The six-hour documentary series, Surviving R. Kelly, which aired on Lifetime over three days last week, Thursday through Saturday, has caused a nationwide stir, forcing some former and current Oak Park-area residents to relive traumatic experiences.
Raven Gengler played on the same middle school basketball team in Oak Park as the alleged victim in the infamous sex tape at the center of R. Kelly’s 2002 child pornography trial. Gengler recalled taking the stand at the trial as a witness who positively identified the girl in the videotape.
Kelly had adamantly denied that he was the person in the video. The lewd sexual encounter, which showed a man with a striking resemblance to the singer urinating on a girl who appears to be no more than 15, had reportedly been filmed and anonymously released to the public several years before the trial started.
“I just remember being terrified when I was called to the witness stand,” Gengler said in the documentary. “Here’s this person who I was great friends with, who’s a great person, and all this is happening to her now. And I was trying to help the case by giving any specific details that I thought might really, you know, seal the deal and make sure that he was found guilty.”
Photos of Gengler and the alleged victim, apparently taken inside the field house at Oak Park and River Forest High School, show up at points in the documentary.
Jacques Conway — a former Oak Park detective who specialized in crimes related to juveniles, and who once worked at OPRF as a school resource officer and served on the District 200 school board — also positively identified the girl in the video as one of the young women he used to coach on the basketball team.
“I picked her out as soon as I saw the video,” he said in the documentary, reflecting on his time on the witness stand during the famous singer’s trial.
The R&B singer’s former protégé, Sparkle, who said her family is from Oak Park, identified the girl in the video as her niece — a budding entertainer who she had introduced to R. Kelly at the age of 12 or 13.
In the documentary, Sparkle expressed regret having ever set up the meeting between her niece and the singer, and revealed that her efforts to help bring the singer to justice by speaking out about the tape ruined her career and destroyed her relationship with her family.
The former protégé said she suspects her niece’s parents may have been paid off in exchange for silence, since Sparkle was the only person in her family who cooperated during the trial — a major contributing factor that resulted in the jury’s not-guilty verdict.
Nearly two decades later, the verdict in the court of public opinion is still out.