Prosecutors flooded with calls about R. Kelly
Building successful case will be difficult, experts say
Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office has been flooded with calls since she personally pleaded for any victims or witnesses to come forward with information about alleged sexual misconduct by R&B superstar R. Kelly.
What follows could be a long road for both accusers and prosecutors given the delicate nature of investigating sex crimes, Kelly’s high profile and the fact that many of the victims may be going public after a long silence. The stakes can be even higher with a celebrity involved.
“You have a doubleedged sword,” said Steven Block, former head of the special prosecutions bureau of the Cook County state’s attorney’s office. “You’ve got the difficulty of corroborating older allegations because certain evidence no longer exists, and you also have … attacks on witness credibility because of the timing of their outcry. … That’s not to say it’s an unprovable case, (but) it’s an additional hurdle the prosecutor is going to have to deal with right out of the gate.”
Foxx’s personal call to action — even briefly referring to her own background as a sexual assault “survivor” — came amid cascading fallout from a Lifetime documentary series, “Surviving R. Kelly,” that aired this month with accusations painting Kelly as a manipulative sexual predator.
The series features stories from women alleging Kelly physically, sexually and mentally abused them. The singer has long been accused of having sexual contact with underage girls. Cook County prosecutors indicted Kelly on child pornography charges for allegedly filming himself having sex with a girl estimated to be as young as 13, but a jury acquitted him of all charges in 2008. More recently, he has been accused of running a hidden “sex cult” of women who are manipulated and abused to stay under his control.
Foxx was “sickened” by the allegations aired in the series, she said at a highly unusual news conference at which she pleaded for victims to tell their stories to police and prosecutors. Without the cooperation of accusers, law enforcement cannot build a criminal case, she said.
Since the announcement Tuesday, the prosecutor’s office has been inundated with “dozens and dozens” of calls, spokeswoman Kiera Ellis told the Tribune. The office is currently working “to vet the allegations and make a determination if charges are appropriate based on the evidence,” she said.
But Kelly’s local attorney, Steve Greenberg, blasted Foxx’s call for victims to come forward as irresponsible.
“It’s completely backwards,” he told the
R. Kelly protesters made their way to the embattled singer’s Near West Side recording studio Saturday morning to amplify the #MuteRKelly movement. And then a few Kelly supporters pulled up amplifying his music.
Following the damning Lifetime documentary series “Surviving R. Kelly,” protesters gathered for the second time this week outside 219 N. Justine St. to share stories of survival, call for an end to the “Pied Piper of R&B’s” career and bring attention to the young women at the center of his alleged “cult.”
As flurries of snow hit the sidewalks outside of the studio, a small group of protesters passed around a megaphone. One colorful sign raised in the air said: “‘Age ain’t nothing but a number.’ Well jail ain’t nothing but a room.”
“I couldn’t stand by and be silent,” said crisis responder Dawn Valenti through the megaphone. “It’s important for us as survivors to stand up.”
Chants of “R. Kelly, your time is up!” and “Black girls matter!” were directed at the brick building.
Protester Tebitha Kulikowska, 26, of Belmont Cragin, said she came to the protest to help give voice to those who don’t have an outlet.
“I want there to be a future that girls can look forward to,” Kulikowska said. “The documentary really opened up my eyes.”
The six-hour documentary — watched by almost 20 million viewers — covers decades of abuse allegations against the Grammy winner, including the six-year legal Tribune. “Now you’re inviting people who have never complained to reach out, and that’s really no different than when they used to troll for jailhouse snitches . ... That’s how you end up with wrongful convictions and bad evidence.”
Greenberg strongly denies any wrongdoing by Kelly and said he is confident the singer won’t face charges.
The state’s attorney’s call to action followed reports saga that culminated with Kelly being acquitted of child pornography charges by a Cook County jury in 2008.
Kelly, who celebrated his 52nd birthday Tuesday, has long denied all allegations of sex abuse and running a “cult.” But a wave of backlash has followed the release of the documentary. Kelly is reportedly under criminal investigation in Georgia, and Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx earlier this week asked alleged victims to come forward.
On Wednesday, a protest was held outside the studio, and on Thursday, a proposal for a Springfield concert hosted by Kelly was denied due to security concerns, while a local radio station banned his music. On Friday, Kelly was ordered to allow city building inspectors to check out his Near West Side recording studio after reports that people were living in the industrial warehouse space in violation of city codes.
On Saturday, as protesters chalked messages on the slick sidewalks, Tyler Thompson, 22, of Hyde Park, talked about what brought her to the studio.
Thompson said that growing up, she knew people who knew Kelly, and she was invited to his residence. But she never asked her mom if she could go, because Thompson knew her mom would say no.
“If I didn’t have a mom who put that fear in me,” Thompson said, “I could have been one of those women.”
Thompson said she still has friends who defend the singer, but she sees the current moment as a turning point. that Kelly is under criminal investigation in Georgia. A representative of the Fulton County district attorney’s office said the office has no comment. But a spokesman for Gerald Griggs, a lawyer representing parents of a girl who say Kelly has kept her from contacting them since 2016, confirmed the district attorney’s office reached out to them seeking information about witnesses.
The state’s attorney’s office
“A lot of this wouldn’t happen if the documentary wasn’t made,” she said. “I will definitely keep coming out if there’s more protests.
“I just hope everyone keeps their energy and focus on the women,” she said.
Thompson pointed out her chalked message that sent love to Azriel and Joycelyn, two of the girls at the center of the Lifetime documentary, as two white cars arrived in front of the studio, blasting Kelly’s music.
Signs popped out of the windows with messages of “forgiveness” for Kelly and Bible verses. “R. Kelly We (heart) U,” read one sign.
The supporters and protesters yelled back and forth in a contentious shouting match. One supporter exited a car with his own megaphone and addressed organizer Anthony Clark as the crowd attempted to drown out the supporter with cries of “Mute R. Kelly.”
By about 11:30 a.m., the white cars were gone.
“I prayed with them,” Clark said. “I circled up and prayed with them because I don’t hate anyone.
“We must be allies in verb form, and the first step is to first hold ourselves accountable as individuals,” Clark said. “We had so many wonderful speakers step up, because again it’s not enough just to act, we have to also educate.”
Clark said there’s a Monday protest at Trump Tower in the works. Police went to Kelly’s residence at the building on Friday on a tip that women were being held hostage but left after finding no evidence of wrongdoing. has declined to comment on the specific nature of many of the calls it has received but did acknowledge that families of two missing women have reached out with concerns about their loved ones’ possible contact with Kelly.
But even if authorities hear from people with credible allegations, prosecutors still must weigh several tricky factors in deciding whether they can build a successful case, according to experts who spoke generally about sex-crimes prosecutions rather than any specific investigation of allegations against Kelly.
Some making accusations against the singer have likely come forward long after the alleged abuse took place. Supporting evidence can be tough to find as a result, said attorney Sabra Ebersole, who spent four years as a prosecutor in the Cook County state’s attorney’s domestic violence and sex crimes units.
“Generally there’s not going to be anything that juries are looking for in terms of physical corroboration,” said Ebersole, now a private attorney who represents both victims and defendants in sex-crimes cases. “The role of the prosecutor then, if they think they have a credible case, is to explain to the jury why a person is believable despite the fact that years have passed from the time of the abuse to the time of the outcry, and though it’s challenging, it can be done.”
Defense attorneys use that time gap to attack the credibility of the accuser. Kelly’s superstar status also gives the defense more ammunition to attack an accuser’s motivations, Block said.
Victims of sexual abuse already face an uphill climb in trying to get people to believe them, said Carrie Ward, executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault. When a celebrity has been accused, it can be even more difficult.
“The higher the profile — and this is extremely highprofile — the harder it may be for someone to come forward,” Ward said. “It raises the number of people who might doubt your story. You could have a situation where someone starts out a fan or a groupie who is just really taken by a star or celebrity and would do anything, feel like they would do anything for them. That still doesn’t mean they deserve to be taken advantage of.”
The allegations that Kelly is running a “sex cult” of women kept captive under his control could be particularly tricky to corroborate. Police on Friday went to Kelly’s Trump Tower residence to check out a tip that two women were being held hostage there but left after both women said they were not there against their will.
Greenberg cited that as definitive proof that Kelly has not participated in wrongdoing.
But Ward cautioned that law enforcement should still take such claims seriously.
“People who are held captive against their will might do and say things that don’t seem normal, that don’t seem like what someone would do if they’re being held against their will,” Ward said. “Especially where you have repeat situations where folks have come forward. … I certainly do hope there’s continued effort to check up on that.”
If many women come forward with similar credible allegations against Kelly, that could prove powerful for prosecutors. In some cases, prosecutors can try to introduce evidence at trial of a defendant’s other alleged crimes to prove a pattern of behavior — much like what happened to entertainer Bill Cosby.
“If the prosecution can present multiple victims, then it’s no longer a ‘he said, she said,’ ” Ebersole said. “It’s a ‘he said, she said, she said, she said.’ ”
Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s call to action came amid cascading fallout from a Lifetime documentary series.