For more than a year, singer R. Kelly has been awaiting trial on federal sexual abuse charges, facing the prospect of watching his accusers and former sexual partners testify against him.
Then, in the early morning of June 11, one of those potential witnesses in Florida woke up to find the car in her driveway ablaze in flames.
On Wednesday, federal prosecutors in Brooklyn, New York, announced the arrests of three people — Donnell Russell, Michael Williams and Richard Arline Jr. — who were charged in separate schemes to threaten and bribe Kelly’s accusers, including the burning of the car.
Law enforcement officials have long suspected Kelly of interfering in criminal investigations. He was famously acquitted at a 2008 trial in Chicago on child pornography charges after a key witness declined to testify, and federal prosecutors in Chicago charged him last year with a conspiracy to intimidate witnesses and conceal evidence ahead of that trial.
The criminal complaints unsealed Wednesday did not say whether Kelly authorized any of the threats.
But prosecutors accused his three associates of trying to silence potential government witnesses through harassment. The threats targeted two of Kelly’s accusers, according to a person familiar with the investigation. Their names were not made public.
One of the accusers received messages offering money for her silence, the complaint said. No money was ultimately exchanged.
The other woman, who had filed a lawsuit against Kelly in 2018, was threatened with the public release of sexually explicit photographs that she had previously sent to Kelly, according to prosecutors.
Russell and Arline are friends of Kelly, while Williams is the relative of a former publicist for Kelly, prosecutors said.
Lawyers for the three men could not immediately be identified.
The new arrests add to the government’s existing case against Kelly, who has been in custody at a jail in Chicago since his arrest last summer. He faces federal charges related to the sexual abuse of minors in two separate cases — one in Chicago, the other in Brooklyn.
The indictment in Brooklyn accuses Kelly of leading a decadeslong operation to illegally exploit women and girls for his own sexual gratification. Kelly faces nine criminal counts, including racketeering — a charge that has been commonly used against mob bosses.
Prosecutors have said Kelly sexually abused minors and produced child pornography, listing six unidentified women as his victims. To keep the women and girls under his control, he also engaged in kidnapping, blackmail and extortion, according to the indictment.
Kelly has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
He is scheduled to be tried first in New York, with jury selection beginning Sept. 29. The date is likely to be postponed if the coronavirus pandemic prevents in-person trials from resuming in the federal courthouses this fall.
In 2008, Kelly was tried by state prosecutors in Chicago on child pornography charges stemming from a tape in which prosecutors said he had sex with and urinated on a teenage girl. He was acquitted on all counts after the girl declined to testify.
Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn last month asked the judge to provide special protections for the jurors in Kelly’s upcoming trial, including keeping their names and addresses anonymous.
The prosecutors said Kelly had a history of interfering with the judicial process, including persuading witnesses to give false testimony before a grand jury in connection with his 2008 trial.
Kelly has previously denied those allegations. In a court filing in response, a lawyer for Kelly wrote that because Kelly will be in custody during the Brooklyn trial, he will have “no ability whatsoever to attempt to improperly influence the judicial process in this case.”
For years, Kelly traveled the world with his entourage as he performed at concerts and other events. He met fans backstage after the performances and identified the ones he wanted to see again, prosecutors said.
Kelly’s associates then arranged for the ones he had chosen to travel to see him. Once the women and girls arrived, however, they encountered strict rules. They were not allowed to leave their rooms without Kelly’s permission and were required to call him “daddy,” prosecutors said.
Kelly also isolated them from their families to make them dependent on him financially and created degrading videos of them as potential blackmail, the indictment said.
Prosecutors have said Kelly was engaging in illegal sex acts as recently as 2018, when he had unprotected sex with a woman without telling her that he had herpes.
Kelly’s lawyers have sought to discredit his accusers, questioning their memories and calling them “disgruntled groupies.”
Although Kelly’s music career has been dogged by allegations of sexual misconduct for more than two decades, he faced renewed scrutiny after several women spoke out publicly in a Lifetime documentary called “Surviving R. Kelly.” Prosecutors in Illinois, New York and Minnesota filed criminal charges against the singer after the documentary aired.