CHICAGO — R. Kelly’s former business manager paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to a man who drove across the country to recover video tapes that allegedly showed the now-disgraced R&B superstar engaging in sex acts with a 14-year-old girl, the man testified Tuesday.
Over three hours of testimony, Charles Freeman said he was recruited by Derrel McDavid, Kelly’s former business manager, and John “Jack” Palladino, a private investigator, to track down two tapes ahead of Kelly’s 2008 child pornography trial in Cook County. And though he recovered one of them in Georgia, Freeman said he made several copies of the video and, ultimately, received about half of the $1 million he was hoping for.
Testifying under a grant of immunity from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Freeman told jurors that in August 2001, Palladino gave him the address of a home in Georgia where he could find one of those tapes.
After driving to the home from Kansas City, Mo., Freeman knocked on the door and told the woman who answered: “I’m here to recover the m———— tapes that y’all stole from Robert Kelly.”
The woman pointed Freeman to the living room, where, he said, the video he was looking for was already in a VCR. Freeman said he played that tape and saw two distinct scenes where Kelly was having sexual contact with “a young girl.” Prosecutors have said one of those scenes was a clip from the video at the heart of Kelly’s 2008 case.
Freeman said he took two other VHS tapes from inside the home but later determined they weren’t related to Kelly. From there, Freeman went to a Wal-Mart where he bought three blank VHS tapes and a VCR that allowed him to make copies of the illicit tape he was tasked with finding, he said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeannice Appenteng asked Freeman why he made the copies and did not turn them in to law enforcement.
“I didn’t trust Derrel [McDavid] and Jack Palladino to pay me my money,” he said, later adding: “The police wasn’t going to pay me $1 million.”
During the court’s afternoon break, while Freeman was out of the courtroom, McDavid’s lead defense attorney, Beau Brindley, told U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber that Freeman’s testimony was in “direct contradiction” with prior statements he has made under oath.
In her opening statement last week, Kelly’s lead defense attorney Jennifer Bonjean said Freeman “is an extortionist.”
Brindley and Bonjean are expected to cross-examine Freeman when the trial resumes Wednesday morning.
Freeman said that he initially asked for $1 million to find and return the tape in Georgia. McDavid and Palladino countered with $100,000, plus another $40,000 to cover expenses, and Freeman ultimately signed a contract agreeing to those terms. But still, McDavid assured Freeman that he would be paid the full $1 million in installments before Kelly’s case went to trial in 2008, Freeman said.
Once he returned to Kansas City from Georgia, Freeman called McDavid and the two set up another meeting in a hotel, which also included Palladino. Freeman said he stashed the tape he recovered, as well as two copies, in his bedroom closet and brought the third copy to the hotel meeting.
During that meeting, McDavid and Freeman argued about how much Freeman would be paid, and Palladino assured Freeman that he’d get the $1 million, Freeman said. But two days later, Palladino called him and related that, “Derrel McDavid said this is not the original tape,” Freeman said. McDavid and Palladino then returned to Kansas City so they could administer a polygraph test to Freeman, which he said he eventually passed.
Freeman said Palladino later called him and told him he was aware that Freeman made other copies of the tape. Freeman said he gave another copy to Palladino, and he was given another $75,000 in exchange.
In 2002, Freeman filed a lawsuit against Kelly and McDavid, but he said it was “immediately” settled for $100,000. Freeman said McDavid again assured him that he’d receive all of the $1 million he initially asked for. The next year, McDavid paid Freeman another $100,000.
In 2003, McDavid again contacted Freeman and asked if he could recover another tape that had gone missing, Freeman said. This one depicted Kelly engaging in sex acts with the minor girl seen in the first video, as well as another woman. That tape, McDavid said, could already be in the Kansas City area and “somebody [Freeman] might know has this tape.”
Freeman later called an associate of his, Keith Murrell, back in Kansas City and learned he did indeed have the tape. Freeman testified that Murrell said the tape was sent to him by the adult woman seen in the video. Murrell, Freeman said, had his own, separate deal in place to get that tape back to McDavid. Freeman added that he later recorded a portion of that video on his cellphone, which he said was later lost.
Last week, prosecutors said that they did not know where that tape was, and Kelly’s attorney, Bonjean, told jurors that it has never existed.
Shortly before the start of Kelly’s 2008 trial, Freeman said, he was summoned to Chicago to meet with Kelly, who assured him, “You’re going to get your money, Chuck, just trust us on this.” The next day, Freeman said, McDavid gave him $100,000.
As Kelly’s trial was about to begin, Freeman called McDavid and told him that he needed the rest of the $1 million he was owed. After “arguing” with McDavid, Freeman said he decided to call a press conference to publicly disclose some “big information about the case.”
The next day, Freeman said, he got a call from Milton “June” Brown, one of Kelly’s assistants and the third defendant in the ongoing case. After Freeman spoke with Kelly by phone, Brown gave Freeman another $10,000 in cash. The following day, Freeman said, McDavid gave him another $150,000. Freeman then called off the press conference.
After Kelly was acquitted in the 2008 trial, Freeman filed another lawsuit against Kelly, McDavid and Brown, he said. That suit was later settled for $125,000.
A federal grand jury in Chicago indicted Kelly, 55, on 13 counts in July 2019, accusing him of producing and receiving child pornography, while also enticing minors to engage in illegal sexual activity. Earlier this year, Kelly was sentenced to 30 years in prison by a federal judge in Brooklyn after he was found guilty of racketeering.
The Grammy-winning, multiplatinum-selling singer — who has remained in law enforcement custody since his 2019 arrest — was initially charged with sexually abusing five minors, though a superseding indictment in 2020 added a sixth alleged victim.
Both Brown and McDavid are charged with one count of conspiracy to receive child pornography, while McDavid also faces two counts of receiving child pornography and one count of conspiracy to obstruct justice.
Prosecutors allege Kelly and those in his inner circle paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years in an effort to track down video tapes that Kelly made that allegedly show him engaging in sexual activity with underage victims.