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R. Kelly pleads not guilty in NYC to sex charges

R. Kelly leaves the Leighton Criminal Court building

R. Kelly leaves the Leighton Criminal Court building in Chicago on June 6. Credit: AP/Amr Alfiky

Robert S. Kelly, the hip-hop star known as R.Kelly, pleaded not guilty and was detained without bail Friday at a brief hearing in Brooklyn federal court on his indictment last month for allegedly running a racketeering enterprise to procure women and underage girls for illegal sexual activity.

Kelly, 52, was previously detained on federal child pornography and obstruction of justice charges in a Chicago case, and was flown in from Chicago by U.S. Marshals late Thursday to face the Brooklyn charges, which his lawyers have derided as a case of “groupie remorse” pressed by “disgruntled” sex partners.

After the singer, wearing a blue prison smock over an orange T-shirt, entered a courtroom filled with over two dozen fans and two gum-chewing girlfriends, he greeted U.S. Magistrate Steven Tiscione and said he understood his rights before one of his four defense lawyers entered a plea for him.

“Plea of not guilty at this time, sir,” lawyer Douglas Anton told Tiscione.

Before the hearing began, a gauntlet of cameras and reporters formed outside the courthouse, while Kelly supporters wearing T-shirts with his picture and slogans like “Unmute R. Kelly” gathered in a hallway outside the courtroom, gossiping about the case and at one point forming a prayer circle.

Some, however, admitted being troubled by the latest charges against the singer, who has been the subject of negative publicity about sexual misconduct for years.

“I’m confused,” said Des Alexander, a Brooklyn woman who came with her daughter. “If he did it he deserves to go down. I don’t condone anything like that. I have daughters of my own. I’m hoping he didn’t but the way it looks like he’s guilty.”

In the Brooklyn case, Kelly is charged with using his musical entourage as a racketeering enterprise to recruit women and girls for illegal purposes — including coerced sex, child pornography, sex with underage girls, transmitting sexual diseases, kidnapping and forced labor.

Women who came under his control were subjected to cultlike rules, prosecutors charged — required to call him “Daddy,” required to stay in their rooms unless they had permission to leave, told to wear baggy clothes in public and prohibited from looking at other men.

At Friday’s hearing, Tiscione decided to detain Kelly after prosecutors said between the two federal cases and a third state case in Chicago the singer faced sex charges involving 13 victims, and had tried to pay off and intimidate witnesses in an earlier state case in Illinois in which the singer was acquitted.

Prosecutor Elizabeth Geddes said he made recordings of minors and had women in his thrall write compromising letters to hold over their heads as well as threatening them, and might do the same thing again if he was freed on bail.

“He made witnesses feel that if they were to cooperate against him they could be subject to physical harm, both themselves and their families,” she said.

Anton said the claims were all just allegations, but Tiscione said he was “extremely troubled” by the possibility of witness tampering efforts and Kelly had both the resources and the incentive to flee because he faces significant prison time.

In a second hearing Friday afternoon before U.S. District Judge Ann Donnelly, defense lawyers said they would file papers asking her to overturn Tiscione’s detention ruling. Geddes declined to say whether the Justice Department wants the Chicago or Brooklyn case to go first.

In dueling news conferences outside court, Kelly’s lawyers sparred with Gloria Allred, the attorney representing three of his alleged victims in the New York case, over their depiction as disgruntled “groupies” in court filings.

Steve Greenberg, one of the defense lawyers, said the term was designed as a reminder that the sexual encounters were voluntary when they occurred, however they are viewed now.

“While perceptions have changed,” he said, “it doesn’t mean we should look at them through today’s lens and not the way they were looked at it then.”

But Allred said the language demeaned victims. “No amount of name calling or mischaracterization of who they are will deter them from testifying,” she said.

The next hearing in the case in Brooklyn is scheduled for October.

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