A Visit to the Log Cabin

Dispatches From the R. Kelly Trial

A Visit to the Log Cabin

Dispatches From the R. Kelly Trial

A Visit to the Log Cabin
Notes from different corners of the world.
June 4 2008 10:23 AM

Dispatches From the R. Kelly Trial

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

Click on the audio player below to hear Josh Levin read this entry. You can also download the audio file here.

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate’s editorial director.

R. Kelly. Click image to expand.
A courtroom artist's rendering of R. Kelly

With the jury getting a day of rest before the defense begins its case on Wednesday, today's star is the Chicago Sun-Times' Jim DeRogatis. The reporter and pop-music critic, along with his colleague Abdon M. Pallasch, wrote the first story laying out R. Kelly's predilection for underage girls way back in 2000. In that piece and a multitude of later stories for the Sun-Times, DeRogatis and Pallasch unearthed and exhaustively described the "Sex Planet" crooner's mating habits: wooing teenage girls at concerts, a local McDonald's, and his former high school; bedding them; and paying the occasional cash settlement when a lawsuit was threatened. DeRogatis also found details that fleshed out the man behind the log-cabin porn empire. He reported that the singer was functionally illiterate and that he rarely bathed and (in a feature for GQ) wrote that Kelly was allegedly molested as a child by a "trusted older man."

Advertisement

As DeRogatis became known around Chicago as the man on the R. Kelly ephebophilia beat, he received a pair of anonymous packages in the Sun-Times offices. Near the start of 2001, he got a tape "that appears to depict Kelly and a young light-skinned black girl having sexual relations in a wood-paneled sauna room." Police were never able to determine the girl's age or identity. Then, in February 2002, DeRogatis was sent the tape at issue in this case: a 27-minute video of a man resembling R. Kelly, again in a wood-paneled room, having sex with and urinating on a girl who appears to be underage. DeRogatis gave the tape to a Chicago police investigator, leading to Kelly's arrest on child pornography charges.

According to the defense, DeRogatis is no mere journalist. Rather, he's in the same category as Lisa Van Allen, Keith from Kansas City, and Stephanie "Sparkle" Edwards—a charter member of the League of Kelly Haters and a possible hub in a wide-ranging conspiracy against the singer. Defense attorney Marc Martin, who's arguing before Judge Vincent Gaughan today that DeRogatis should be compelled to testify this week, says the writer harbors an "extreme bias" against Kelly. In particular, Martin wants to question DeRogatis about a screening of the tape he held for Sparkle, the alleged victim's aunt. The defense contends that this viewing took place three days after the Sun-Times claims to have given the tape to the Chicago police; if DeRogatis kept a spare copy, he might have committed the crime of possessing child pornography.

Gaughan doesn't bother to hide his agreement with the defense's position nor his annoyance that, despite a court order, DeRogatis isn't here today. When the reporter's lawyer, Damon Dunn, tries to argue that everything DeRogatis might potentially be asked should be protected by the reporter's privilege, Gaughan snaps that he's "talking nonsense." Later, he scolds Dunn for "protecting something that nobody's after"—that the defense isn't interested in having DeRogatis identify the anonymous source who proffered the tape. (The judge gives some lip to the defense as well; when Sam Adam Sr. tries to bring a chair to the front of the bench for Edward Genson, who suffers from tremors on account of a neuromuscular disease, Gaughan snaps that "this ain't ADA here," demanding that Genson stand.) After threatening to issue a warrant for the reporter's arrest, Gaughan softens his position—he orders Dunn to produce his client at 10 tomorrow morning or else.

Whether or not DeRogatis shows his face on Wednesday, the defense should present its first witness. There's pretty much zero chance that Kelly himself will testify, though it is fun to imagine the cross-examination. Mr. Kelly, is it not true that Little Man is a substandard film, even by the standards of the midget-morphing genre? Mr. Kelly, can you please tell the ladies and gentlemen of the jury why you're so obsessed with logs? Mr. Kelly, in the song "Double Up," what exactly did you mean by: "Man, three's company, bitch, call me Jack Tripper." Remember that you are under oath.

Advertisement

It is possible, on the other hand, that Kelly's lawyers will call the alleged victim, who would declare that it's not her on the tape. This is a tough call for the defense. It's been as much as a decade since the tape was made. The young woman on the witness stand, who is now 23, would likely look significantly different than the girl on the tape, even if they are the same person. While a straight-up denial could help Kelly significantly, it would be a huge gamble—if the jury sees any resemblance between Sex Tape Girl and Sex Tape Denying Woman, all doubt about the defendant's guilt might melt away.

It seems more likely that the alleged victim's mother will get called to the stand. During cross-examinations of prosecution witnesses who claim to recognize the girl, the defense has hinted that an identification made by a friend or nonimmediate family member—say, aunts named Sparkle—shouldn't have the same weight as that of a parent. How would the jury react to—and how would the prosecution rebut—a woman who says, "That's not my daughter"?

The defense will also surely revisit the Shaggy defense and the Little Man defense. While the prosecution's forensic video guy made a convincing case that Kelly's Magic Marker-looking back mole is present on the tape, the defense will likely have experts of its own who will a) produce stills in which the mole cannot be seen, and b) argue that any rube with Final Cut Pro could paste R. Kelly into hard-core log-cabin porn. And Kelly's lawyers will continue to stress that there's a small band of disgruntled R&B singers, Kansas City residents, and Chicago newspaper reporters who had the motive to pull a Little Man.

As all of this is going through my head one afternoon early this week, I happen to walk past an Enterprise Rent-A-Car on the North Side of Chicago. Next door is a brick, ivy-covered building that I recognize from a sex tape I've seen recently. Yes, by sheer coincidence, I am staying two blocks away from R. Kelly's old place on West George Street—home of the infamous log-cabin-themed rec room. There's a padlock on the door and a sign promising a $500,000 fine to any trespassers. The log-cabin room is not visible through the reflective first-floor windows. The red bricks have turned orange in places, and there's paint peeling from the gray window frames. On the side of the building is a "For Sale" sign. "Spectacular Entertainment Home: pool, basketball court, theater, and more!" (And what an "and more" it is!) I call Sheldon Good & Co. auctions to set up a viewing, but the woman on the phone tells me there's been a mistake. The property sold a couple of years ago (for $3 million), but the new owner never bothered to take down the sign. Nor, apparently, to move in. I'm guessing that if the price is right, this spectacular entertainment home could still be yours.