Shawana wasn’t the first woman whose rape led police to Kelly. Marie, a St. Louis woman, said he raped her in the back of his truck the year before. And a woman in Virginia the following year told police she was raped, the investigation once again leading police to Kelly. Three women in three states in three consecutive years.
Kelly maintains his innocence. He never raped anyone, he’s said, and these women lied to settle a grudge.
Yet a look at these women reveals something else. Kelly’s victims were poor, black and vulnerable, characteristics that make them more likely to be raped and less likely to be believed. The investigations initially ended without charges, the most common outcome when a rape is reported. Indeed, less than one percent of rapes end with a rapist in jail.
“These are challenging, but also simple cases,” said Angela Povilaitis, an experienced sex crimes prosecutor who at the same time led the prosecutions of Kelly and disgraced former doctor Larry Nassar.
“It really comes down to do you believe his version or do you believe the victim’s version.”
Eventually Kelly did go to trial in Shawana’s case, in September 2017. After six days of testimony and a day of deliberation, the jury found Kelly not guilty.
But that isn’t the whole story. And that isn’t the end of the story.
Falsely accused or serial rapist?
What Povilaitis knew and couldn’t tell the Kalamazoo County jury was that it wasn’t just three women in three states in three years.
It was 11 women in four states over the course of three decades who told police that they’d been raped with the ensuing investigations leading to Kelly.
So Kelly is either a man who has repeatedly been falsely accused, or Kelly is a serial rapist.
The first known rape report police connected to Kelly is from Memphis in 1985, when the driver of a red sports car pulled alongside a woman walking down the street and offered a ride.
Once inside the car, he hit her in the chest and pulled out a gun. He drove her to a lot behind a school and raped her twice. The woman picked Kelly out of a photo lineup, but by the time police went for their warrant, Kelly had moved to St. Louis and an extradition effort failed.
Two years later, in May 1987, a woman told St. Louis police that a man raped her in her home. DNA evidence eventually linked the case to Kelly, but not until 2015.
In November 1987, a woman told police she was standing near an intersection in the rain when a man drove up and asked if she wanted a ride. She said yes, and he drove her to an alley, pulled out a knife and raped her.
He told police they had sex in his car and afterward she wanted money. He added that she had a knife and tried to cut him. At the police station, she identified Kelly as her rapist. Prosecutors didn’t charge Kelly. In 1989, two women told St. Louis police they were raped in Sherman Park. Police connected the cases and tracked down Kelly. He told police the women were prostitutes and he hadn’t paid them.
Prosecutors didn’t charge Kelly in either case.
Months later, in August 1990, a woman told police that she’d invited Kelly, whom she knew, into her home. He later choked her until she passed out, then raped her on the floor.
Kelly told police the sex was consensual. He fell asleep afterward, and when he woke up, he thought the woman had stolen from him.
“I got so mad, I hit her one time, and that’s what she got mad about,” Kelly told St. Louis police during an interview. “She knew I had been down here for rape before, and she was mad ‘cause I hit her. That’s why she called the police and said I raped her. There was no rape.”
For the fourth time since November 1987, St. Louis prosecutors didn’t charge Kelly.
The pattern in St. Louis – reported rape, denial and no charges – would play out again.
A fight in the dark
Seventeen years later, in March 2007, Marie stood in the rain on a St. Louis street. She’d missed her bus and was facing a 45-minute wait for the next one when she turned to see Kelly getting out of a tractor trailer parked at a gas station.
He’d called out to her, and she walked over.
She was 36 and had been fighting drug addiction for 19 years. She’d been clean for four months but recently relapsed. She was feeling down and was headed to see a friend.
Marie didn’t know Kelly, but he offered a ride, saying he’d take her to her friend’s house after dropping off the trailer first.
A short while later, he pulled into a lot, within sight of a St. Louis police station, and got out of the cab.
When Kelly got back in, he lunged at Marie.
She struggled to fight him off in the darkness. She kicked him. She bit him. Then, as he put pressure on her throat and she struggled to breathe, she stopped fighting. Maybe, she thought, if she stopped she’d live through the night.
She says he raped her on the bed in the back of the cab.
When he was done, he became a different person. The violent man was gone; he was back to the man who offered her a ride and refuge from the rain.
When he pulled up to her friend’s house, he handed her a piece of paper with his phone number.
After he drove away, Marie called police.
“He was telling me that he drives from state to state and that he pick girls that get high because he knows that the police won’t believe them,” Marie said. “And all he’s got to do is say ‘They mad because I didn’t pay them what they wanted.’ ...
“And he said they would believe him over me. He said he had done it before. He got away with it before.”
In March 2007, for the fifth time since 1987, St. Louis prosecutors decided not to charge Kelly.
‘I ran from here’
About a year later, in April 2008, Shawana was celebrating her 31st birthday. She had a few drinks with her aunt and sister, then walked to a friend’s house in Kalamazoo, had a few more drinks and got high.
Shawana had been around drugs, in one way or another, most of her adult life, but she didn’t try crack until 2007. Shawana had talked with her sister Talaya about rehab. But the night of her birthday she was still using.
As Shawana and her friend walked to a liquor store, a car pulled up and the driver struck up a conversation.
He was with someone both Shawana and her friend knew. When he asked if he could party with them, they said yes.
Back at the house, Kelly asked Shawana if he could buy her a birthday drink but said they’d have to swing by his hotel so he could grab his wallet. She said yes.
About 15 minutes later they were on U.S. 131, on the western edge of Kalamazoo driving through the rain and heading toward the Red Roof Inn.
The car slowed and pulled over to the side of the highway. He got out. Shawana thought something was wrong with the car, but he came back with a knife and told her to get in the back.
She cried as he raped her and feared he might kill her, she later testified.
He’d rape her twice more, she said, driving the car further along the highway between each rape. Finally, he opened the door and told her to get out.
He drove off and she started running, across the highway, over the fence and up to the police car.
Shawana wanted police to find her rapist. She also worried what might happen once the officer discovered there was a misdemeanor warrant for her arrest.
“After what I just went through, I didn’t want to go to jail,” she said. So she gave the officer a false name. That wouldn’t matter, however, because by the time a detective was assigned to the case, eight months later, Shawana was gone.
“I ran from here,” she said. “I had no idea he was not from here. I didn’t want to be nowhere near him.”
‘Let me start here’
In 2012, Special Agent Karen Fairley started her first case for the Michigan Attorney General’s Office looking for the wrong person.
Not only was this her first case in the AG’S Office cold case sexual assault unit, this was her first sexual assault case. She’d retired from the Detroit Police Department after a career investigating fraud cases, internal affairs complaints and employment matters.
Fairley went through new training. She learned memory is complicated, even before trauma.
In fact, rape and sexual violence trauma can lead to the most fragmented or forgotten memories, said Jennifer Freyd, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon.
Sometimes the victim will focus on one thing to the exclusion of all others, maybe it’s the wallpaper or an odor or a weapon. Sometimes a victim can’t keep the memory away and sometimes, Freyd said, even if they want to remember, they’re unable to bring all or even pieces back.
And victims don’t always react to an assault in a way that makes sense. The neurobiological response might prevent them from screaming or fighting, said Tom Tremblay, a former sex crimes detective.
Police should view trauma as evidence of non-consent, said Tremblay, who teaches the victim-centered approach, a shift away from the traditional method of investigating sexual assaults.
“The way that the police have been trained to respond to all crimes is to respond quickly. Ask what happened, what happened next, what happened after that,” he said. “When a victim struggles to recall details and sequence of events, again, police have looked at this suspiciously.”
This new approach hasn’t been around long enough for multiple studies, but the early returns are positive, said Rebecca Campbell, a Michigan State University psychology professor.
“What we do know is that generally that the more that you can help people alleviate stress, alleviate trauma, and can help them feel safe and secure, they’re more likely to provide information,” she said.
Law enforcement’s poor treatment of victims and mishandling of rape investigations have been documented in cities across the country.
The cold case sexual assault unit was set up to be an antidote to the ills that weaken rape investigations.
As she began her work with that unit, Fairley noticed a case among the dozens sent over by the State Police.
“He had four different (DNA) hits, four different states in which he was named as a suspect,” she said. “So I’m like, what’s up with this? Let me start here.”
One of Fairley’s first stops was the friend Shawana had been with the night of the rape. In that interview, in August 2012, Fairley learned Shawana had lied about her name.
Still, finding Shawana proved difficult.
After months, Fairley put the case aside. She tried again in September 2013, going to see Shawana’s mother. This time, she left with a lead.
Shawana was in jail in Indianapolis.
‘A good spirit’
Two months after she met with Shawana, Fairley met with Marie, who was skeptical of the Michigan detective.
Before he dropped her off in 2007, Marie says Kelly told her that he had inside connections. She took this as a warning should she ever report him to police.
That’s why she didn’t trust the St. Louis detective who came to see her when she was in drug treatment in 2010 after DNA results were returned from her rape kit.
Rape victims often have trust issues, said Thema Bryant-davis, an associate professor of psychology at Pepperdine University.
When they’re raped by a stranger, the issue becomes “Not only do I have difficulty trusting in intimate relationships, but trusting people in general,” she said.
But Fairley made Marie feel comfortable. She believed Marie.
“After Ms. Karen came, she made me realize that if I didn’t speak up he was just going to keep harming people.”
As Fairley’s investigation continued, so did the evidence to suggest that Kelly might be a serial rapist. Fairley and Povilaitis had more than the cases before Shawana, from 1985 to 1990. They had Marie’s case, a year after Shawana, and two investigations after Marie, in Virginia in 2009 and Memphis in 2010.
Research suggests that rapists usually have more than one victim, a finding bolstered as once-untested rape kits have been processed.
Cities like Detroit, New York City and Cleveland all had large inventories of untested rape kits. In Memphis, where Kelly lived for years, more than 12,000 once-untested kits have been sent for processing.
Rachel Lovell, a Case Western Reserve University researcher, is working with the Cuyahoga County prosecutors to look at Cleveland’s backlog. She and other researchers found that a quarter of the defendants were linked via DNA to more than one untested rape kit in the backlog. A similar trend was found in Detroit’s kits.
Analysis of these kits is also revealing that a rapist’s choice of targets centers on vulnerability, Lovell said.
“That vulnerability makes it much less likely to have successful investigative outcomes, successful prosecutorial outcomes,” she said.
Kelly avoided prosecution on rape charges for decades, but that ended in
2014 when Povilaitis, then an assistant attorney general, moved forward with charges for the rape of Shawana. Fairley went to interview Kelly in a Memphis jail. Kelly tried to convince Fairley that prostitutes or women with grudges had falsely reported him. He emphatically denied that he raped Shawana or Marie or anyone.
“No, ma’am. No ma’m,” he told Fairley, later adding, “There was no rape.”
Kelly went on trial for the first time in 2017 in Kalamazoo.
Years had passed between Kelly’s arrest and trial because the prosecution and defense fought over what the jury could hear.
Eight women who’d reported rapes had agreed to testify, and Povilaitis wanted to call them all. Kelly’s attorneys only wanted the jury to hear Shawana. The Michigan Court of Appeals twice overruled the trial judge’s rulings limiting the number who could testify.
“It strikes us as extraordinarily improbable,” a three-judge panel wrote, “that eight unrelated women in four different states would fabricate reports of sexual assault after engaging in consensual sex with defendant.”
Ultimately Shawana, Marie and the woman in Virginia testified.
Kelly faced five charges, including rape and kidnapping, all connected to the incident with Shawana.
Povilaitis argued the case was about the rapes of Shawana, Marie, the woman in Virginia and the pattern they revealed. Defense attorney Becket Jones argued the case was about credibility, prostitution deals gone wrong and what happened with Shawana, not with Marie or the woman in Virginia.
Central to the defense strategy was Kelly’s description of these woman as prostitutes and drug users, implying that their intentions were malicious and their memories were flawed.
Jones spent much of his time asking questions about the women’s inconsistent statements to police. For example, Shawana, in the police report, is said to have described Kelly’s weapon as a small, white folding knife. But she told Fairley years later he had a large knife.
And Jones told the jury Fairley’s investigation was flawed from the start.
“So when you start your investigation with a victimbased approach, you’ve started your investigation with a bias,” he said in court. “What’s scary about that is that when you have a conclusion already set and you fit your facts to the conclusion, innocent people can be found guilty.” Jones called Kelly as a witness. Kelly answered questions about his life. He also explained that the women were in fact prostitutes who tried to rob him or who grew angry with him when the terms of the deal fell apart. He denied that he raped anyone. “You took my life away from me,” he said at one point to Fairley, who was sitting at the prosecution table. “I ain’t rape nobody. You know I ain’t rape nobody.”
Povilaitis and Jones gave their closing arguments on the seventh day.
Povilaitis wanted the jury to see Kelly’s pattern. The way he approached the three women and isolated them. The way he forced them to comply, the way his personality changed back after the rape.
And she wanted them to understand why she felt Jones asked so many questions about drugs and consistently used the phrase crack cocaine.
“This was an attempted attack to disparage the victims so that you wouldn’t care about them and that you wouldn’t believe them.”
Jones asked the jury to consider Shawana as a prostitute kicked out of a car on the side of the road who realizes not only is she without a ride, but she’s also without the money.
“None of us can really imagine ourselves in that situation,” he said. “All of us can make an attempt to imagine someone who is frankly a hooker who has a crack cocaine problem in that situation.” The jurors reached their verdicts the next day. Povilaitis sat at the prosecution table and didn’t move until the last not guilty was read.
Kelly started to cry and thanked the jurors as they Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, an anti-sexual assault non-profit, runs a 24/7 hotline accessible by phone at 800-656-4673 or online at https://hotline.rainn.org/online. You can find resource centers near you by visiting https://centers.rainn.org.
Resources nationally for sexual assault victims
1in6 is a national advocacy and resource organization for male sexual assault victims. The organization runs an 24/7 online helpline chat, which can be found at https://1in6.org/helpline. walked out of the courtroom.
“Thank, ya’ll,” he said. “Thank, ya’ll. Thank you. Thank you.”
‘He took my life’
To understand what happened to Shawana requires understanding what trauma does to a person.
There are nightmares and flashbacks, difficulty sleeping or concentrating, trust issues and suicidal thoughts. These are usually worst in the first weeks, when a person might withdraw from family or friends, but can return years later if something — like a police investigation — reactivates the trauma, said Campbell, the MSU researcher. And things can get worse. Shawana had been bubbly and happy, eager to do things. The incident with Kelly changed her.
“He took my life,” she said at the trial, holding back tears. “I just want to black it all out.”
After the trial, life got harder for Shawana. There was more drug use and less time with her family.
She saw her younger sister Talaya less and less. Shawana was using heroin and her body had started to waste away.
In mid-october 2017, Talaya had a party for her 4year-old son’s birthday and her sister attended. Shawana arrived late, then grabbed a bag of candy and tossed pieces around as the young children danced and laughed through the living room to Pharrell’s “I’m Happy.” That happiness wouldn’t last. In the early morning hours of the Sunday before Thanksgiving, Fairley’s phone rang with a call from Talaya.
Shawana was dead. She died at 40 years old of an overdose attributed to ethanol, fentanyl and cocaine.
When Talaya talks about Shawana, there’s laughter and tears.
“She’s a hero. She is,” Talaya said. “She could have crawled away and did what she did and died in the corner somewhere. But she chose to fight back. …
“And I admire her for that. That and a lot more. She made me proud to be her little sister.”
Ten weeks after Kelly’s acquittal, Povilaitis’ prosecution of Larry Nassar ended when he pleaded guilty to 10 sexual assault charges. Povilaitis found herself in the national spotlight during Nassar’s sentencing hearings and the year that followed.
She’s since left the Michigan Attorney General’s Office for a job with broader impact fighting sexual assault and domestic violence statewide.
Povilaitis still thinks about Shawana. It’s hard not to.
Fairley still investigates cold case sexual assaults and her first investigation is never far from her mind.
“This is the common case that we ignore, okay?” she said. “These rapes happen all the time. Guess what? Do we care? No, we don’t care.
“But these are the ones that we should be looking at.”
Marie still lives in St. Louis and has been sober going on nine years.
“When you have been through a lot of stuff like I have been through, the rape was just one of the things that I went through,” she said. “I was already damaged. And it just added on.”
Today, she proudly pulls photographs out of an envelope, showing off the smiling faces from a family vacation. This is her life now. Police and prosecutors in St. Louis declined to be interviewed, either about Kelly, his cases or about rape investigations and prosecutions in general.
Memphis, where Kelly spent much of his life, continues to review results from its once untested rape kits. Police there declined an interview request.
Prosecutors in Memphis declined to be interviewed, but in an email said that at the end of 2018, 206 indictments have come from recent testing of the rape kit backlog and 38 more cases are pending action by the grand jury.
“Investigations into Kelly and his activities in Memphis/shelby County are ongoing,” a spokesman said.
Kelly declined to be interviewed, but in a letter said he told the truth during the trial and said the Michigan Attorney General’s Office lied.
There were 11 known cases linked to Kelly when he went to trial in Michigan. The eleventh was from Memphis, in 2010, when a woman told police that a man stuck a knife against her back and dragged her to a field where he raped her for an hour.
“He said that he was a truck driver,” she told a detective. “… I think he’s raping other women because he asked me if he had raped me before.”
DNA evidence identified Kelly as a suspect. He denied the rape.
“Kelly is possibly a serial rapist in Memphis and in St. Louis,” the detective wrote in his report, the day before prosecutors declined to charge him. “Unable to proceed in any case in Memphis or St. Louis.”
Seven years later, after trial and acquittal in Michigan, the case had been reopened. On May 25, a Tennessee grand jury indicted him on rape and kidnapping charges. Kelly, 61, is in jail in Memphis awaiting trial. Contact Matt Mencarini at (517) 267-1347 or mmencar[email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Mattmencarini.
An evidence photo shows the section of U.S. 131 where prosecutors say Shawana Hall ran across in 2008.
Shawana Hall reported her rape to Kalamazoo police in 2008.