The trial of R. Kelly’s manager opened on Tuesday for forcing the cancellation of a screening of a documentary about the singer’s sexual abuse of women and girls by calling a threat to the crowded Manhattan theater.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Lara Pomerantz told jurors Donnell Russell made a brief, terrifying phone call in December 2018 from his Chicago home to the theater, claiming someone with a gun was planning to shoot into the watching crowd. 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 of the women featured in the documentary.
“The defendant wanted to keep the women quiet,” Pomerantz said in Manhattan federal court. She added that Russell was driven by a desire to protect the Grammy-winning and multi-platinum songwriter’s lucrative career.
Kelly, who was sentenced to 30 years in prison last month, was convicted last year of racketeering and sex trafficking.
Defense attorney Michael Freedman told jurors they would exonerate Russell if they studied the evidence.
Freedman said there were a lot of phone calls to the theater on the day of the screening and the jurors “would have to decide what this all means and what it proves, if anything, about my client.”
He said there was no recording of the phone threat so jurors couldn’t hear the voice that made it. But he added there was not enough evidence to prove Russell had committed a crime.
Outrage over Kelly’s sexual misconduct with young women and children has been fueled in part by the widely-watched docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly,” which has given voice to accusers who have said they to feel ignored.
Adrian Krasniqi, who worked at the 25th Street site, said he received the threatening call less than an hour after a man claiming to be part of Kelly’s legal team called and said the documentary violated Kelly’s copyright to her name and should not be shown. . He said the caller had a low, professional voice.
Krasniqi said the subsequent call consisted of a deep-voiced man with a “slang tone, like a thug”, saying in a very serious and very direct way that “someone had a gun and that they were going to fire on the place”.
On cross-examination, Krasniqi said he thought the caller had a Brooklyn accent, which he knew well because he lived in Brooklyn. He said he also believed the caller was outside when he made the threat.
Pomerantz said Russell demonstrated his guilt in part through his communications with a co-conspirator who was in the theater at the time.
She said Russell texted the woman to say the police could come to the theater shortly before she did. And then he later asked her to delete the text, although she never did, the prosecutor said.
Pomerantz said phone records to be tendered as evidence will show Russell called the theater nine times on the day of the screening.
In a separate case related to Kelly, a fan of the entertainer pleaded not guilty Wednesday in federal court in Brooklyn to uttering threats against prosecutors in Kelly’s sex abuse trial. Court documents cite a video of defendant Christopher Gunn saying, “If Kellz goes down, everyone else goes down.”
A message was left for Gunn’s attorney requesting comment.