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How R. Kelly's Trial Has Offered a View of His Escalating Impunity

It was 1999 and R. Kelly was out to dinner with Stephanie and the Chicago rappers Boo & Gotti. At this point, the singer was one of the most bankable R&B stars in American music, having built a career that maneuvered between frank bedroom come-ons and overtly inspirational songs. He was also the frequent subject of rumors about his relationships with much younger women and girls, and had been in the news a few years earlier after it came out that he had married Aaliyah, once his ostensible protégé, when she was 15 years old. At dinner that night, as Stephanie, using a pseudonym, recently testified in Brooklyn federal court, Kelly spoke candidly about his reputation.How R. Kelly's Trial Has Offered a View of His Escalating Impunity

"He mentioned that he likes very young girls and that people make such a big deal of it," Stephanie said.

"Even look at Jerry Lee Lewis, " she recalled Kelly saying. "He's a genius and I'm a genius. We should be allowed to do whatever we want. Look at what we give to the world." (Lewis, the rock-and-roll musician who rose to fame in the 1950s, married his 13-year-old cousin in 1957.)

According to her testimony, Stephanie was 16 when she met Kelly in Chicago and 17 when she began having sexual encounters with the singer. Over the course of about six months, Kelly allegedly filmed her while they had sex and ordered her to remain frozen in sexual positions for hours. "I felt used and humiliated and degraded," Stephanie said. At the dinner where Kelly allegedly compared himself to Lewis, Stephanie said she kept quiet as one of Kelly's rules was that she not to speak to other men.

Through the first few weeks of Kelly's ongoing federal trial on charges related to racketeering and sex trafficking, seven women and one man have offered both harrowing accounts of their experiences with Kelly and chilling details of how he deployed his celebrity in service of his alleged abuse. Prosecutors have sought to build a case that Kelly, who has pleaded not guilty to all the charges, orchestrated an enterprise of his associates that facilitated systematic sexual abuse. Kelly is on trial, and so is the apparatus he used to conduct his business.How R. Kelly's Trial Has Offered a View of His Escalating Impunity

As shocking as the repeated allegations against Kelly have been during his trial, they arrived with substantial precedent. In recent years, Kelly's alleged abuse has been the subject of heavy media scrutiny, culminating in Lifetime's 2019 docuseries Surviving R. Kelly. The testimony throughout the trial, which resumes Thursday, has added to the long list of accusations. It has also provided a window into the level of impunity with which Kelly allegedly operated for the better part of three decades-even as stories of his behavior swirled all around the mainstream press.

That view of Kelly is one consequence of the prosecution's overarching approach. The scope of the racketeering trial-which allows prosecutors to call witnesses who accuse Kelly of related, uncharged crimes that may fall outside the statute of limitations-has meant that the proceedings offer a broad sense of the singer's M.O. Testimony from within Kelly's circle of employees has shown how he built a system to enforce his practices, and several times, prosecutors have displayed a series of photos of Kelly associates and asked witnesses to identify each.

The effect has been a steady image of who appeared to be responsible for carrying out Kelly's directions. One former assistant, Tom Arnold, testified in the trial's second week that he learned the rules of working for Kelly by absorbing them from Milton "June" Brown, another Kelly assistant, or other Kelly employees. (In 2019, in a separate case, federal prosecutors indicted Brown on child porngraphy charges along with Kelly. Brown has pleaded not guilty, and the trial will begin in Chicago after Kelly's current trial.) Arnold said he came to understand that when he was driving Kelly's female studio guests, he needed to turn up his rearview mirror in order to avoid any eye contact.

Suzette Mayweather, a longtime friend who became an assistant for Kelly in 2015, testified last week that she learned from Brown that Kelly's girlfriends "could not talk to other men or look at other men." The rules that employees learned and implemented, according to the testimony to date, were remarkably consistent over the years, and became seemingly entrenched. Three assistants testified that if female guests needed to leave their assigned rooms, in some cases simply to use the bathroom or eat, they first had to get in touch with Kelly or an employee who was near him to obtain his approval.How R. Kelly's Trial Has Offered a View of His Escalating Impunity

At the same time, as Kelly continued to advance in his career, he enjoyed the kind of institutional sanction that may have helped convince him he was untouchable.

Kris McGrath, a doctor whom Kelly flew to concerts across the country, testified early in the trial that he treated the singer's herpes for free for decades. Among the accusations Kelly faces is that he spread the disease without informing his alleged victims, and so far four accusers have testified as much. Prosecutors presented a selfie of McGrath and Kelly grinning at a cigar bar in 2019, two years after the #MuteRKelly campaign called waves of new public attention to the long history of allegations against him. (McGrath practices and teaches at Northwestern, and Chris King, a spokesperson for Northwestern Medicine, told Insider shortly after McGrath's testimony that the organization would initiate a review of McGrath's patient care in response. King hasn't returned a request for comment from Vanity Fair on the status of the review.)

Jerhonda Pace, who claims that Kelly sexually and physically abused her when she was 16 years old, testified at the beginning of the trial that she brought her case to Chicago lawyer Susan Loggans's firm in 2010. Loggans had a reputation for handling claims against Kelly, and she told BuzzFeed in 2017 that she negotiated "numerous" settlements with him. According to Pace's testimony, Loggans encouraged Pace to pursue a financial settlement from Kelly-resulting in $1 million for Pace and $500,000 for Loggans in exchange for Pace's silence. The singer's alleged abuse continued for years. ("I can't comment on any amount of settlement," Loggans said when reached by phone, but added that collecting a third of the settlement would be standard practice.)