Twenty-five years ago, Tiffany Hawkins, a young woman from the South Side of Chicago, approached the Illinois State’s Attorney Office to press criminal charges against R. Kelly. She claimed that the R. & B. star had sexually abused her when she was a minor, but the office was not interested in pursuing the charges. “I was a young Black girl,” Hawkins told me, in 2019. “Who cared?” On Monday, after decades of accusations and a five-and-a-half-week trial in federal court, in New York, Kelly was found guilty of all charges, including racketeering, sex trafficking, bribery, and the sexual exploitation of a child. Kelly’s case, arguably the most high-profile sex-abuse trial in the history of the music industry, marks the first major prosecution in the #MeToo era on behalf of victims who are primarily women of color. Kelly now faces a possible sentence of ten years to life in prison.
“Robert Sylvester Kelly used his fame, his popularity, and the network of people at his disposal to target, groom, and exploit girls, boys, and young women for his sexual gratification,” the Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Geddes told the jury, last Wednesday, during the prosecution’s closing argument. “He used lies, manipulation, threats, and physical abuse to dominate his victims. He used his money and his public persona to hide his crimes in plain sight.” In order to make its case, over the span of a month, the prosecution called on nearly four dozen witnesses, including many who claimed to have been victimized by Kelly.
The jury, comprising seven men and four women, reached its verdict relatively quickly. And, yet, as a journalist who has been reporting on Kelly’s abusive behavior for twenty-one years, I am struck by how many questions remain in this long and disturbing story. How, exactly, did Kelly avoid repercussions for illegally marrying his protégé Aaliyah, in 1994, when she was fifteen and he was twenty-seven, and they were two of the biggest stars in popular music? Aaliyah died in a plane crash in 2001, but prosecutors did not call the two family members who could have shed more light on her relationship with Kelly: her mother, Diane Haughton, and her uncle, Barry Hankerson, who ran Aaliyah’s record company, and who managed Kelly’s career from the making of his début album, in 1992, until early 2000. How did Kelly avoid a conviction, back in 2008, when the state of Illinois tried him for child pornography? (The answer to that one may come in a second federal case that Kelly still faces in the Northern District of Illinois; prosecutors allege that Kelly bribed one of his victims and her parents to lie to the grand jury.) And how many more victims are there who we don’t know about? This case involved twenty women and two men, but there are likely many more. Prosecutors told the judge that they intended to call Susan E. Loggans, a Chicago attorney who has said that she negotiated “numerous” settlements for Kelly’s underage victims—such as Tiffany Hawkins—in return for their signing nondisclosure agreements, but the jury never heard from her.
My biggest question, though, is how the many people Kelly victimized will begin to heal. I recently talked to several victims whose stories I’ve reported over the years, and, while they all said that they were glad to see Kelly finally face consequences for his actions, they also said that his conviction is too little, too late. When I heard the verdict, I thought of them, and I thought of an e-mail I received in November, 2016. “I am a mom of a young adult daughter who is caught up as a victim by Mr. Kelly,” Jonjelyn Savage wrote, in the first of many communications that prompted nine months of reporting for a story that I published in BuzzFeed News, in July, 2017. In that piece, Jonjelyn and her husband, Tim, said that, when their daughter Joycelyn, who goes by Joy, was nineteen years old, she moved out of her dorm room at Georgia Gwinnett College and began living with Kelly as part of a so-called cult of six women who were being abused at the singer’s homes near Atlanta and in Chicago. (One of the witnesses for the prosecution, Jane Doe No. 5, who testified at the trial, was another member of the cult.)
The Savages never stopped trying to bring their daughter home. Jonjelyn, who ran a small boutique in Atlanta, closed her store in order to devote herself full time to rescuing Joy. She and Tim welcomed the civil-rights attorney Gerald Griggs to help with their daughter’s case, and also Kenyette Tisha Barnes and Oronike Odeleye, the two Georgia activists who founded the #MuteRKelly movement. Together, they brought newly intense scrutiny of Kelly’s behavior, resulting in the 2019 docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly,” which prompted the federal investigation that ultimately led to the star’s indictment, trial, and conviction. But the Savage family has still not reunited with Joy; they’ve had almost no communication with her for the past five years. (They believe that she was in New York during the trial, living with an associate of Kelly’s. They expected that the singer’s defense team would call her to testify on his behalf, but she never appeared at the courthouse.) Jonjelyn and Tim told me that Joy, who is now twenty-six years old, has been “brainwashed.”
The same phrase was used by Alex, one of Kelly’s two male victims who took the witness stand at the trial, and who met the singer when he was sixteen; when asked by the defense why he had initially told federal investigators, in 2019, that he’d been the singer’s “personal shopper,” Alex said that Kelly had told him to say that, and that he’d been “brainwashed along.” The final witness for the prosecution, Dawn Hughes, a clinical and forensic psychologist, used a different term for the hold that Kelly has on some of his victims: “psychological entrapment.” Hughes testified that the long-term effects of abuse can “jumble together” people’s memories, making them act in ways that seem disingenuous. In March, 2019, Joy Savage appeared in an interview segment with Gayle King that aired on “CBS This Morning,” during which she and Jane Doe No. 5, who joined her for the taping, defended Kelly against the allegations that had been appearing about him in the news. (Jane Doe No. 5, who later broke up with Kelly, testified at the trial that she was dishonest in that interview.) Were Joy’s statements the result of psychological entrapment, or some other form of coercion? “I knew there was something going on when Joy talked to Gayle King,” Joy’s sister, Jailyn, told me. “It was kind of like she didn’t have no choice but to be on that interview and say what she said.”
Jailyn, who is twenty-one, was in her mid-teens when she last spent time with Joy. (The Savages also have a third daughter, Jori, who is fourteen years old.) The family said they are praying that they hear from Joy soon, now that Kelly will be going to prison. “He will be held accountable for what he’s done all these years,” Jonjelyn said, of the man who took her daughter from her. “But there’s no winners in this situation at all.”
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