By PAXSON HAWS
For almost 18 years, Jim DeRogatis has been covering the sexual abuse young African American women has been enduring from rapper R. Kelly. DeRogatis started covering these scandals after he reviewed Kelly’s album, TP-2.com, for the Chicago Sun-Times in 2000.
In his review, DeRogatis said “the shift from church to bedroom are so jarring they can give you whiplash.” Two weeks after this review was published, DeRogatis received an anonymous fax saying Kelly’s issue was young girls.
This fax had very specific details with names, dates and court cases. It led DeRogatis to a Polish sex crime unit who was investigating Kelly and a law suit filed on Dec. 24, 1994 that was never reported on. The sex crime unit said they couldn’t talk to him. The law suit filed said Kelly would return to the high school he attended and have sex with 14-15-year-old girls from the choir. One girl he had a relationship with tried to commit suicide before Kelly made her sign a non-disclosure agreement and paid her off.
There had always been the rumor that Kelly married singer Aaliyah when she was 15 and the marriage license lied about her age. DeRogatis and the Chicago Sun-Time were successful in finding the annulment paperwork for this marriage. This occurred after the 1994 court case proving Aaliyah was not the first girl.
DeRogatis talked with other women mentioned in Aaliyah’s lawsuit and the 1994 lawsuit. When DeRogatis reported on all of this in 2000, he said crafting the nut graph took longer than any sentence he has ever written. It took himself, multiple editors and the lawyer to produce this graph.
No one did anything after this was published. Kelly denied everything and threatened to sue but never did. In the 18 years DeRogatis has been reporting on Kelly, not a single word has been challenged by a law suit or corrected in the paper.
A year later, DeRogatis received a call at home to check his mail box. Inside was an unmarked envelope with a 26 minute and 39 second video of Kelly having sex with the girl from the anonymous fax who was never confirmed. They gave the tape to the police and reported on it the same day Kelly sang at the 2002 Winter Olympics closing ceremony in Salt Lake City, Utah.
In June 2002, Kelly was indicted for 21 counts of child pornography instead of statutory rape. The girl in the tape and her family did not participate in the case and were living overseas from the day the Sun-Times reported the tape.
Every six to eight weeks for 6 years, the judge convened the prosecution and defense and went into closed chambers. All files from those six years were sealed and remain sealed despite a lawsuit from the Sun-Times. The trial lasted five weeks with 75 called witnesses and two dozen presented witnesses.
DeRogatis was compelled to testify despite the special witness law that protects reporters. He took the fifth amendment to protect his sources. DeRogatis emphasized how prevalent rape culture was in this case and the jury did not convict because they did not hear from the girl in the video.
DeRogatis says he did not pick this story, it picked him. For a decade after the trail, victims of Kelly and their families came to him with their stories.
To get sources to talk with him and go on the record, he rang doorbells and made phone calls. Overtime, he proved he cared and believed victims because he talked with them, got facts correct and would rather he be held in contempt of court than reveal his sources.
In November 2016, the parents of a girl from outside Atlanta, Georgia came to him because their daughter started a relationship with Kelly and they hadn’t heard from her in months. This was the start of DeRogatis’ reporting for his piece published with BuzzFeed News in July 2017.
Another pair of parents came to him and told DeRogatis about the ‘cult’ Kelly had. DeRogatis has spoken with other women who broke away from the ‘cult’ and personal assistants who saw first-hand what the six women in the ‘cult’ went through.
This story took nine months of reporting and three different news organizations before BuzzFeed published it. He started out reporting with MTV News before they dropped out after three months. He spent another three months with the Chicago Reader and then three months at another paper before going to BuzzFeed. DeRogatis’ story was published only four days after the last paper pulled out.
Now, DeRogatis is working on writing his 11th book, which will be about R. Kelly and his thirty years of abuse. The two sets of parents that came to him in 2016 have still not spoken with their daughters.
DeRogatis is from New Jersey and studied journalism at New York University. He started his career at the Jersey Journal as a reporter. He started at the Chicago Sun-Times in 1991 as a pop music critique. Today, he is a contributor at BuzzFeed News and an assistant professor at Columbia College Chicago.
DeRogatis’ advice for journalist is to make sure people know how to find you and to always answer phone calls.