The R. Kelly Trial Is the NXIVM ‘Sex Cult’ Case on Steroids

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Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Getty/AP
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Getty/AP

Baggy clothes. Collateral to ensure silence. Forced abortions. Mandatory trips to watch basketball games in local gyms. Strict rules—and punishment for disobedience.

Over the last two weeks, jurors in the R. Kelly sex-crimes trial in Brooklyn federal court have heard a slew of allegations about a terrifying regime imposed by the disgraced singer on his employees and, most of all, young men and women he targeted for sex.

Among the alleged rules: The women and girls in Kelly’s orbit were not allowed to do anything without the singer’s permission, including urinate. They were also forced to wear baggy clothing to discourage male attention, and the singer made them provide collateral—or false letters or videos detailing abuse and criminal activity—to prove their loyalty, prosecutors say.

“I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone I was spending time with him,” Jerhonda Pace, who told jurors she had a six-month relationship with Kelly when she was 16, said on the stand. “I had to call him daddy. I had to wear baggy clothes. I couldn’t leave where I was without permission. I wouldn’t eat without his permission. I wouldn’t even go to the bathroom without his permission.”

If Kelly’s rules were not adhered to, witnesses said, there would be punishment, ranging from being left in a room for days, to being beaten by the singer, to having to urinate in a cup.

“His rules, these punishments, they kept his victims compliant,” Assistant United States Attorney Maria Cruz Melendez said during her opening arguments. “He used every trick.”

While Kelly’s alleged tactics to ensure loyalty and control may seem uniquely torturous, legal experts canvassed by The Daily Beast said the rulebook described by prosecutors mirrored those of past, notorious cult leaders.

Most of all, they pointed to self-help group NXIVM and its “sex cult” founder, Keith Raniere.

“Prosecutors are sticking to the same blueprint if it’s worked in the past. That’s why we’re seeing racketeering charges in a sex-abuse case for the second time,” former federal prosecutor Neama Rahman told The Daily Beast.

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As Rahman noted, “one of the first times” such a case was brought in Brooklyn federal court was against Raniere.

Of course, Kelly has not been convicted and has pleaded not guilty to all charges; his defense team did not respond to a request for comment for this story. Likewise, lawyers for Raniere—who has been confined to a federal penitentiary in Arizona—did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.

But both men have been accused of using collateral to ensure silence and complicity. Both allegedly imposed a strict rules system based on their sexual preferences. Both allegedly leaned on the creation of a hyper-loyal inner circle who helped them commit crimes.

Perhaps most bizarrely, both are accused of wanting their employees and “followers” to watch them play sports.

“Both thought they were above the law. Like so many other cult leaders, they are malignant narcissists—meaning they have psychopathic tendencies that often lead to criminal behavior,” Steven Hassan, a licensed therapist and cult expert who started the Freedom of Mind Resource Center to help cult escapees, told The Daily Beast.

In Kelly’s ongoing trial, prosecutors allege that the Grammy-winning singer was at the helm of a criminal enterprise—made up of his drivers, bodyguards, and assistants—that took extraordinary steps to ensure that every one of his desires was satisfied.

The argument is fundamental to the federal racketeering case against the singer, a statute commonly referred to by the acronym RICO—and often reserved for mafia bosses. The same racketeering charge was employed in the prosecution of Raniere, where Brooklyn prosecutors stated the NXIVM leader was at the helm of a criminal enterprise made up of those at the top of the organization.

Throughout Raniere’s 2019 trial in Brooklyn federal court, jurors heard how the 61-year-old used NXIVM to have sex with underaged girls, force women he impregnated to have abortions, and secretly orchestrate a women’s empowerment group devoted to branding and sex.

In that group, women were forced to be “slaves” who blindly obeyed their “master’s” requests to restrict their diets or have sex with Raniere.

Legal experts consulted by The Daily Beast noted that while Raniere’s enterprise was far more defined in structure—and organized as a classic pyramid scheme—Kelly’s alleged counterpart was “far looser.”

It may also have been easier to set up.

“R. Kelly had the advantage of a fan base he could easily recruit from. Most of his sex abuse victims wanted to get into the music scene,” former prosecutor Rahman told The Daily Beast. “The biggest difference is that Raniere had to build his multi-level marketing company and personal development company from the ground up, whereas R. Kelly had a built-in platform to recruit victims.”

Moira Penza, the former Brooklyn federal prosecutor who won a conviction against Raniere, told The Daily Beast that when trying to use the RICO charges for these types of alleged perpetrators, it’s essential to prove individuals’ pattern of behavior was aided by underlings.

“One of the ways you do that is to show that the criminal acts had similar means and methods of commission,” she said. “By showing that the same rules, rituals, and debasement were used to victimize different girls and young women over time, and that different members of R. Kelly’s inner circle helped employ those methods, the prosecutors can prove that this was a criminal organization—not just a bad man acting on his own—engaged in a pattern of criminal activity.”

To put it simply, prosecutors need to show that not only did Kelly—like Raniere—need these bizarre rules to exercise power, but that his wishes were carried out.

“In most criminal organizations, you are going to have one head, the alpha, and there are often these rituals set up to reflect to others his importance,” the former federal prosecutor added.

Former NXIVM members told The Daily Beast they saw plenty of similarities between Raniere and Kelly.

“Coercive control Raniere and NXIVM exerted is akin to R. Kelly’s, which is itself akin to coercive control in an abusive relationship between two people.” Ivy Nevares, a former NXIVM member, told The Daily Beast.

She added that she thought there were plenty of differences, of course: “I tend to think NXIVM was way more complex not just in its rules and rituals, but also in its complex system of coercive manipulation.”

Another former NXIVM member, who did not wish to be identified for fear of professional retribution, expressed shock when The Daily Beast relayed the similarities between the tactics Raniere used and those allegedly employed by the “I Believe I Can Fly” artist.

“R.Kelly is just like Keith… except at least R. Kelly has some talent,” she said.

The former NXIVM member also noted that one of the most bizarre similarities is both men’s alleged desire to have their constituents watch them play sports—a characteristic Hassan said was “textbook” for malignant narcissists who want to be perceived as powerful.

According to testimony in court, Kelly would make his employees and girlfriends watch him play basketball for hours. During games, several witnesses have testified, the women would be forced to wear baggy clothing, sit in the corner, and only look at Kelly. If the ball would come towards them, the women were forced to turn toward the wall to avoid accidental eye contact with the other male players.

“They would cheer for him. They would only cheer for Rob,” Suzette Mayweather, a former assistant of the singer, told jurors.

One accuser—when asked by the defense how Kelly’s girlfriends were expected to watch only Kelly during a fast-moving game of approximately 10 men—revealed she would “go by the shoes.”

Raniere, on the other hand, would make his NXIVM members attend nightly volley games at the gym inside the group’s Albany compound.

Rahman agreed that the requirement to watch sports was “another form of control by the leader of a sex cult.”

Another similarity is that both Raniere and Kelly allegedly felt the need to have their constituents supply collateral that could be used as blackmail if they were to defy the strongmen.

In NXIVM, collateral usually included sexually explicit photos, false letters alleging abuse by family members, or access to members’ financial assets.

In Kelly’s trial, an accuser who was identified as “Jane” testified that she had to write erroneous letters at least twice a week.

In one brutal letter read aloud in court, she wrote that her parents wanted to extort Kelly and that she manipulated the singer to have sex with her when she was 17. Other letters stated that Jane had stolen money or jewelry, was molested by family members, or that she “would spank myself really hard until I had bruises.”

“The defendant would have other girlfriends make me write these letters. He said they would go to his attorneys and they’d never see the light of day,” Jane said.

The now 23-year-old told jurors several gruesome details about her relationship with Kelly—including that singer allegedly made her get an abortion in 2017 because he wanted to “keep my body tight and he wanted to have a family after he got rid of the rest of the girls.”

In Raniere’s trial, a former member testified that Raniere forced her and her two sisters to get abortions after he impregnated them. The woman, identified as Daniela, told jurors she was forced to have an abortion in 2006—months after her older sister. She also testified that her youngest sister Camila also had an abortion years later, two days after her 18th birthday.

In what is considered one of the most horrific punishments Raniere forced on an NXIVM member, Daniela also testified that she was left in solitary confinement for two years in her bedroom after he accused her of stealing. In reality, Daniela said, the act was punishment for expressing interest in another man and gaining weight.

While Daniela said that the door was unlocked, she told jurors in 2019 that the idea of leaving the room—and facing possible punishment for betraying Raniere and his inner circle again—was intimidating enough to stay inside.

Likewise, “Jane” said Kelly kept her inside an unlocked room in his Chicago studio for over three days after she bought the wrong-sized pair of Hollister sweatpants. She said that she knew she “would get in trouble even more” if she tried to leave.

While Raniere was convicted of sex trafficking of children and child pornography, prosecutors in Kelly’s trial have accused the singer of additional violence.

The singer is accused of brutally beating several women he was involved with, in addition to sexually assaulting at least six women and two men. Among the women who said they were spanked, slapped, and thrown around by Kelly is Pace, who said the singer called her a “silly bitch” in 2019 before beating her up for lying.

“Rob slapped me three times. He said if I lied to him again, it’s not going to be an open hand next time. He spit in my face and in my mouth and choked me,” Pace wrote in a Jan. 2010 journal entry she read aloud in court about the last time she saw Kelly.

Despite the differences in their alleged conduct, to Hassan, the similarities between the men prove a larger pattern: that leaders of cults need rituals, followers, and loyalists to make sure “they are always needed.”

“All cult leaders seem to want power, money, and sex. Some cult leaders like all three. None of these people want anyone to say anything negative,” he said. “They just want praise.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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