Five months after R. Kelly’s 2019 arrest, federal agents searching a locked safe in a Chicago storage facility discovered a stack of the singer’s personal papers in protective sleeves. Among them: a seven-page handwritten letter from a woman who began living with Mr. Kelly when she was 17.
Calling Mr. Kelly a “great man,” the woman wrote: “At the age of 17 I never had sex with Robert Kelly,” then proceeded to tick off a list of specific sex acts that she said she had not participated in with the R&B superstar.
But less than two years later, when the woman who had written the letter testified under a pseudonym during Mr. Kelly’s federal trial in Brooklyn, she said she had experienced coerced and recorded sexual encounters with the singer starting when she was 17. He hit her often, she said, and forced her to abort a pregnancy.
The letters that investigators found, she said, had been filled with lies, written under pressure from Mr. Kelly in an effort to conceal his abuse.
Again and again during Mr. Kelly’s trial in Brooklyn, women who have accused him of abuse have shared the same curious detail: While they were sexually involved with the singer, they have testified, he had them prepare letters that appeared designed to exonerate him from precisely the accusations they are now leveling against him.
Mr. Kelly, who has been trailed by sexual misconduct accusations for years, appeared to be attempting to ward off prosecution, or laying the foundation for an eventual defense. Instead, the letters have been presented by prosecutors as evidence of coercion and manipulation that even suggest he long knew his activities could land him behind bars.
Every letter introduced by prosecutors at trial came from Mr. Kelly’s own collection, discovered in the storage facility and his Chicago apartment, signed by women who now are at the heart of the case against him.
Such letters are not unheard of in cases involving persistent sexual abuse. The abusive Nxivm sex cult also kept letters from women whom its leader, Keith Raniere, called his slaves — letters that were then used to force compliance and potentially discredit women if they spoke out.
Moira Penza, the lead prosecutor on Mr. Raniere’s case, which was heard in the same courthouse in 2019, said that while such letters are created by some “predators” with the intention of being used as a strong defense, prosecutors can easily turn that goal on its head, using them to demonstrate darker intentions.
“These letters succeed in acting as measures of coercive control, but they fail to undermine victims’ credibility at trial,” Ms. Penza said. “Juries see through these letters, especially when the prosecutors and witnesses provide context for the circumstances in which the letters originally came to be written.”
Writing letters for Mr. Kelly was so routine, the woman who testified under a pseudonym told the jury, that Mr. Kelly would say “it was time for us to write letters,” and his live-in girlfriends would quickly set pen to paper. She said Mr. Kelly told her “they were to basically exploit us to protect him” and that one of his lawyers had suggested the writing exercise “because of his past.”
In 2008 Mr. Kelly stood trial in a child pornography case in Chicago, in which he was accused of urinating on a young girl — and recording it. But he was acquitted after the young girl and her immediate family declined to testify.
The singer, whose full name is Robert Sylvester Kelly, now faces charges regarding his sexual encounters with women and girls in several states. In Brooklyn, he is charged with one count of racketeering and eight violations of an anti-sex trafficking law known as the Mann Act.
The federal case, which will include 45 witnesses by its expected conclusion on Friday, is grounded by testimonies from five women, as well as additional evidence related to his 1994 marriage to Aaliyah, who was then 15. A slew of additional accusers, whose experiences are excluded from the charges, have also testified. (Mr. Kelly’s defense team plans to call its own witnesses on Monday.)
The live-in girlfriends were all routinely directed to write new rounds of letters — “about four to five each,” the woman who testified under a pseudonym said, and written as though “we had already left and were trying to get back to him.” She said she would write the letters with Mr. Kelly and the other girlfriends hovering nearby.
“He wanted us to include letters saying that we had stolen money from him,” she said. “That we had stolen watches from him, that we had been molested by family members, that we had been abused and neglected by family members and so forth.”
Understand the R. Kelly Trial
What are the charges? Mr. Kelly is facing one charge of racketeering based on sexual exploitation of children, kidnapping and forced labor, and eight counts of violating the Mann Act, which prohibits transporting anyone across state lines for prostitution.
Who is testifying? The trial centers around six women, several of whom are expected to testify. Prosecutors say the singer physically abused and psychologically manipulated many of them and controlled several aspects of their lives, including when they could eat and use the bathroom. At least three were underage.
His marriage to Aaliyah. Part of the case involves R. Kelly’s marriage to singer Aaliyah, who was 15 when they wed in 1994. Mr. Kelly’s former tour manager testified that R. Kelly bribed a government employee in 1994 so that he could obtain a fake ID for her.
The 2008 trial. The performer was acquitted in a high-profile criminal case brought against him on child pornography charges in 2008. The trial was centered on a videotape that prosecutors said showed the R. Kelly having sex with a 14-year-old girl. She refused to testify. Here’s a full timeline of the allegations.
Ms. Penza, who now works as a partner at a private firm in New York, said that such false confessions further ensnare the people who write them.
“The knowledge that someone possesses the means to destroy you is a powerful coercive tool for predators,” she said. “Once someone has written a letter like that and handed it over, they have lost any ability to say no to whatever comes next without fear of serious harm to all aspects of their life.”
So far, 11 accusers have taken the stand to reflect on their interactions with Mr. Kelly — sometimes from decades earlier. In several cases, prosecutors have used their letters as evidence of the control that Mr. Kelly exerted over the people in his orbit — something one male accuser called being “brainwashed.”
That accuser, who testified this week under the pseudonym Alex, said Mr. Kelly called him to his apartment at Trump Tower in 2019. Alex said that his encounters with the singer had continued for years, and he was asked to write the letter shortly after the release of a damning documentary about Mr. Kelly. In Chicago, the singer asked him to write a letter claiming “we had no sexual relationship.”
Alex said Mr. Kelly “told me word for word” what to write.
The letters sometimes appear to beggar belief.
One woman wrote that she spanked herself “really hard” until she had bruises in an effort to blackmail Mr. Kelly. Another, who testified as Anna, claimed she had begged the singer to have sex with her, and that he had given in only after much resisting.
On the stand, Anna said she was so anguished by the letters Mr. Kelly made her write that once, sitting in his apartment at Trump Tower, she propped up her phone and recorded herself while writing a letter, saying she was doing it against her will. But Mr. Kelly later found and deleted the recording, she said.
Even one of her letters appeared to betray an understanding of its implausibility.
“I know a lot of people reading this probably won’t believe me,” she wrote. “And think R. Kelly made me write this.”
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