In 2000, Chicago Sun-Times music critic Jim DeRogatis and legal affairs reporter Abdon Pallasch broke the story that R&B superstar R. Kelly—real name Robert Sylvester Kelly—was having sex with teenage girls and had several lawsuits filed against him.
Pallasch, who has since left journalism, spoke with A&E True Crime about his years reporting on Kelly and why it took nearly three decades for the singer to be held accountable for his criminal behavior and the role the Lifetime docuseries Surviving R. Kelly played in bringing him to justice.
How did you break the story?
Jim had been hearing for years in the community that R. Kelly had a problem. Like that at the end of every concert, [waiting for Kelly] there were women [who were] of age, but if there was a 17-year-old girl or a 14-year-old girl in the corner, that’s the one he’d go for. He would hang out at his old high school and would try to hook up with girls. Then we heard there were some lawsuits, and I was brought in and I teamed up with Jim.
[Watch Surviving R. Kelly on the Lifetime site and apps.]
No other media picked up the story. Why?
We were kind of surprised. There were just a couple of mentions on Entertainment Tonight and just sort of a shrug from the rest of the media. That was the age before #MeToo. There were a whole lot of people in the media, music critics, who were buying the explanation put out by R. Kelly that ‘these girls are just gold diggers, they pursued R. Kelly and now they want to make money off him.’
Was it that they were intimidated by R. Kelly’s very well-funded lawyers? Or was it just disinterest because of the population [represented in the stories] doesn’t boost readership? The whole issue just wasn’t taken very seriously.
Kelly’s victims were Black women. Was that a factor in the lack of interest?
I think that’s absolutely the answer. A lot of times, the answer [victims] would give us when we asked why they wouldn’t come forward, why they were reluctant to talk to us, was, ‘We are young Black girls. Who is more invisible? Who is more marginalized in society?’
Why were there lawsuits and not criminal charges?
That’s a very good question. There were grumblings [from people in the legal system] saying prosecutors should spend their time on cases where victims want to testify against their accusers. [Kelly is known for settling out of court with victims in exchange for nondisclosure agreements].
One victim, Tiffany Hawkins [who said she had a sexual relationship with Kelly when she was underage and sued him in 1996, later settling out of court], said she talked to the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office and they wouldn’t bring charges against R. Kelly.
[Editor’s Note: In 2002, the state’s attorney’s office was asked why it didn’t look into Kelly’s marriage to the singer Aaliyah in 1994, when she was 15. A spokesman said it happened ‘under a previous administration’ and that the current office would have no idea why charges were not filed at that time.]
In 2002 DeRogatis was mailed a videotape showing Kelly performing sex acts and urinating on a 14-year-old girl. That resulted in pornography charges for Kelly, but the case went to trial only in 2008. Why did it take so long?
It was the longest delay that we could find [on record]. It was just ridiculous. The judge in the case let R. Kelly’s lawyer string it out forever and ever. [From Kelly’s defense team’s perspective], would you rather have a 14-year-old girl on the stand, or a 21-year-old who doesn’t look as vulnerable?
The judge, bit by bit, threw out everything that would be beneficial to convict R. Kelly. He narrowed this down to a case about one tape and one girl—there was none of the pattern of conduct that Jim and I had established for R. Kelly. He also bribed the girl’s family so she would be out of town and not testify.
[Editor’s Note: Kelly is now facing federal charges in Illinois of conspiring with former employees to rig his 2008 trial by paying off witnesses and victims to change their stories.]
What did you think when he was acquitted of all counts in 2008?
I was stunned, because anyone who watches the tape knows exactly what’s going on. The girls’ relatives, coaches and friends all testified it was her [on the tape].
DeRogatis continued to report on Kelly for years—including, notably, the 2017 Buzzfeed News article ‘Inside the Pied Piper of R&B’s “Cult”’ What do you think of your friend’s work?
He absolutely does deserve all the credit. He and I left the Sun-Times [DeRogatis in 2010 and Pallasch in 2012], and the girls’ parents would keep calling him for help. He took the calls and he did freelance stories, he called police on their behalf. Jim has been doing the follow-up reports that really made the basis of the federal charges.
The Lifetime documentary series Surviving R. Kelly aired in January 2019. The next month, Kelly was charged in Cook County with 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse. Did TV turn things around?
It really did. To have girl after girl after girl giving the same story about how R. Kelly lured her in when she was 15 or 16 years old and sexually abused her, to have that many victims convincingly give their version of pretty much the same story… Seeing is believing. Video is worth 1,000 words.
Jim [DeRogatis] deserves a whole lot of credit and [the documentary’s executive producer] Dream Hampton and her team deserve a lot of credit for bringing R. Kelly to justice and for having the girls’ voices heard.
Kelly also was indicted in federal court in New York in July 2019 of charges including racketeering and sex trafficking. He was found guilty of all counts on September 27, 2021. How did you feel at the news?
I was very glad. I think it really vindicated all the work that all of us had done. The most important thing is that it really said to all his victims, all of these young Black girls, ‘We believe you. Your voices are finally being heard.’
Anything else you want to share?
It’s a great verdict, long overdue, and thank God the #MeToo movement happened. But we still have a long way to go where women who are victimized by men can feel confident in bringing their abusers to justice.
The music industry made a lot of money off R. Kelly for the last 20 years, when everybody knew who R. Kelly really was. People who worked for him knew. They could hear the girls knock on the doors [as they were being held captive by the singer] and ask to get food and go to the bathroom, and they just ignored it.
Do you think more people will be held accountable for Kelly’s crimes?
I doubt it. There should be a lot more public atonement for those who were complicit.