In 2008, Jerhonda Johnson was a 15-year-old sophomore from Chicago’s south suburbs who cut high school every day to attend R. Kelly’s trial on 14 counts of making child pornography. The R&B superstar had no bigger fan, and Johnson was quoted in national media stories defending her musical idol.
Now a 24-year-old mother of three with the married name Jerhonda Pace, she tells BuzzFeed News that after the trial, when she was 16, she became one of many women traumatized by a sexual relationship with Kelly. Her detailed and well-documented story of accepting cash settlements from the star in return for signing nondisclosure agreements, which has not been previously reported, illustrates how Kelly has been able to silence young women he has allegedly wronged.
Several individuals with firsthand knowledge of the situation have supported Pace’s claims. Additionally, BuzzFeed News reviewed signed legal documents, drafts of settlements between Kelly and Pace, correspondence between Pace and the attorneys involved, a polygraph test performed at the request of her attorney regarding her relationship with Kelly, a probate court document opening an estate for Pace as the result of a civil settlement, and a subsequent payment made by Kelly’s management company to Pace.
Representatives for Kelly issued a statement early Tuesday morning denying Pace's allegations. “The allegations against Mr. Kelly are false, and are being made by individuals known to be dishonest. It is clear these continuing stories are the result of the effort of those with personal agendas who are working in concert to interfere with and damage his career. Mr. Kelly again denies any and all wrong doing and is taking appropriate legal action to protect himself from ongoing defamation.”
Pace is the fourth former member of Kelly’s circle to tell BuzzFeed News that the star mentally and physically abuses the women closest to him. Kelly has faced similar allegations for years: In 2005, for example, his then-wife, Andrea Lee, filed for an order of protection in Cook County Circuit Court, alleging that her husband had slapped and hit her, and demanding “no contact at all by any means.” She later dropped that order.
Pace's story is different than previously reported accounts because she was underage when she and Kelly began a sexual relationship. Pace says she is talking now — and breaking a signed nondisclosure agreement — because she is concerned about women still living with Kelly in what police have been told is an abusive “cult,” as BuzzFeed News first reported last month. Pace says she’s particularly concerned about a friend she brought into Kelly’s circle when they were both teenagers and who multiple sources say still lives with Kelly.
Kelly has adamantly denied allegations of wrongdoing, and one alleged victim, 21-year-old Joycelyn Savage, has said she is doing fine. Her parents, and the parents of an 18-year-old aspiring singer from Florida, have all said they have been told there is an ongoing federal investigation into Kelly, but an FBI spokesman declined requests for comment from BuzzFeed News.
“If I can speak out and I can help them get out of that situation, that’s what I will do,” Pace says. “I didn’t have anybody to speak up on my behalf when I was going through what I was going through with him. He’s brainwashed them really bad, and it kind of reminds me of Charles Manson.”
“I just really hope I can help these women out,” she says. “Kelly needs to be stopped.”
Pace says she first became a self-described R. Kelly “superfan” when she heard his album Chocolate Factory at age 11. “My family listened to his music, my friends listened to his music, everybody was just in love with the music. [Chicago radio station] WGCI was the biggest supporter — they played him all the time — and it was my favorite radio station.”
Her fandom didn’t fade when Kelly was indicted for making child pornography, Pace says. Once the trial began in May 2008, she attended the proceedings every day until Kelly’s acquittal on June 13 of that year. If convicted, Kelly could have been sentenced to 15 years in prison. (While working at the Chicago Sun-Times, this reporter received the tape anonymously and turned it over to the police; called by Kelly's attorneys to testify, he took the Fifth Amendment rather than revealing sources.)
Looking back, Pace says she attended the trial because she was a fan and wanted to know what happened. “Did he really do it?” she recalls wondering. “I wanted to see everything for myself.” That included watching the notorious video when it was shown several times in court.
Prosecutors alleged that the 26-minute, 39-second video depicted Kelly having sex with a 14-year-old girl, urinating in her mouth, and ordering her to call him “daddy.” Pace says watching the video was “disturbing.” But because the girl and her parents never testified— though 14 other witnesses, including her aunt, did identify the girl — Pace says she thought, Well, maybe that’s not the girl. If she would have come forward, I think it would have made a huge difference.
Outside of court at the time, she defended Kelly to multiple news outlets. "They can't call him a pedophile anymore," Pace, then 15, told MTV. "They can't say he likes little girls. They don't have proof of that. Because he's innocent now. He's free." The MTV article reported that Pace was 18, but public records, as well as Pace’s birth certificate and driver’s license, show she was actually 15 at the time; she admits she lied to the reporter because Cook County sheriff’s officers were not admitting anyone under 18 into the trial.
Pace says she met Kelly when he was walking into the court building. The star “seemed like a cool guy, and he would always speak to me when he saw me,” she recalls. She even got the singer’s autograph, which she provided to BuzzFeed News. “He didn’t have anything to sign, and neither did I, but my friend reached into her pocket and found an old bank slip, so I got his autograph on her bank slip. I laminated that.”
That meeting with Kelly would not be her last. In May 2009, a friend and employee of Kelly's friended Pace on Myspace, Pace tells BuzzFeed News, and invited her to a party Kelly was throwing at his mansion in suburban Olympia Fields, Illinois. Pace, who had just turned 16, says she lied to her parents, telling them she was going to a friend’s house.
“I was a bit nervous,” she says. “Even though I had already met him at his trial, I was like literally at his house, so it did not feel real.” She remembers Kelly calling her over to the bar and telling her he had noticed her at the trial. He then asked for her cell phone and entered his number in it. “At the time I was still, you know, pretty starstruck, so I was in disbelief,” she says. Pace says she did not tell Kelly she was underage, and would later tell private investigators she claimed to be 19 years old at the time. (The age of consent in Illinois is 17.)
Not long after, on June 5, 2009, Pace says Kelly invited her to come back to his mansion and sent an employee to pick her up in a black SUV. “He told me that he wanted me to undress for him [and] walk back and forth like I was modeling,” she says. The two then had oral sex and, Pace said in interviews with BuzzFeed News and her 2010 polygraph interview, Kelly made his first attempt to ensure that she did not talk about their sexual relationship by having her write out and sign letters stating that she had stolen jewelry and cash from him and that her parents had set her up to blackmail him. Pace says she did as instructed, but none of the charges were true.
On the next visit, on June 9, Pace says Kelly gave her an alcoholic drink he called Sex in the Kitchen, which is also the name of a song he released in 2005. “I was drunk, because I wasn’t used to alcohol,” Pace says. The two had intercourse; Pace says she was a virgin, and Kelly thought that was exciting.
Over the next seven months, Pace says she had sex with Kelly repeatedly, a claim she would later repeat during her settlement process. Without asking her permission, Kelly filmed most of the encounters on his iPhone or a video camera on a tripod, Pace says and a settlement draft reiterates. “I had to call him ‘daddy,’ and he would call me ‘baby.’ He wanted me to have two pigtails, and I had to go out and find little schoolgirl outfits.”
If Kelly was previously unaware of Pace’s age, she says she told him for certain that she was 16 on July 17, 2009, a claim she also made in the aforementioned documents. “I gave him my state ID,” she says. She recalls that Kelly told her things were fine, but that she should tell anyone who asked that she was 19, and act like she was 25.
Pace says that she started spending weekends with Kelly at his Olympia Fields home. While she was in the mansion, she says, she had to follow Kelly’s “rules,” which included dressing in baggy clothes, turning over her phone, and asking permission to shower, eat, go to the bathroom, and leave the property. If she broke the rules, she says, she was mentally and physically abused.
“At the time, I didn’t know what I liked, honestly,” Pace says, explaining why she complied. “I just knew that I liked his music, so I was pretty much accepting of anything that came with him at the time.”
According to Pace, she and her 17-year-old friend, a fellow superfan she’d met on Myspace who sources say still lives with Kelly today, were hanging out at Kelly’s Olympia Fields mansion in July 2009 when police in two squad cards arrived in search of the friend, whose mother had called to complain that her young daughter was with Kelly. Pace, both when speaking to BuzzFeed News and during her 2010 polygraph test, says that Kelly called one of his attorneys, who advised his star client that he did not have to let the police into the house if they did not have a warrant.
At the time, Police Chief Jeff Chudwin told the Southtown Star: “[We] were informed of a possible criminal matter. We investigated the issues, found there to be no crime, and the matters have been closed.” A spokesperson for Kelly called the report “wildly exaggerated,” adding that “no police ever showed up at Kelly’s house with a search warrant nor was his house ever searched.” A few days later, the newspaper noted that Kelly was “the largest taxpayer in the village of 4,700,” with his property taxes representing one-tenth of the police department’s budget for 2008.
Pace says Kelly asked her to engage in threesomes, including with a woman who was best friends since high school with the girl in the videotape for which Kelly was tried. BuzzFeed News previously reported that this woman was still living with Kelly as of the summer of 2016. Pace says she also saw the girl in the videotape at a party in Olympia Fields, and that she recognized her from watching the video in court.
Pace says she ended her relationship with Kelly in January 2010 after the two had an argument when Kelly caught her texting a friend. “I was slapped and I was choked and I was spit on,” she says, a claim repeated in the settlement draft and corresponding polygraph.
Pace says she left Kelly’s house, but her ordeal was far from over.
The next day, Pace recalls, she contacted the offices of Chicago attorney Susan E. Loggans. “It was on their website that they had worked with a lot of women who went against Kelly, and I thought, Oh, that’s a good thing,” Pace says.
Loggans declined to comment, but her firm has made extracting cash settlements from Kelly a specialized part of its practice. A 2011 ad for the firm boasts that high-profile clients have included “two underage girls who claimed the R&B superstar R. Kelly had sex with them.”
Loggans first represented three women in the late ’90s and early 2000s in cases brought against Kelly filed in Cook County. After these three publicly filed lawsuits, Loggans began negotiating other settlements between Kelly and young women she represented before lawsuits were ever filed. She has declined to say exactly how many settlements she has negotiated, other than to say they were “numerous.”
Loggans first sued Kelly for $10 million on Dec. 24, 1997, in a suit brought by Chicago woman Tiffany “Tia” Hawkins, an aspiring singer who claimed she met the star when he spoke to her sophomore choir class. According to the lawsuit, Hawkins began having sex with Kelly in 1991, when she was 15 and he was 24. The relationship ended in December 1994, when she was 18, the court documents state; distraught, she slit her wrists in an attempt to kill herself. The charges in the suit were not reported until years later, in a December 2000 Chicago Sun-Times article, the first major investigative story detailing Kelly’s illegal underage sexual relationships. The case eventually was settled out of court when Kelly paid Hawkins an undisclosed sum, sources said.
Loggans next sued Kelly in August 2001 when she represented another Chicago woman, Tracy Sampson, an aspiring rapper who claimed she lost her virginity to the star at age 17, which is the age of consent in Illinois. “I was often treated as his personal sex object and cast aside,” Sampson claimed in the lawsuit. “He often tried to control every aspect of my life including who I would see and where I would go.” The case was eventually settled out of court when Kelly paid Sampson an undisclosed sum, sources said.
The last public lawsuit that Loggans filed against Kelly was in April 2002, when she represented Patrice Jones, a Chicago woman who claimed the star impregnated her when she was underage, and that one of his associates took her to have an abortion. The lawsuit alleged that the relationship began after Kelly met the 16-year-old in December 1998 at the Rock ’n Roll McDonald’s in Chicago after her high school prom. The case eventually was settled out of court when Kelly paid Jones an undisclosed sum, sources said.
Pace says that when she went to Loggans for assistance, she was told that the attorneys would make her a millionaire. That’s when she decided to pursue a settlement instead of criminal charges. “If I was to get criminal charges, it would probably be like it was last time, where he wouldn’t get convicted,” Pace considered at the time.
To verify Pace’s story, Loggans asked Pace take the aforementioned lie detector test. BuzzFeed News obtained a seven-page document about the test conducted by F.L. Hunter and Associates in suburban Hinsdale on Jan. 9, 2010. The results were sent to Loggans in a letter dated Feb. 1, 2010. The document details four questions that Pace was asked, including whether she had intercourse with Kelly, if she had told him she was 16, and whether he slapped, choked, and spit on her during an argument. She answered yes to all questions. “It is the opinion of this examiner, based upon an analysis of her polygraph records, that she is truthful in her answers,” Hunter concluded. Hunter has since retired from the firm that still bears his name.
According to Pace, within weeks of the meeting in Loggans’ office, the attorney had negotiated a large settlement with Kelly in return for Pace signing a nondisclosure agreement and declining to pursue any charges or other claims against Kelly.
Since Pace was still a minor, Loggans and her mother opened an estate on her behalf, according to Pace and court records obtained by BuzzFeed News. But Pace says she only received a fraction of what was owed her.
In 2012, Pace complained to Loggans’ assistant about late or missing payments from Kelly, according to emails reviewed by BuzzFeed News. In that period, Pace’s settlement was far from Kelly’s only expense: In 2009, Kelly divorced his second wife, Andrea Lee, with whom he had three children, and he was paying spousal and child support. In 2012, Kelly owed the IRS nearly $5 million in unpaid taxes dating back to 2005. In 2013, the star sold the Olympia Fields mansion once valued at more than $5 million for $950,000 years after it went into foreclosure.
Down the line, Pace says and other sources confirmed, she went on to sign a new settlement agreement with Kelly. BuzzFeed News reviewed a subsequent payment made by Kelly’s management company, RSK Enterprises LLC, to Pace as recently as July 15, 2015.
Pace’s current attorney refused to comment.
The settlement draft stipulates that for both Kelly and Pace, “the terms and existence of this Agreement and of the [earlier] 2010 Settlement Agreement shall be strictly confidential.” It includes a “non-disparagement clause” detailing that “the parties agree that they each shall refrain from any and all conduct, verbal or otherwise, that disparages or damages… the reputation, good will or standing in the community of the other party.”
Pace says that she could face legal action for violating the terms of her agreement by talking publicly about her experience with Kelly. But given Kelly’s continued personal and professional success, and the crimes she says he committed, she says speaking out is worth the risk.
“His music overshadows everything when it comes to his wrongdoings,” Pace says. “Nobody thinks about the damage he's done or is doing to young women, and his personal life means nothing when it comes to executives making money off of him.” Following BuzzFeed's initial reporting on Kelly, Live Nation refused the call of thousands of fans as well as local politicians to cancel his Aug. 25 concert in Atlanta. Kelly’s label, Sony Music, has refused to comment.
Despite signing a nondisclosure agreement — which may not necessarily preclude reporting a crime — and threats of legal action, Pace is considering pursuing criminal charges against Kelly.
“I know speaking out against Kelly, Kelly could sue me. But I’m really not worried about it anymore,” Pace says. “I feel like this is a healing process for me, because I've been holding this in for so many years, and to see that he always gets away with it, it’s just not right. I’m just going forward with my head held high.” ●
Additional reporting by Marisa Carroll and Talal Ansari
This story was updated to include a statement released by Kelly's representative after publication.
Jim DeRogatis is a Chicago-based music journalist and critic. He is an assistant professor in the English Department at Columbia College Chicago; the co-host of "Sound Opinions," the weekly rock-n-roll talk show originating at WBEZ Chicago and heard on some 125 Public Radio stations nationwide as well as on podcast at soundopinions.org, and the the author of nine books about music.
Contact Jim DeRogatis at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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