The R. Kelly Federal Indictments Describe a Conspiracy

Federal indictments in Chicago and New York allege racketeering, witness tampering, and the illegal transportation of minors for sex—and the singer’s supposed crimes were not committed alone.

R. Kelly leaves the Cook County courthouse in Chicago.
Kamil Krzaczynski / Reuters

In 1994, R. Kelly, then 27 years old, secretly married the 15-year-old pop star Aaliyah. In 1996, another singer, Tiffany Hawkins, said that he had sex with her when she was 15, in the first of many lawsuits over the years from women alleging misconduct by Kelly. In 2000, The Chicago Sun-Times published its first investigation of Kelly’s alleged sex with minors. In 2002, he was indicted on 21 counts of child pornography, leading to the 2008 trial at which he was acquitted. In 2017, BuzzFeed described Kelly corralling women into a sex “cult,” and in January 2019, several alleged victims spoke out in the documentary Surviving R. Kelly. This past February and May saw Illinois prosecutors bringing a total of 21 counts of sexual assault and abuse against him.

Now, in July 2019, arrive Kelly’s first federal indictments. They may help explain how the singer has evaded consequences for his alleged crimes—all of which he has denied, none of which he has been convicted for—for so long.

Last night in Chicago, federal agents acting on a 13-count indictment arrested Kelly while he was out walking his dog. Today, federal prosecutors in New York revealed a separate five-count indictment against Kelly. Kelly’s lawyer Steve Greenberg, in a statement about the Chicago case, says, “The conduct alleged appears to largely be the same as the conduct previously alleged against Mr. Kelly ... Most, if not all of the conduct alleged, is decades old.” This is both somewhat factual and misleading. The offenses described in both the Chicago and New York cases will not shock anyone who’s been following Kelly’s saga. In different but damning ways, though, and alongside some new information, the indictments string the allegations into a pattern. They target the conspiracy that may have protected Kelly for so long.

The New York indictment refers throughout to Kelly’s “enterprise,” which includes “individuals who served as managers, bodyguards, drivers, personal assistants and runners for KELLY, as well as members of KELLY’s entourage.” Write prosecutors, “The purposes of the Enterprise were to promote R. Kelly’s music and the R. Kelly brand and to recruit women and girls to engage in illegal sexual activity with KELLY.” The charges subsequently laid out do not dwell on specific sexual details—the five alleged victims, whose identities are known to the grand jury, are referred to as Jane Does—but they do sketch the outlines of a nefarious machine.

According to that sketch, at concerts, Kelly and members of his entourage would invite women and underage girls backstage. Some of them would be given Kelly’s contact information and continue communicating. With great logistical effort, the relationships could escalate:

KELLY and other members of the Enterprise also arranged for the women and girls to travel to see KELLY on occasion, including at concerts throughout the United States and related events. To facilitate their travel, KELLY directed the women and girls to contact a member of the Enterprise, who then arranged travel for the women and girls. When the women and girls arrived at the lodging, which was typically selected by a member of the Enterprise, a member of the Enterprise usually provided them with instructions. In addition, members of the Enterprise took steps to ensure that the women and girls did not interact with other women and girls whom KELLY planned to see. Members of the Enterprise then arranged for the women and girls to attend his concerts and positioned them such that KELLY could see them during his concerts.

The indictment goes on to list some of the “rules” for these women that have been previously reported: They couldn’t leave their rooms without permission, they had to wear baggy clothes, they were forbidden from looking at other men, and they were required to call Kelly “Daddy.” The described arrangement was sprawling and complex. Allegations include kidnapping, forced labor, sexual exploitation of a child, racketeering, and violations of the Mann Act, which prohibits the transportation of people for the purposes of illegal sex. Venues include New York, Illinois, Connecticut, and California; the “enterprise” is also alleged to have operated overseas. The earliest allegations refer to events in January 1999, and the most recent ones are from February 2018.

The Chicago indictment, which names Kelly and his associates Derrel McDavid and Milton Brown, focuses on a different part of the supposed Kelly machine: the alleged scheme to record, circulate, and hide videos of him having sex with children. Such acts would violate federal child-pornography laws, as well as those against obstruction of justice. Five unnamed minors are referred to, and Kelly is alleged to have met them all in the mid-to-late ’90s, when they were between 12 and 17 years old. Four videos depict Kelly having sex with “Minor 1,” and one of those videos was the subject of the highly publicized 2008 child-pornography trial at which Kelly was found not guilty.

That acquittal has served as a linchpin for Kelly’s defenders. The alleged victim, who did not testify during the trial, denied that she was the person on the videotape. So did some of her family members. Unable to say conclusively that the tape depicted her and Kelly, the jury let him off. Thursday’s indictment in Chicago, however, raises questions about that verdict. It says that Kelly and his business manager Derrel McDavid persuaded the alleged victim and her family to lie. It also says that Kelly’s team paid for the alleged victim and her parents to be out of the country when police tried to question them in 2002, and that Kelly kept giving them money and gifts from 2000 through 2015.

These allegations of witness tampering support what many—including Stephanie “Sparkle” Edwards, the alleged victim’s aunt, who testified against Kelly in 2008—suspected about the trial all along: that Kelly bought or intimidated his way into his victim’s cooperation. The Chicago indictment also describes a larger conspiracy with regard to sex tapes he made. Kelly allegedly had his associate McDavid track down tapes that had gone missing and pay for their retrieval. Lie-detector tests were given to people in his orbit to make sure they hadn’t disseminated copies of tapes. These details, too, would seem to lend credence to the accounts in Surviving R. Kelly about Kelly’s anxiety that his homemade pornography would land in the hands of law enforcement.

Between the Chicago indictment and the New York one, a picture emerges of Kelly using his entourage not just to corral young women for sex but also to hide the illicit aspects of that endeavor: the underage sex, the coerced sex, the child pornography. It’s the alleged cover-up, in addition to the crimes, that the feds are targeting. Which is to say that what’s under scrutiny now is not only the harm Kelly may have caused to multiple women, but also how he’s been able to keep doing it.