Lanita Carter first told police and prosecutors two decades ago that R. Kelly sexually abused her. No charges were filed. She tried to move on, she said. She raised her children, she found a stable career, but Kelly's music followed her.
"Every wedding I went to, every graduation I went to, every party," Carter told the Tribune. When her son's kindergarten class learned to sing Kelly's smash hit, "I Believe I Can Fly," she had to help him rehearse.
Carter thought justice was finally catching up with Kelly in 2019, when the docuseries "Surviving R. Kelly" resurrected interest in the singer's alleged misdeeds and Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx put out a request for his accusers to come forward. Carter answered the call, and this time, prosecutors brought charges, filing indictments in her case as well as for the alleged abuse of three others.
"I put a lot of hope into them, that I would see justice one day, and it was so important to me that I did," Carter said.
That hope was lost Tuesday when prosecutors formally dropped all charges against Kelly. Foxx made the announcement at a news conference Monday, saying the office chose to devote their limited resources to other sexual abuse cases, given that Kelly is already facing decades in prison on federal convictions.
Carter said she was devastated.
"My case matters," Carter said in a lengthy interview Monday evening at her attorneys' office in downtown Chicago. "When they told me that I didn't have a case in 2003, I said okay, and I tried to keep on going. Now I come forward again, after you call me to come forward. And now you're saying it again."
Kelly has repeatedly denied accusations of wrongdoing against Carter and the other women in the Cook County cases.
Jennifer Bonjean, one of Kelly's attorneys, said Tuesday that she understands Carter's concerns, but "I don't know that taking the stand and being subject to cross-examination is how you're going to get relief from whatever pain you're experiencing, I don't understand it."
"If she wants justice for Mr. Kelly, he's in prison. He's been sentenced to 30 years," Bonjean said.
Foxx, at her news conference, was careful to note that dropping charges does not mean prosecutors disbelieve any of the allegations.
Kelly was sentenced in June to 30 years in prison on a federal racketeering case in New York. He faces at least 10 years at sentencing Feb. 23 in Chicago's federal courthouse on charges related to child pornography and sexual misconduct with minors.
But that reality is cold comfort for Carter, who said Foxx's decision brought up a swirl of emotions.
"I've still got to be positive. But I can't help but say, this is some bull, this is terrible for me," she said. "I'm upset. But I still have to find the silver lining and I've still got to heal. At the end of the day, I've got to be able to walk away. But you know, it did not feel good."
'I pleaded with them'
Carter first got word back in November that the cases would be dismissed. It was during a meeting with prosecutors, she said, including Foxx herself.
"I pleaded with them. I pleaded with them," Carter said. In response, she said, prosecutors said they would consider her request and let her know. Carter's attorneys soon afterward sent the lead assistant state's attorney on the case a long letter asking them to keep the case alive.
But last week, on a video call with prosecutors, Carter knew before anyone said a word that it would be bad news for her. She saw the attorneys' pursed lips, the folded hands. And this time, Foxx wasn't on the call, Carter said.
"When I didn't see her on the Zoom, I already knew in my heart what the day was," she said. "I just kept telling myself, 'I'm not about to cry. I'm not about to cry. I'm tired of crying.' And then I just - I think I just broke down ... it's like being heartbroken twice by the same person."
Carter said prosecutors gave her an explanation similar to those Foxx gave at Monday's press conference: They believe her allegations, but given the near-certainty Kelly will spend decades in prison, they are choosing to spend their resources on other cases.
Carter did not find them persuasive, she said. Kelly's federal sentence isn't much comfort when convictions can be overturned and appeals granted. And her case should matter just as much as those of other victims, she said.
"If you believe me, then you fight for me. If you believe me, you advocate for me," she said. "If it's about resources, then what about the resources wasted because you didn't bring it forward?"
'I thought that I didn't matter in the world'
Carter first met R. Kelly during a time when, in her own words, she didn't have much going for her. She's had her first baby as a teenager and didn't have much education. But, she said, she could really do hair.
After a member of Kelly's entourage introduced her to the singer, Carter started doing his hair regularly, and it turned her life around, she said. She hadn't even been a fan of his music -she preferred rap to R&B - but once she started working with him, people treated her differently. Her whole outlook changed.
"It was like my life had started again," Carter said. "Like, wow, like the sun looks brighter."
When Kelly was charged with child pornography in 2002 - a case he was eventually acquitted of - Carter defended him to friends and bystanders who called him guilty and asked her pastors to pray for him.
"I talked to him, and he said everybody (was) lying on him," she said. "And I legit believed him. He was real charismatic … I guess you just never really should put your guard down."
Kelly was out on bond for the child pornography charges in 2003 when, prosecutors alleged, 24-year-old Carter came to braid his hair. He greeted her with his pants down and tried to force oral sex on her, prosecutors said.
"He spit on me, he ejaculated in my face," Carter told the Tribune. "And I left there, and I went to the police. And from then on, it was just a problem after a problem after a problem."
Carter says she cooperated with police the whole way through. She took a lie detector test, testified before a grand jury. She handed over a shirt that prosecutors would allege, years later, had Kelly's DNA on it. But at the time, nobody brought charges.
"I never got the questions answered on why nobody took the case forward," she said.
The lack of answers haunted her. Maybe they didn't take her seriously because her teeth weren't fixed, she thought, or her dress was too tight. Maybe it was because she was Black, she thought, or because he was rich and she was living in subsidized housing.
When it became clear her case wouldn't move forward, she said, people started to encourage her to take whatever money she could, and she listened. Carter reportedly received six-figure settlements from Kelly in the years after her 2003 allegations.
Still, for all those years after the charges were rejected, she said, "I thought that I didn't matter in the world."
'Speak your truth'
That changed in 2019, after Foxx made a public plea for Kelly's accusers to come forward in the wake of the hit documentary "Surviving R. Kelly." (Carter, as well as Foxx, later would make appearances in sequels to the documentary.)
Carter didn't think prosecutors would bring charges in her case. But maybe if she told them her story, she said, it could show a pattern and support other accusers. So she made the call.
A month later, she heard back from the prosecutor's office and let them know about the shirt and the other evidence from her case that emerged back in 2003. They unearthed it from wherever it had been sitting for nearly two decades.
"They just kept saying, 'We're sorry, we're going to make this right,'" Carter said. "I started crying, I started crying so hard."
Since then, she said, she has taken pains not to do anything that would derail the case. She worked multiple jobs so she couldn't be accused at trial of airing accusations to try to get rich, she said. And she prepared herself to take the witness stand.
"It kind of made things go full circle like, man, I'm a nurse now. I'm stronger now," Carter said. "It was like maybe God was planning all this - maybe like this all means something now. And I had put my hopes into that."
Carter said that while she "didn't plan on being disappointed twice," she's since gotten counseling and has tried to focus on forgiveness and self-care. She's still grateful that she came forward, and feels firmly that survivors of sexual violence shouldn't be hesitant to go to authorities.
"Speak your truth. Don't hide it, go to the police right away," she said. "And hopefully justice looks different for them, because (Foxx) says she had resources for them now that she's not going to use on my case."
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