(AP) – The trial of R. Kelly’s manager opened Tuesday on charges that he forced the cancellation of a screening of a documentary about the singer’s sexual abuse of women and girls by calling in a threat to the crowded Manhattan theatre.
Assistant US Attorney Lara Pomerantz told jurors that Donnell Russell made a terrifying brief phone call in December 2018 from his Chicago home to the theater, claiming that someone with a gun was planning to fire on the crowd watching Lifetime’s “Surviving R. Kelly” series.
“He knew his words would sabotage the event,” she said.
The phone call prompted an emergency call to police, who ordered an evacuation that forced the cancellation of the premiere, including a live panel discussion that was to include several women featured in the documentary.
“The defendant wanted to keep the women quiet,” Pomerantz said in Manhattan federal court. She added that Russell was motivated by a desire to protect the lucrative career of the Grammy-winning, multiplatinum-selling songwriter.
Kelly, who was sentenced to 30 years in prison last month, was convicted last year of racketeering and sex trafficking.
Defence attorney Michael Freedman told jurors that they would exonerate Russell if they study the evidence.
Freedman said there were a lot of phone calls to the theatre on the day of the screening and jurors will “have to decide what it all means and what, if anything, it proves about my client.”
He said there was no recording of the phone threat so jurors cannot hear the voice that made it.
But he said the theatre employee who received the threat will testify that the individual’s voice sounded different from Russell’s.
“That person sounded aggressive and sounded like he was outside and sounded like he was from Brooklyn,” Freedman said.
He said there was not enough evidence to prove Russell committed a crime.
Pomerantz, though, said Russell demonstrated his guilt in part through his communications with a female co-conspirator who was at the theater at the time.
She said Russell sent the woman a text to say the police may be coming to the theater shortly before they did. And then he later asked her to delete the text, though she never did, the prosecutor said.
Pomerantz said phone records to be introduced as evidence will show that Russell called the theater nine times on the day of the screening, pretending in one call to be a lawyer representing Kelly as he contended that the screening would harm Kelly’s name and brand.
She said he also sent an email to Lifetime employees threatening a lawsuit if the event was not cancelled.
The prosecutor said Russell “tried every way he could to stop the event.”
In a separate Kelly-related case, a fan of the performer pleaded not guilty Wednesday in Brooklyn federal court to charges he made threats against prosecutors in Kelly’s sex abuse trial. Court papers cite a video of defendant Christopher Gunn saying, “If Kellz goes down, everybody’s going down.”
A message was left with Gunn’s lawyer seeking comment.