Content warning: This story discusses sexual assault, physical abuse, child pornography and abortion.
Aaliyah, Jerhonda, Stephanie, Sonja, Zel and Faith. Those are the names—some real, some pseudonyms—of the women who survived R. Kelly. Now, they’ll see him behind bars.
Allegations of sexual abuse followed Kelly for decades, but the first time he faced a criminal trial, the charges didn’t stick—he was acquitted of 14 counts of child pornography in 2008. But his trial this summer on sex trafficking charges provided another opportunity for prosecutors to convince a jury that the R&B singer was a “predator.”
This time, a jury in New York heard multiple survivors deliver powerful testimony. After they shared their stories, Robert Sylvester Kelly (who pleaded not guilty to all charges) was found guilty of racketeering and eight counts of sex trafficking. His sentencing will be held on May 4, and he is facing a possible sentence of 10 years to life in prison. Kelly has been in federal custody for about two years, since his 2019 arrest.
But the verdict has been years in the making for these survivors. In January 2019, the Lifetime docuseries Surviving R. Kelly exposed shocking allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct against him, all of which he denied. Three months later, CBS anchor Gayle King sat down with Kelly, then 52, and two of his live-in girlfriends (who were 21 and 23 at the time) in an attempt to untangle their relationship. Kelly’s reaction to King’s questions went viral, as he broke down in tears, burst out of his chair and delivered an expletive-laden rant in his defense. Scott Olson/Getty Images
Over the last month, his New York trial saw 45 people testify, including female and male accusers. Other witnesses ranged from a former backup performer and tour manager to Kelly’s personal doctor and the pastor who married Kelly and Aaliyah in 1994, when she was only 15 years old. (The union was annulled in 1995.)
The charges in this case pertained to his conduct with six women, including Aaliyah, who died in 2001. The other five—who used the names Jerhonda, Stephanie, Sonja, Zel and Faith in court—bravely testified about the heinous acts they said they experienced over the past two decades.
These are their stories, according to prosecutors and court testimony:
Stephanie said she approached Kelly in 1999, when she was 17 years old, and asked if her friend could do an audition for him, according to her court testimony, per The New York Times. “He said, yeah, that he thought he could arrange that, but also he’d like to get to know me,” she said in court. “And also that he likes to cuddle and would I be OK with that?”
Prosecutors said Kelly, who was 32 at the time, had sex with her for between six and eight months, telling her to call him “Daddy.” He told her not to look at other men and he filmed them during sex.Jason Wambsgans-Pool/Getty Images
“That was definitely the hardest time of my life,” she testified. “I’ve never been treated like that before or since… He humiliated me, he degraded me, he scared me. I’ll never forget the way he treated me.” Stephanie said the musician could be “charming” and “jovial” but also “controlling” and “intimidating.”
Sonja said she met Kelly in 2003, when she was about 21 years old, according to the NYT. At the time, she was a radio station intern in Utah and was offered an interview with the “I Believe I Can Fly” singer at his home near Chicago.
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According to prosecutors, she was then locked in a room for multiple days, drugged and sexually abused.
Sonja said she had to abide by a “list of rules” while in the house, which included permission to eat or use the restroom.
At one point, an associate of Kelly’s brought her Chinese food, but she felt “something coming on” after eating it, she told the court. She got tired and when she woke up, Kelly was “doing up his pants in the corner,” she said. Sonja told jurors “there was some wet stuff in between my legs.” She said her underwear had been taken off while she was unconscious. “I was sexually assaulted,” she stated in court. “There was something in me that was something I had not invited.”CBS/Lazarus Jean-Baptiste
Jerhonda testified that she met Kelly at a party in 2009 when she was 16 years old. Describing herself as a “super fan,” she lied and told Kelly, who was 42 at the time, that she was 19 years old. They exchanged numbers and would go on to have sex for about six months, she said in court.
After he performed oral sex on her, she told him she was 16 and showed him her state ID—but he didn’t seem to care, she recalled. She then performed oral sex on him, and he said he would train her. “He then bent me over the sofa and took my virginity,” she testified.
Jerhonda, who also said Kelly’s rules dictated when she could use the bathroom, read a journal entry in court that was dated Jan. 23, 2010. “I went to Rob’s house and he called me a silly bitch. Rob slapped me three times and said if I lied to him again it’s not going to be an open hand next time,” she wrote. “He spit in my face and in my mouth. He choked me during an argument. I had sex with him. I had oral sex with him. Then I became fed up with him and went home and confessed.”
As for Zel, she met Kelly in 2015, according to prosecutors. She was a 17-year-old aspiring singer, but told him she was 18.
She got his phone number at a music festival and wanted to audition for him, per her testimony reported by the NYT. However, he was more focused on sex than helping her career, and they began having intercourse. Before her senior year of high school, she told him she was actually 17. Zel said Kelly “laughed in my face” before slapping her.TANNEN MAURY/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
They interacted for five years, during which Kelly physically abused her and infected her with herpes, which “got to the point I couldn’t physically even walk,” she said at the trial, as published by the NYT. She said he also urged her to get an abortion after she became pregnant.
Zel testified, “He said, ‘You need to look into that abortion stuff because you need to keep that body.” Text messages shown in court revealed that Kelly told Zel she was “hard-headed” and should be appreciative that she had “someone to make the decisions.”
Faith’s case began most recently of the five accounts. Prosecutors said Kelly approached her in San Antonio in 2017 and gave her his number. She started traveling to see him and have sex with him, which he sometimes recorded on his iPhone. Faith accused him of giving her herpes as well.
“I was in shock,” the 24 year old said while discussing her infection in court. “I really just wanted him to maybe give me answers—or just acknowledge that he did it.”
The testimony of the five women led to Kelly’s conviction on Sept. 27, where he was found guilty of nine criminal charges that included racketeering, bribery, coercion and sex trafficking. His attorney Steve Greenberg said they are “extraordinarily disappointed” by the verdict and believe it was “not supported by the evidence and instead is a reflection of the hysteria whipped up by a couple of TV shows.”
But according to Erinn Robinson, press secretary of the anti-sexual violence organization RAINN, the guilty verdict “sends a loud message to survivors of sexual violence.” Robinson said in a statement obtained by E! News, “We are pleased that R. Kelly will be brought to justice for some of the irrevocable harm he has caused. Many survivors of Kelly’s abuse—women and men of color, who were long ignored and pushed aside—came forward and spoke out powerfully throughout the trial.”
The organization acknowledged that the verdict was made possible “by their courage and persistence in being heard.” The statement continued, “We thank them for their resilience during a difficult and very public process. We hope that today’s verdict empowers survivors everywhere to feel that they are not alone.
“For more information on domestic abuse or to get help for yourself or someone you love, visit the website for The National Domestic Violence Hotline (http://www.thehotline.org/) or call 1-800-799-7233.