R&B star R. Kelly is a predator who lured girls, boys and young women with his fame and dominated them physically, sexually and psychologically, a prosecutor said Wednesday, while a defense lawyer warned jurors they'll have to sift through lies from accusers with agendas to find the truth.
The differing perspectives came as the long-anticipated trial began unfolding in a Brooklyn courtroom where several accusers were scheduled to testify in the next month about the Grammy-winning, multiplatinum-selling singer whose career has been derailed by charges that have left him jailed as he goes broke.
Jerhonda Pace, the first government witness, told jurors Wednesday that she was a 16-year-old virgin and a member of Kelly's fan club when he invited her to his mansion in 2010. He immediately told her to take off her clothing, Pace said.
"He asked me to continue to tell everyone I was 19 and act like I was 21," she said.
Kelly responded "that's good" when she revealed her virginity, said that he wanted to "train her" sexually and ordered her to call him "Daddy," she said.
They continued to see each other for another six months, with Kelly growing more and more controlling and erupting in violence when she broke what she called "Rob's rules."
One time he grew so angry, "He slapped me and choked me until I passed out," she said with no hint of emotion.
Afterward, he spit in her face and forced her to have oral sex, she said. She kept a blue T-shirt from the episode that has provided DNA evidence of the misconduct, prosecutors said.
The Associated Press doesn't name alleged victims of sexual abuse without their consent unless they have spoken publicly extensively. Pace has appeared in a documentary and participated in media interviews.
Prior to Pace's testimony, lawyers gave jurors an outline of the trial in their opening statements.
"This case is not about a celebrity who likes to party a lot," Assistant U.S. Attorney Maria Cruz Melendez told the jury as she explained the evidence to be revealed at his federal trial. "This case is about a predator."
She said he distributed backstage passes to entice children and women to join him, sometimes at his home or studio, where he then "dominated and controlled them physically, sexually and psychologically."
The prosecutor said Kelly would often record sex acts with minors as he controlled a racketeering enterprise of individuals who were loyal and devoted to him, eager to "fulfill each and everyone one of the defendant's wishes and demands."
"What his success and popularity brought him was access, access to girls, boys and young women," she said.
But Kelly's attorney, Nicole Blank Becker, portrayed her client as a victim of women, some of whom enjoyed the "notoriety of being able to tell their friends that they were with a superstar."
"He didn't recruit them. They were fans. They came to Mr. Kelly," she said, urging jurors to closely scrutinize the testimony. "They knew exactly what they were getting into. It was no secret Mr. Kelly had multiple girlfriends. He was quite transparent."
It would be a stretch to believe he orchestrated an elaborate criminal enterprise, like a mob boss, the lawyer said.
Becker warned jurors they'll have to sort through "a mess of lies" from women with an agenda.
"Don't assume everybody's telling the truth," she said.
The remarks fit a theme set by the defense in court papers prior to the trial describing Kelly's alleged victims as groupies who turned up at his shows and made it known they "were dying to be with him." The women only started accusing him of abuse years later, when public sentiment shifted against him, they said.
Kelly, 54, is perhaps best known for his smash hit "I Believe I Can Fly," a 1996 song that became an inspirational anthem played at school graduations, weddings, advertisements and elsewhere.
The openings and testimony came more than a decade after Kelly was acquitted in a 2008 child pornography case in Chicago. It was a reprieve that allowed his music career to continue until the #MeToo era caught up with him, emboldening alleged victims to come forward.
The women's stories got wide exposure with the Lifetime documentary Surviving R. Kelly. The series explored how an entourage of supporters protected Kelly and silenced his victims for decades, foreshadowing the federal racketeering conspiracy case that landed Kelly in jail in 2019.
Prosecutors in Brooklyn have lined up multiple female accusers — mostly referred to in court as "Jane Does" — and cooperating former associates who have never spoken publicly before about their experiences with Kelly.
They're expected to offer testimony about how Kelly's managers, bodyguards and other employees helped him recruit women and girls — and sometimes boys — for sexual exploitation. They say the group selected victims at concerts and other venues and arranged for them to travel to see Kelly in the New York City area and elsewhere, in violation of the Mann Act, the 1910 law that made it illegal to "transport any woman or girl" across state lines "for any immoral purpose."
An anonymous jury made up of seven men and five women was sworn in to hear the case. The trial, coming after several delays due mostly to the pandemic, unfolds under coronavirus precautions restricting the press and the public to overflow courtrooms with video feeds.
The New York case is only part of the legal peril facing the singer, born Robert Sylvester Kelly. He also has pleaded not guilty to sex-related charges in Illinois and Minnesota.