official documents proving Aaliyah was 15, telephone records, travel records, medical and prescription records, physical evidence from searches of R. Kelly’s apartment and studio and storage facilities, video and audio recordings and letters from the defendant.
“We are going to ask you to hold him accountable for sexually abusing girls, boys, young women, and we will ask you to find him guilty on all counts,” she said.
Defense attorney Nicole Blank Becker asked the jury not to assume everyone was telling the truth and said, “Don't leave your common sense at the door.” Becker told the jury they will hear a number of “half-truths” and “exaggerated testimony” from people who have an agenda.
She said some witnesses wrote books and received money from R. Kelly for bills and others went on shopping sprees or enjoyed the "notoriety."
“They were fans. They came to Mr. Kelly,” she said, adding that though he paid for their flights and hotels that did not mean he was running a “monumental enterprise.”
“They will paint him as a monster, but you will hear some of these relationships were beautiful and long term,” she said. “They knew exactly what they were getting into, and it was no secret that Mr. Kelly had multiple girlfriends.”
They became angry and resentful when the relationships ended and attempted to “take advantage of the situation,” she said.
Douglas C. Anton, one of the singer’s lawyers, has blasted the accusers as “disgruntled groupies” who were “dying to be with him” and accused them of coming forward with their allegations to join what he described as the #MeToo “bandwagon.”
“Your Honor, this N.Y. case amounts to nothing more than groupie remorse,” Anton wrote in part in a letter to U.S. District Judge Ann M. Donnelly dated July 30, 2019, according to a public court filings.
The Brooklyn trial is the second time R. Kelly has been prosecuted. He was acquitted on child pornography charges in 2008, when he was 41.
The singer’s alleged pattern of abuse drew intense public scrutiny with the rise of the #MeToo movement, leading to the #MuteRKelly social media campaign, boycotts of his hit records, protests across the country and, perhaps most notably, “Surviving R. Kelly,” a Lifetime documentary series featuring testimony from several accusers.
CORRECTION (Aug. 18, 2021, 2:10 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the name of an alleged victim of R. Kelly. Her name is Aaliyah, not Aailyah.