In R. Kelly Trial, the Verdict May Hinge on a Circle of Enablers

There were the assistants, who said they were warned to remain silent as they chauffeured female guests to their superstar employer’s Chicago-area mansion.

The associates, who quietly passed out his phone number to women and girls at his concerts, encouraging them to contact him and scheduling their visits.

And the managers, one of whom described carrying out a plot to illegally marry the R&B star, R. Kelly, to a 15-year-old girl who thought she might have been pregnant with his child.

The first two weeks of testimony in Mr. Kelly’s trial in Brooklyn have been filled with graphic descriptions of sexual misconduct against women and girls — accusations that have followed Mr. Kelly, 54, for decades. But at the center of the case against Mr. Kelly is the network of associates, assistants and other employees who prosecutors say helped Mr. Kelly build an ecosystem of torment and abuse.

Mr. Kelly, whose real name is Robert Sylvester Kelly, has pleaded not guilty to the federal charges against him in New York and denies all of the accusations of misconduct. He faces a broad racketeering case that portrays him as the kingpin of a criminal scheme that was meant to boost his music and professional brand, but also recruit women and underage girls for sex.

“It’s so easy for us to be caught up in the juicy details around the perpetrator and ignore this other narrative which, I would argue, is even more important: R. Kelly could not have done what he did for any extended period without people fixing things for him and supporting him,” said Minette E. Drumwright, a researcher and professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who has studied how networks of enablers can fuel misconduct.

Mr. Kelly is the only defendant named publicly in the indictment in New York. But the nature of the charges against him places the true focus of his trial on the machine of close managers, entourage members, employees and others who surrounded him.

Mr. Kelly’s history of sexual misconduct accusations came under renewed scrutiny during the Me Too movement. Now, his trial is one of the first of the Me Too era in which the verdict itself hinges directly on the vast networks of enablers that prosecutors say are often critical to understanding how rich and famous men can be allowed to abuse so many for so long.

Experts say that some of those who allow misconduct to persist disregard warning signs, while others play active roles. But the “overwhelming majority of enablers have made a pact with the devil and absolutely see that there’s a benefit to them,” said Amos Guiora, a professor of law at the University of Utah who has written a book on the subject.

“The impact of the enablers on survivors in many ways, long term, can be more devastating than the impact of the assaults because it’s the person that they trusted,” said Mr. Guiora, whose research included the abuses done by Larry Nassar, the former physician for the American gymnastics team.

When the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein was convicted of sex crimes, the limousine drivers, executives and lawyers who helped him carry out and cover up misbehavior fell under condemnation outside the courtroom. So did the industry leaders and celebrities who long knew of the accusations around him as “open secrets.”

And even as the criminal case of the comedian Bill Cosby revolved around his own conduct, observers noted that he appeared to be empowered by agents who were said to have made offers to his accusers and a gynecologist who gave him seven prescriptions of a powerful sedative, among others. (His conviction was later overturned on technical grounds.)

“These high-profile cases that are brought against Weinstein and Bill Cosby — and now R. Kelly — really put the would-be enablers on notice that they’re going to be exposed,” said Jeff Herman, a lawyer who has represented victims of sex abuse including several of Mr. Weinstein’s accusers. “I do think there’s a positive, chilling effect for the future of men who are trying to use other people to help them do wrongdoing.”

But unlike Mr. Kelly, neither Mr. Weinstein nor Mr. Cosby faced a racketeering charge that would have required prosecutors to show that the sexual abuse was part of an organized criminal operation.

The case against Mr. Kelly is anchored on six women whom prosecutors say he physically and sexually abused, though many other accusers are set to testify. They have begun to fill in the government’s portrait of an abusive system where Mr. Kelly stood at the center, and a vast number of his associates played key roles around him.

One woman testified this week that her first flights to see the singer were booked by one of Mr. Kelly’s female assistants, who was aware that she was only 17. Another told jurors that when she was 16, a member of the singer’s entourage approached her at a fast-food restaurant, gave her Mr. Kelly’s phone number and told her he “wants you to call him.”

Prosecutors said in their opening statements that another accuser will testify that she was told she could travel to Mr. Kelly’s studio to interview him for her job in media, but that an employee asked if she needed a condom upon greeting her. And the singer’s associates threatened to expose sexual photos and videos of a fourth woman who had sued him for misconduct if she did not withdraw her claims, the government says.

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.

“I put the number of people who knew about or witnessed that damage in the thousands,” Jim DeRogatis, a music journalist in Chicago who has chronicled the allegations against Mr. Kelly for more than 20 years, wrote in his 2019 book on the subject. “Many knew, and few did anything to stop him.”

The racketeering charge against Mr. Kelly is rarely used in similar criminal cases, though it was employed in the prosecution of the Nxivm sex cult and its leader, Keith Raniere. Experts noted the “criminal enterprise” and enablers at the center of that case were much more defined in structure than in Mr. Kelly’s.

The singer’s defense team has argued that the case — which would need to prove the existence of a criminal enterprise beyond Mr. Kelly — focuses too narrowly on the singer himself. But the final judgment lies with the seven men and five women on the jury, who have heard some of Mr. Kelly’s employees describe how essential they and others were in facilitating the misconduct that the artist is accused of, from the early 1990s through recent years.

One assistant, Anthony Navarro, told jurors he drove female guests to one of the singer’s mansions and, there, was instructed to help maintain a strict set of rules that controlled their daily routines.

And a former tour manager for the singer, Demetrius Smith, told jurors he bribed a government employee for fake identification for the R&B star Aaliyah to marry Mr. Kelly, then 27, who believed that she may have been pregnant with his child. She was 15, and fearing Mr. Kelly’s possible prosecution, his business manager devised a plan for the two to be wed, Mr. Smith said.

Still, prosecutors say some people who had seen indications of the abuse that Mr. Kelly is accused of were not part of the criminal enterprise at his command, but were still enamored by his fame and influence.

One woman, for example, told jurors this week that in her first sexual encounter with the singer at a hotel in Florida, the police were notified that her parents could not reach her, and two officers arrived to his suite. She was an underage high school student at the time, she testified, and the officers who arrived checked her driver’s license.

They did not appear to be concerned, she said.

“They left,” she testified, adding that they gave their contact information to the singer and told him that “any time he was in Orlando and needed security, to let them know.”

The woman, who was 17, said that Mr. Kelly resumed performing a sex act on her minutes later.

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