Michael Jackson: Neverland’s Lost Boys

Published in Vanity Fair on March 1, 2004

Michael Jackson refers to white wine as "Jesus juice" and red wine as "Jesus blood." He prefers the juice and usually drinks it out of soda cans so that nobody will know he is consuming alcohol. In and out of rehab over the years for addictions to Demerol and morphine, the King of Pop also habitually gulped down soda cans of wine, particularly when he was on airplanes. On a flight to Frankfurt in 1999, for example, his former business adviser Myung-Ho Lee, who was accompanying him, had to help the staggering Jackson stand up to get off the plane. "He was lying on the floor by the time we landed," says Lee. "I told Security, 'You can't get drunk like that on white wine,' and the security people said that it's not only wine but that he takes pills with it."

The incident may be telling, because in January, Michael Jackson was arraigned on seven counts of child molestation and two counts of administering an "intoxicating agent with intent to commit a felony" between February 7 and March 10 of last year at Neverland, his 2,700-acre ranch near Santa Barbara, which he has converted into a mini Disneyland for kids. The boy in question in the case—a cancer victim who was 13 at the time—alleges that Jackson gave him wine in Coke cans on a flight from Florida in February 2003, right under the nose of the boy's unsuspecting mother. The boy knows Jackson's names for white and red wine, which Lee says "only his inner people know," adding that it "tells you that the boy spent 'quality time' with Michael." The boy and his siblings, however, have said that "all the kids around Michael" knew about Jesus juice, and that he told them, "Jesus drank it, so it must be good."

The trip the boy and his family made to Florida coincided with the airing of the British documentary on ABC last year in which Jackson, now 45, told interviewer Martin Bashir that there was nothing wrong with sharing his bed with little boys. It was a very brazen thing for Jackson to admit, given the fact that in Los Angeles in 1994 he had had to pay $25 million to Jordie Chandler and his family in order to settle a civil suit in which Jordie, then 13, charged that Jackson had masturbated and fellated him during their relationship, which ironically also included a trip to Florida. Similarities in Michael Jackson's modus operandi between the latest bizarre scandal and the one that preceded it abound, right down to the tactics of intimidation and the controversial use of the Nation of Islam for security. In 1993 armed members of tough South-Central L.A. gangs, including the notorious Bloods, were transported to Neverland. The employment of these toughs was said to have sent a strong message to Neverland employees who might have considered cooperating in the Jordie Chandler investigation, not to mention the subliminal message it gave out to other boys and their families who might have been thinking of coming forward.

When 70 members of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department and D.A.'s office, including a team of forensic experts, invaded Neverland last November 18, while Jackson was in Las Vegas, they had already spent five months investigating the child's allegations. Although Jackson was reputedly taken by surprise—cops with search warrants also entered the homes and workplaces of Jackson employees and a private investigator named Bradley Miller—his high-powered and expensive criminal attorney, Mark Geragos, had already been on the case since February, a curiosity in itself, since no criminal charges had been filed.

Over the years Jackson has doled out millions upon millions of dollars to lawyers, doctors, accountants, security people, con men, voodoo chiefs, business advisers, members of his bankrupted dysfunctional family, an ex-wife who allegedly threatened to tell his secrets, former staffers on remittance, and the families of young boys he has made his "special friends" all over the world. There is almost never a time when he is free of crisis, and as a result, say many who know him, it has become more and more difficult for him to trust his advisers or not to feel paranoid about something. "He has a lot of skeletons in his closet," says Lee. "Some are real and some are in his mind, which makes him a prisoner of all those around him." The result is often chaos. Jackson has a $200-million-plus bank loan—guaranteed by his half-interest in the Sony/ATV music catalogue, which owns the publishing rights to 251 Beatles songs and many other pop songs—and it falls due in 2005. These days it is difficult to get a straight read on Jackson's finances, other than the cash-flow situation, which is reportedly dire. "Nobody really knows if there is money or not," says Dieter Wiesner, one of his recent managers. The coveted Sony/ATV catalogue is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. However, as I reported in this magazine last year, Sony has the right of first refusal if Jackson is forced to sell his share, and he cannot sell, according to Lee, before October 2005, the 10th anniversary of the partnership. There are reports that Jackson is meanwhile being bailed out by a number of interested parties, including Al Malnik, the flamboyant Miami lawyer who once represented Meyer Lansky. Malnik reportedly put up much of the money to settle two civil suits against Jackson last year —a figure estimated at close to $10 million.

In times of trouble in the past, most notably during the first molestation case, Jackson has turned to drugs. Kat Pellicano remembers a very high Michael Jackson in her house in August 1993, nodding out and drinking glass after glass of orange soda. Kat is a former wife of Anthony Pellicano, the private investigator who worked back then for Jackson's attorneys Bert Fields and Howard Weitzman. Fields has been questioned in a current F.B.I. investigation involving Pellicano's use of wiretapping for clients. Pellicano, who is now in jail, was then the muscle the Jackson team used to intimidate potential witnesses against the singer and to accuse Jordie Chandler's father of extortion. After the first molestation scandal broke, "Anthony wanted to get Michael out of the country as soon as possible," Kat says. "When Michael came into the house, my three-year-old daughter asked if he were a boy or a girl. I told her a boy—that some boys had long hair. 'But do they wear makeup?'" That day Kat drove her husband and Jackson to the airport, where they boarded a private jet for Asia. A few months later Jackson checked himself into a London detox center.

His stay there was prompted by a frantic phone call a Mexican doctor had made to one of the pop star's business advisers, who recalls, "The doctor said, 'Either the drugs are going to kill him or he's going to die by flying out of a window because he thinks he can fly. You better get someone here he'll listen to. Otherwise there won't be a Michael Jackson.'" Elizabeth Taylor was enlisted. "She immediately said, 'I'll go.' She got him into rehab, and he got himself out right away."

While Jackson was in London undergoing detox, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara authorities negotiated terms for his coming back to have his genitals photographed: if he returned voluntarily, they would not handcuff or arrest him. It turned out that Jordie Chandler had been able to draw very accurately certain distinctive markings on Jackson, which gave the boy's lawyers the ammunition they needed to settle the civil suit at such a high price. (The case was settled the night before Jackson was to be deposed.) Several months later, when the authorities were finally ready to bring charges, the boy and his family declined to prosecute, saying they feared they would be harmed. There are reports that the boy in the current case also has provided drawings of Jackson's private parts to police.

Throughout the 90s, Jackson portrayed himself as a sort of pure, ethereal Peter Pan, but he had serious drug problems. Last year I covered the civil trial in which European concert promoter Marcel Avram was suing Jackson for $21.2 million for canceling two "millennium concerts" scheduled for New Year's 2000. During his first appearance in front of the jury, Jackson practically fell asleep, and when he came back later he grimaced at spectators, made devil's horns with his fingers, and generally behaved as if he were 12. He ended up losing the case and having to pay Avram $5.3 million. Looking back, I remember being struck by one exhibit presented by the plaintiff, a bill Avram said he had paid to two German doctors for nearly $264,000. I later learned that the doctors had not only taken care of an injury Jackson had suffered when he fell onstage in Munich in 1999 but also previously put him through drug detox.

In expense reports submitted in a lawsuit that Myung-Ho Lee brought against Jackson, which was settled last June, there are entries showing $62,645 owed to the Mickey Fine Pharmacy in Beverly Hills.

Lee tells me that in 1999 he employed Dr. Neil Ratner, an anesthesiologist and former rock drummer, to put Michael through detox in Seoul. (Ratner, the government's star witness against prominent Manhattan gynecologist Dr. Niels Lauersen, who was convicted of insurance fraud in 2001, admitted to being stoned himself much of the time he injected his patients in the 80s and to once collapsing in an operating room after mistakenly shooting himself up with a paralytic agent.) "I met with the doctor on a regular basis," says Lee. "We were getting Michael off what he was addicted to, Demerol and morphine. His problem is a sleep disorder. He's up up to 48 hours at a time, and then crashes." When I ask Ratner about his work with Jackson in Seoul, he says, "Patient-doctor relationships are not something I choose to comment about."

In Washington, D.C., in 2001, after Jackson appeared at a benefit concert for 9/11 victims, he left his ubiquitous black bag filled with his prescription drugs behind. It was found by Washington police, who returned it, no questions asked.

Clearly, Michael Jackson is not the defenseless creature and victim of racism he and his family and handlers so assiduously claim him to be in the never-ending stream of interviews they grant—and mostly dominate—on cable-TV and network news shows. And in real life he does not speak in the falsetto he employed most recently in the controversial 60 Minutes interview on CBS in December, when he was asked only very general questions relating to the current case and when he charged that he had been injured by Santa Barbara police during his arrest. People who have spent time with Jackson report that he has a soft but normal "guy's voice," in the phrase of one. Since his charges of police brutality have largely backfired, his side is once again claiming that the family accusing him now is only out for money, and that Santa Barbara County district attorney Tom Sneddon—who, along with L.A. County officials, investigated him in 1993 but did not bring charges—is out for revenge. Those are the twin spins held by Jackson's supporters, whether they coincide with the facts or not.

The 10-year-old boy had been given only a few weeks to live, and Michael Jackson was No. 3 on his wish list of people he wanted to meet. Adam Sandler was first, and then Chris Tucker. But at just the moment in 2000 when he was being asked to come up with names, Jackson's image happened to be on MTV in his hospital room, and he pointed to the screen and told his friend Jamie Masada, owner of L.A.'s Laugh Factory, "I want to meet Michael Jackson too." In order to get the boy, who weighed only 60 pounds, to eat, Masada would say, "You've got to get better if you're going to see Adam Sandler!" The Hispanic boy from East L.A. had been operated on for an eight-pound cancerous tumor on his left kidney; his spleen and the kidney had been removed, but the cancer had spread across his lungs and liver. He had not taken chemotherapy well, and his blood type was the rare O-negative/CMV-negative. He had sores in his mouth and could not keep anything down. "He started to eat cantaloupe and ice cream, but after two spoons he started vomiting blood," Masada recalls. "Would you try again?," Masada begged him. "If you eat, you can meet anyone you want." The boy gradually got better, and after several months Masada, who visited daily, took him in his wheelchair to the Laugh Factory on Sunset Strip, where the comics onstage took special notice of him. Some of them also did benefits for him, and anyone who donated blood got into the club free.

Masada, a charitable Iranian immigrant who arrived in L.A. at 14, sponsors the Laugh Factory's Comedy Camp during the summer. The program helps underprivileged children turn their pain into laughs by having them do stand-up routines under the tutelage of well-known comedians. The boy in question, along with his younger brother and older sister, had participated in the camp.

Masada phoned Neverland, told whoever answered to try to watch a local TV broadcast that night about the blood drive for the boy, and asked if Michael Jackson would call "to cheer him up." Two days later Jackson called. At that time the boy's parents, who had married as teenagers, were in their early 30s and still together, but in a volatile household where money was always short.

One Saturday last December, I visited the gritty East L.A. suburbs where the family had lived. In a yard sale in El Monte, where the boy's maternal grandparents reside, used clothes and toys priced at 50 cents and a dollar were displayed mercado-style on lawns and across bushes. Many people spoke only Spanish and would say little about the family. There were drawn curtains and a NO TRESPASSING sign on the grandparents' door. To the lower-middle-class people with little education who live on these smog-filled streets, Neverland, with all its enticements, must seem like an incredible dream.

Both parents accompanied the boy, along with his sister and brother, to Neverland in August 2000 to meet Jackson. The father also went with the boy to have lunch on the Sony lot with Adam Sandler, who introduced him to Rob Schneider. Chris Tucker, according to Masada, became a kind of mentor to the boy, outfitting him in Nike clothes; the boy, in turn, took Tucker to Neverland to introduce him to Jackson. George Lopez also befriended the boy. These comics are now distancing themselves from the case, and their representatives barely acknowledge, or even deny, their clients' meetings with him.

One day when the boy had begun to improve, he told Masada, "Me and my dad went to Neverland." Not long after, Masada claims, the father stopped by the Laugh Factory to show off a car with a TV in it, which he said was a gift from Jackson. Jackson had also lent the family his pickup truck to go to chemotherapy appointments, but they did not pay many visits to Neverland. After about a year and a half of chemo, Masada says, and all the special attention from the comics and the trips to Neverland, the boy's cancer went into remission.

This child, according to people who know him, is far less sophisticated than Jordie Chandler was at his age, and his relationship with Jackson was not of the same intensity, though the setup when the family stayed at Neverland was very similar. The boys got to sleep with Michael rather than in the guest bedroom up a flight of stairs. The sister had her own room, and the mother was put up in a guesthouse some distance from the main house. Jackson reportedly made it very clear that he did not want the girl or the mother around, allegedly telling the boys, "Girls are tattletales." Gaining access to Jackson's private quarters is not at all the easy pass the Jackson camp has suggested in various interviews, where they have implied that servants and staff can freely observe the goings-on. Myung-Ho Lee, who was at Neverland on many occasions, describes the layout of Jackson's bedroom:

"You enter the main door on the right-hand side, and there is a small hallway of about six feet to another door on the left. As soon as anyone comes through the first door, an alarm goes off, and the camera mounted above the second door shows on the monitor in his bedroom who is approaching." A visitor first enters a large sitting room, a sort of throne room, "of about 500 square feet, where he has a chair where the King sits with other chairs grouped around." Lee says of the bedroom, "Nobody's allowed in there, even guests."

According to a confidential report prepared for the Chandler suit, electric eyes were installed in the ceiling 10 feet from the bedroom door, and the system was always active when Jackson was at the ranch. "The alarm was loud enough to be heard in the bathroom, even with the shower running." The alarm was not installed to deter prowlers or kidnappers. The security outside was sufficient for that: "Infrared beams planted every 20 feet in concrete beams sunk 17 feet into the ground." The bedroom alarm was strictly to alert Jackson to the presence of anyone outside the door.

Inside the bedroom closet was a special cedar closet, built to hold the original owner's furs. Five vertical stainless-steel panels between the two closets would lower when a five-digit secret code was triggered. In case of a security risk, a ranch supervisor would "alert Jackson by intercom and tell him, 'Michael, go to your room.'" This was the signal for Jackson to lock himself in the fur vault. Once things were under control, the supervisor would let him out.

As for other surveillance, Myung-Ho Lee says, "Michael has a very bad habit of videotaping and recording everyone. His entire house is wired so he can hear conversations anywhere." A similar situation is set up when Jackson travels. Security has a monitoring room with cameras trained on the hallway to his hotel suite and on the interior of the suite.

One of the largest bills in the expense reports filed in Lee's case was from a local audiovisual store, for hundreds of thousands of dollars. "One time in New York I got a $150,000 bill for surveillance equipment," says Lee's sister, So-Yung, who was the chief legal officer for Jackson International between 1998 and 2001. She was often frustrated because the store's invoices never specified what the money actually went to purchase, but she thought that was the way Michael wanted it. "Once, Michael bought $70,000 worth of merchandise, and they were very difficult to deal with, because they were very secretive about what it was Michael bought. I heard it was mostly surveillance equipment to watch his own staff."

Myung-Ho Lee, who traveled the world with Jackson, observed his behavior at first hand. "He had a number of guests in his suite for the night—they were always boys in the 10- to 13-year-old range." Lee adds, "I've never seen him share a suite with an older teen boy, a girl, or an older female. I thought it very strange." A family from the Netherlands with two young boys stayed with Jackson in his suite in Sun City, in South Africa, when Lee was along. The parents stayed, just as June Chandler, Jordie's mother, had, in the suite, but in a different bedroom. Lee paid the bills for the family's first-class holiday and gifts. Jackson's own children often stayed in rooms away from the suite, and security and staff usually slept in a different part of the hotel altogether.

For anyone familiar with the Jordie Chandler case, seeing the current boy lovingly lay his head against Jackson's shoulder in the Martin Bashir documentary was a shock. The boy was very much the same type as Jordie, the same age, and he repeated the same words that Jackson had once allegedly told Jordie: "If you love me, you'll sleep on the bed." Jackson even had the same nickname for both Jordie and this boy: Rubba. The boy made it clear on-camera, however, that Jackson had slept on the floor.

The documentary aired in the U.S. on February 6, but it had been broadcast three days earlier in Britain, and it immediately caused a stir because of Jackson's admissions about his habit of sleeping with little boys. Suddenly the grandparents' neighborhood was filled with TV satellite trucks. The mother claims she had not even known that the special was being made. (Granada Television, which produced the special, claimed that it had gotten permission from the maternal grandmother, which the grandmother denies.) If he did well on the show, Jackson allegedly told the boy, he would help him get into show business. The boy praised him on the program. Soon after the taping with the boy was complete, Jackson took off.

Then suddenly, about the time the documentary was shown on ABC's 20/20, Jackson invited the boy to Florida, ostensibly for a news conference, which never took place. The mother says she insisted that she and the boy's two siblings go along, with Chris Tucker on a private jet. According to the family's accounts, Jackson was peeved and made it clear that he thought the mother was expendable. After several days in Miami, where Jackson allegedly gave the boy alcohol, everyone flew back together, and there was reportedly more drinking of Jesus juice out of Coke cans.

The documentary had immediate repercussions for the boy. His mother called Masada in tears. They had been at a gas station where kids recognized the boy from TV and started teasing him for sleeping with Michael Jackson and calling him gay. Masada, who had not yet seen the special, asked her if she had given permission or signed a release for the boy to appear on TV. According to Masada, she said no, adding that Jackson's camp was trying to get her to sign something now. Masada told her to ask Jackson if he had given permission. Then, Masada and several insiders claim, the Jackson camp swung into action on a number of fronts. Principal members of the team minding the family reportedly were gay-porn producer-director Marc Schaffel, who had once produced a song for Jackson, his longtime handler Frank Tyson, known as Cascio, who traveled when he was a child with Jackson, and Vinnie Amen from New Jersey. The bewildered family had little idea what was going on, but they wanted to help Jackson. "The boy was very high on Michael," says a family associate. "They are simple people," Masada tells me.

The mother called Masada again, even more upset. She explained, he says, that someone had called the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services (D.C.F.S.), "and they want to interview her because they think she is an unfit mother, allowing her kids to sleep over at Michael Jackson's, and they are going to take her kids away. 'What shall I do?'" Masada says she went into the February meeting "worried to death" she was going to lose her children. According to several sources, including Masada, representatives of Jackson's drove her and the children to the meeting and tried to sit in on it. When they were told no, a Jackson person handed the mother a tape recorder and told her to tape the meeting, but she did not. At that point, she says, she still knew nothing about alleged molestation or alcohol and denied any wrongdoing on Jackson's part. Apparently, the Jackson person told the agency that the children would be put in private schools and the family provided with a home. (The boy had dropped out of public school after the teasing, and the family was staying at Neverland, allegedly for their own protection.)

Much has been made in the media of this confidential meeting, because in early December a D.C.F.S. memo dictated on November 26, only six days after Jackson's arrest, and stating that allegations of sexual misconduct on Jackson's part with this boy were deemed "unfounded," was leaked to the Web site TheSmokingGun.com. It is highly irregular for such a memo to be written after the fact, and curious that the official to whom it was addressed was revealed by the TV show Celebrity Justice to have offices two doors down from one of Jackson's private investigators in the case.

The family say they were told by Jackson's people that because of the documentary there were death threats against them and they were in danger. In addition, the mother, who says she had no idea at the time about anything untoward, was put on audiotape by Geragos's criminal investigator and on videotape by Jackson's videographer, saying that Jackson was a wonderful man. She says she was told that if she didn't look happy on the tape she would be reported to the D.C.F.S.

Masada finally saw the special when it was rebroadcast on February 17. "I watched it in disbelief. They didn't digitize the boy's face or anything." He again asked the mother how anything could be shown without her permission. She told him she had signed various papers. But the mother alleges she did not know what she was signing. One of the papers with the mother's signature on it purportedly became the bulwark of a complaint by Jackson to the British Broadcasting Standards Commission and the Independent Television Commission. Jackson's people hired British lawyers to help her loudly protest the Bashir documentary (and to attempt to prevent the documentary or any additional footage from being sold on DVD or VHS), thereby paving the way for Jackson to reap millions by selling a two-hour rebuttal program, hosted by Maury Povich, to Fox. (In order to keep her prominently in the complaint, the mother claims, one of Jackson's lawyers later offered her $5,000 if she would pursue it. She says she refused.)

A source close to the case says that Jackson even tried to get the mother to let the husband of one of the female attorneys in Geragos's office take over lingering legal issues with the boy's father—another echo of the Chandler case, where Bert Fields, Jackson's lawyer then, attempted to intervene for Jordie's mother in her custody dispute with his father, even though Fields represented Jackson and knew that the father had made an allegation of possible sexual molestation.

At the same time the family was asked by Jackson's people for their personal papers, including birth certificates, so that passports could be obtained for them, and for five days they were put up and guarded—for their protection, they were told—in a hotel in Ventura County south of Neverland, while their passports and visas were being obtained. The family alleges that someone from Jackson's camp unilaterally went to the boy's school and changed the name of the person to be notified in case of emergency to that of a Jackson insider.

One of Jackson's people allegedly told the family they should move to Brazil or Argentina to be safe. They charge that Jackson's people had them vacate their small apartment in East L.A., and that their clothes and furniture were put in storage by Jackson's people, who, they claim, would not tell them where their belongings were. Mark Geragos later told their representative that the move had been videotaped and that the mother had signed off on it, a claim she denies.

None of Jackson's alleged promises were kept—about paying for school or getting the family a new home. Masada says that to his knowledge Jackson did not pick up the boy's medical bills either, contrary to some media reports. In late February the mother, saying she was upset that her belongings had been taken and that her son was being exploited, complained to Masada, who sneaked her out the back door of the apartment of a friend she was visiting—Jackson's people were waiting at the entrance—to take her to meet attorney William Dickerman. She said she felt like a prisoner but she would not go to the authorities, because her son did not want her to. "She was very scared," says Masada.

The next two times the mother met with Dickerman were at the Laugh Factory, because, Masada claims, Jackson knew she was friends with him and allowed her to visit there. All of the family's activities were monitored. The mother seemed terrified that she was going to be sent to Brazil, and claimed that there was intense pressure on her to move there. Apparently it did not occur to her that she could refuse to go. At one point she called a friend from a pay phone, asking that the police be informed, but nothing came of it. Myung-Ho Lee says that Jackson is very capable of playing rough. "Michael is very vindictive if anybody tries to do anything about him," he claims. "If he has the upper hand, he will destroy you."

Sometime in mid-March, the mother says, she managed to escape from Neverland by claiming she was taking the boy to the doctor for an appointment before they were to leave for Brazil. Once there, she and the children sneaked out a back door and fled to a friend's apartment. After their escape, they charge, they were harassed continually, and on one occasion the mother found a Jackson staffer videotaping the boy's new school. The mother says she was convinced that the phone where she was living was tapped and that she was being followed in her car. She says people banged on their door in the middle of the night, rocks were thrown at the grandparents' home, and a note was slipped under the door telling them to contact the Jackson camp. She asked Dickerman to help her get her belongings back.

Dickerman then sent the first of 10 letters to Geragos demanding that the family's personal papers, their belongings, and all video- and audiotapes Jackson's people had made of them be turned over to them. He also asked that all direct threats, surveillance and photography of the children's school, banging on the mother's door, leaving her disturbing notes, and audiotaping and filming the family be stopped. Since no criminal allegations had yet been made, it seems extremely odd that a criminal attorney as famous as Geragos would get involved in a dispute over some garbage bags full of clothes. (Geragos did not respond to repeated phone calls.)

Geragos asked for a few days to look into the matter. According to a source, most of the harassment eventually stopped. Dickerman had made it known that he would be away on April 24, and that day a truckful of the family's belongings was unceremoniously dumped in the lobby of the building in West L.A. housing his law office. Furious, Dickerman instructed building personnel not to accept the delivery, and it took four more letters from him to Geragos before the family finally found out where their things were stored, in late June. There was never any acknowledgment by Geragos in reference to the missing personal papers, school documents, passports, and tapes, or to the subject of harassment. On the contrary, he called Dickerman "histrionic." In another eerie echo of the Chandler case, the boy said that his underwear and tap shoes and a few other personal items were missing. According to Michael Jackson Was My Lover, a book about Jordie Chandler by Chilean reporter Victor Gutierrez, Jackson had a drawer where he would keep the underwear of boys who stayed overnight.

Once the mother told Dickerman the boy's story, he asked her if she wanted to sue Jackson civilly, but she would not. She was concerned mainly with retrieving her belongings. However, by then it was known that Jackson had allegedly given wine and perhaps vodka and antihistamine pills to the boy, and had allegedly shown both brothers pornography with naked girls in it. He had also allegedly given the sister sleeping pills. Dickerman suggested that they all go to see Larry Feldman, the lawyer who had won a $25 million settlement for Jordie Chandler and had interviewed several prior "special friends" of Jackson's.

Feldman recognized instantly that this relationship was not the same intense love affair that had allegedly gone on between Jackson and Jordie Chandler. Jordie had been very self-confident. This boy, once so bubbly, had become shy and withdrawn and spoke barely above a whisper. Feldman heard the family's story in the same conference room where he had first listened to Jordie Chandler and his father, Evan. He felt perhaps more had gone on between Jackson and the boy than he was being told, so he decided to send the boy to a top child psychologist who was known to be conservative about declaring whether or not abuse had taken place. According to Feldman, there was no "shrink shopping," as has been reported. After several sessions, the psychologist concluded that accusations of sexual molestation were credible. Moreover, the boy's brother claims to have been a witness to some of it. He had sometimes even been in bed with Jackson and his brother. Feldman realized that there were many reminders here of the Chandler case, from the allegations that Jackson had asked whether the boy wanted to learn how to masturbate—"It's really fun"—to his apparently saying that it was "natural" and that just because "some people say it's bad, it's not."

Jamie Masada says the mother never wanted money. "When I took her to Bill Dickerman's office, he asked her, 'What do you want out of this?' She told me, 'I don't want to make any money. I want to make sure this doesn't happen to other kids.'"

California law states that once an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor has been disclosed by the minor, the professional hearing the allegation must report it to the authorities. In late May, Feldman took the psychologist and another lawyer from his office to the D.C.F.S., where the family had gone in February. In the Chandler case, Jordie's report alleging that Jackson had fellated and masturbated him had been sold by someone to a tabloid news service. Feldman was therefore wary. Two caseworkers listened to them and then asked if the boy was in any current danger. According to Feldman, when they told them no, to Feldman's and the psychologist's utter astonishment the caseworkers declined to receive the psychologist's allegations. They appeared not to want to report or deal with this problem again. There has been speculation since that the memo leaked by the D.C.F.S. last December was a bureaucratic attempt by the department to cover its backside, and Feldman has called for an investigation into who leaked the memo and why his visit with the new allegations of abuse was not referred to. (The D.C.F.S. has declined to comment.)

Feldman called the Santa Barbara County district attorney, Tom Sneddon, who had spent months on the Chandler case. He, too, was very familiar with allegations of how Jackson had operated in the past but had never charged him. The Chandlers have said that they got tired of waiting for the authorities to act, and that they felt so threatened by the high-handed tactics of Jackson's people that they asked for protection, which could not be guaranteed. Jordie Chandler declined to testify against Jackson. But Sneddon had been present when Jackson went into meltdown while his genitals were being photographed in 1993—which would provide the crucial evidence needed for the civil case. Jackson slapped his doctor and cursed the detectives. Sneddon saw the photos and has a full case history in his files. He asked Feldman to give his solemn word that he would not sue Jackson civilly while the new case was being investigated and tried. Feldman gave his word.

On November 18, a forensic van, a paddy wagon, and a dozen other law-enforcement vehicles rolled into Neverland.

Jackson's team has made it known that the boy's family has sued for money in the past. One day in 1998, when the boy was eight, he walked out of the J. C. Penney in West Covina, California, and into the parking lot with clothes from the store that had not been paid for. His father was walking behind him. Three security guards pursued them and later said that they had ordered them to stop, but the father kept on walking. Soon the mother, who was with her other son in another part of the parking lot, arrived and got in the middle of the fracas. A Tower Records security guard also became involved. The mother's top got pulled down in the struggle, according to a source, and when the police handcuffed her, her breasts were exposed. The eight-year-old suffered a sprained, possibly fractured arm, and his brother got a bruise on the forehead. The family sued for multiple claims of physical, emotional, and mental injury and settled in late 2001 for $152,500. By then the boy was almost 12 and had been diagnosed with cancer; a month later the mother filed for divorce. The father was ordered not to approach or contact his family for four years, after pleading no contest to one count of physical abuse of the mother in December 2001 and to one count of child endangerment the following June. He was fined, put on probation, and required to take domestic-violence counseling and parenting classes and do community service. Against this soap-opera backdrop, the three children were interviewed by the D.C.F.S., met celebrities through Jamie Masada, and were eventually taken up by Michael Jackson.

Whenever Jackson is in jeopardy, his team of defenders rolls into action like a tank, and its current mission is to destroy the credibility of this family by means of cable and tabloid TV and the mainstream media. In December, in a widely quoted story, The New York Times, referring to the delay in the filing of charges against Jackson, said it had "prompted some in the Jackson camp to say Mr. Sneddon is playing a weak hand based on a single child's shaky testimony. One of Mr. Jackson's lawyers suggested this week that Mr. Sneddon might be forced to drop the prosecution before a trial." In January a highly suspect blind item appeared in Cindy Adams's gossip column in the New York Post under the headline CASE AGAINST JACKO IS SAID TO BE FLIMSY. Adams reported that the mother had shopped her case and two lawyers had turned it down, adding that "even attorneys who had opposed Michael in the first case didn't want in on this one" because the evidence was so thin that "Michael Jackson cannot be found guilty." The fact is that an army of forensic experts took part in the Neverland raid, combing Jackson's bedroom for pubic hairs, semen stains, and other possibly incriminating items, and they are reportedly satisfied that they have plenty to work with. The sealed affidavit in the case is more than 80 pages long. But Tom Sneddon is clearly not good at war waged in the media, and he appears not to be interested in learning. As for the mother, who is unavailable for comment, she is said to be leaving everything to God.

By contrast, Jackson's camp comes up with one photo op after another, starting with the much-publicized turnout of 600 supporters at Neverland on December 20 and including the Michael Jackson Number Ones CBS special, which The New York Times called "an hour of worshipful encomiums [that] sounded like a presentation for a sentencing judge," and a meeting at the Beverly Hills Hotel of more than a dozen of Jackson's closest advisers—quite a crew, some of whom have been fired and rehired more than once. When I think that Jackson is now guarded by the Nation of Islam—brought in by his nanny and his brother Jermaine—I am reminded of the former Jackson employee who told me last year that Michael had so little regard for black people that he called them "spabooks." I also remember how Jermaine, who emotes every chance he gets about Jackson-family unity, let drop in a TV interview last year that his two-year-old son, Jermajesty, had never met his Uncle Michael.

The accuser's family is poor, and the parents have a violent history that includes mutual accusations of abuse. Apart from the shoplifting incident, their legal dossier contains cases of small claims filed by retailers and a car company. The mother admits to having seen a psychiatrist even before she went through the agony of almost losing her son to cancer. Such needy, underprivileged families are convenient for a superstar prone to relationships with young boys. They are so flattered to be close to the flame of celebrity that they don't realize how easily they can be seared.

As Jermaine and other Jackson supporters play the race card with invectives aimed at the authorities and white people in general and with gushing assurances of Michael Jackson's purity and innocence, they never fail to mention that the mother's motive is unquestionably greed and manipulation. Jackson's criminal-defense investigators—including a former member of the L.A.P.D. who once claimed a mental disability—are also intent on digging up every speck of dirt about the family that they can find.

One of Jackson's closest business advisers, who had met the family at Neverland, told me he was "100 percent convinced they were out for money." I asked him how he could tell. "How they react," he answered. "They want to go shopping." Did he have any more specific reasons? He couldn't think of any. I mentioned that I had heard the family was allegedly videotaped, surveilled, held against their will at Neverland, and told they were being taken to Brazil. "I had nothing to do with this," he replied. "They did something, but it was not made by me."

H. Russell Halpern, a former attorney for the father who admits that "it doesn't hurt me as a private defense attorney to get exposure," is the mother's strongest detractor. Halpern, who was once briefly suspended from the State Bar of California, maintains that the father did not strike the mother. He says that the couple had a screaming match, and that she then injured herself by flinging herself on the hood of the father's car and reaching inside to grab the keys in order to prevent him from taking off before the police arrived. Halpern adds, "A neighbor told police she couldn't understand why they arrested him, not her. It's because she yelled 'battery' first."

Jamie Masada, however, tells me he saw the bruises on her neck and arm; leaked reports of the incident from the State of California Health and Welfare Agency also cite bruises on the mother's face and arm. According to one report, "The children appear to be very well cared for, clean and polite." According to another, from the D.C.F.S., the children said that their father had "threatened that he would kill the kids and the mom" if they told on him, using bad-guy friends of his brother, their uncle, another former Halpern client. Eric Moses, director of communications for the Office of the City Attorney in Los Angeles, says, "Obviously we wouldn't file charges unless we believed her claims were credible."

Halpern has charged that the mother coached her daughter to say the father had made death threats against them—while under a restraining order not to go near them—which could have led to the father's spending a year in jail. Halpern claims that the girl, away from her parents, later recanted her statements in the judge's chambers, and the father pleaded no contest to one count of child endangerment. He says, "Ethically, probably [the City Attorney's office] should just dismiss the case, but they want to have something on their score sheet." Moses says, "We can't go into what she said in chambers." According to one source, the girl was taken to chambers because she had become upset and intimidated in the courtroom, sitting in front of her father. "In our view," says Moses, "after her testimony before the judge there was a strong likelihood the judge would have remanded the defendant to jail while awaiting trial." He did not go to jail, adds Moses, because he was willing to plead.

When I asked Halpern—whose attorney daughter, Stacie, assisted him on the case and affirmed his views—how he supports these serious charges, he replied, "I'm not here to defend my credibility or not. What I am telling you is what I can recall and can admit to you right now." He stated, "From what I recall, everything I told you in my mind is true. Whether facts are accurate or not, I could be off, but I'm not consciously lying about anything." ...

Each time I report on a new, startling incident in the saga of Michael Jackson—dangling his baby from a balcony in Germany in November 2002, forcing his two older children (who appear to be Caucasian) to wear veils or masks in public, appearing on 60 Minutes to deny having had sexual relations with a 13-year-old cancer patient—I find myself revisiting characters from the past. For example, Debbie Rowe, one of Jackson's two ex-wives, who carried his first two children, got a lot of media attention in the wake of the baby-dangling incident for praising the husband with whom she never lived: "He is a really wonderful, loving, caring man, and he's not portrayed as he really is, and it really pisses me off." Asked if she would have more children with Michael, she replied, "In a heartbeat." That made Myung-Ho and So-Yung Lee laugh. "She really put the fear of God in Michael," says Myung-Ho, who claims Jackson confided in him. "She is the woman who screamed and yelled and threatened to tell the world about Michael's dark secrets unless she got $8 to $10 million." He explains that, "out of the blue" in the summer of 1999, Rowe asked for a divorce and a huge sum of money or else. "Michael said, 'Give her whatever she wants—get it done.'" Lee says that Rowe was a surrogate, not the biological, mother. Her contact with Prince Michael I and Paris was limited to eight times a year, and she purportedly saw them even less frequently. In a May 2000 memo from a lawyer handling the divorce case, after Rowe has asked for more visitations, including Mother's Day and alternate Christmas Eves, the lawyer is prompted to state, "The request for Mother's Day is a concern because Debbie now appears to be viewing herself as a mother. This is different from the image and position that she accepted in the past." Myung-Ho Lee says, "It was so funny watching her in interviews on TV, saying, 'I'll have another baby.' I'm thinking, Yeah, that's another $10 million for you. 'In a heartbeat'!" (Rowe's lawyer declined to comment.)

Those of us who investigated the Jordie Chandler case also remember Norma Staikos, "the duenna of Neverland," a stern caretaker who kept track of all the little boys' visits. She disappeared the night before she was supposed to be questioned by the police, in 1993. Lee, however, got yet another of the many surprises he experienced handling Jackson's business affairs when one day a request came in from Greece, where Staikos was living, for $75,000. Lee wanted to know what it was for and was told, "You don't understand, Lawyer Lee. Norma gets whatever she wants." According to So-Yung Lee, amounts of about $50,000 would be periodically sent to Greece for Staikos. I also learned that Bill Bray, the head of security at Neverland back in 1993, has been receiving $165,000 a year, and Jackson pays the gift tax.

The person who probably knows more than anyone else about Jackson, according to Myung-Ho Lee, is his former chief of security and business adviser Wayne Nagin, who was at his side for 22 years and then let go without severance two years ago. "Wayne is not afraid to be called in to testify," says Lee. "He's expecting it. He's the guy who knows everything. He's one of the very few who said no to Michael."

Reports on boys who spent weekend after weekend with Michael Jackson in his bedroom while one or both of their parents—many of them estranged—stayed in separate guesthouses, some well supplied with wine, continue to accrue. Jimmy Safechuck, for example, from Simi Valley, was described by one former Neverland manager as Michael's constant companion for two years. According to a report prepared for the Chandler case, for several years Safechuck's parents received a new Mercedes annually from the King of Pop. (Mrs. Safechuck declined to comment.) Wade Robson, now a hot dancer-choreographer whom the New York Post's "Page Six" cited as being the cause of the breakup of Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake, has admitted to sleeping in the same bed with Jackson but has denied that anything sexual occurred. According to a former employee, in 1991, when Robson was nine, Jackson kept him overnight on the first night of one of his first visits to the United States. The boy's Australian parents were estranged. A former Jackson employee says the mother received a permanent-resident visa to stay in the United States.

Kat Pellicano told me she had found a big garbage bag full of documents under the bed in the guest bedroom of her home. She said her former husband had forgotten his Jackson files from the Chandler case when he moved out. Kat showed me piles of papers relating to the case and gave me copies of documents that came from the office of Barry K. Rothman, Evan Chandler's first attorney. Rothman unsuccessfully sued Jackson for slander and defamation after he had been accused of extortion when Pellicano was negotiating with him. Kat provided me with records of media calls Rothman received when the case broke wide open in late summer 1993. She even had a handwritten letter Evan Chandler had given to Rothman saying that if negotiations failed he should go to the authorities. Lately, Geraldine Hughes, Rothman's legal secretary at the time, has been making the rounds on TV, saying that Chandler was trying to frame Jackson. According to Roger Friedman's online column, "Fox 411," Hughes told Friedman she and her mother had visited Anthony Pellicano. In 1993, according to sources, Gary Hearne, Jackson's chauffeur, testified he had delivered a black briefcase and a suitcase belonging to Jackson to Kat Pellicano. On Anthony's orders, she says, she accepted them, but she cannot remember what they contained. In a deposition for the case, Pellicano denied under oath having the briefcase and suitcase in his possession, and Kat Pellicano was also asked to testify about them to a Santa Barbara grand jury. She told me that her husband had cut a deal so that, instead of her having to appear in person, she could testify on speakerphone from his lawyer's office. She said she had taken her cues from the lawyer, who would nod yes or no for her to answer. She said it was a farce.

Last year, after a long, frustrating search, I managed to track down Jordie Chandler. I sent him a letter and left phone messages asking if he would talk to me about his life since 1994, when he collected $25 million from Michael Jackson. He never responded. Jackson's lawyers always claimed that Jordie's father, Evan, was an extortionist, and it has been widely reported that the greedy Chandlers took the money and ran. Ray Chandler, Evan's brother, who spoke with me extensively, says Evan put $20 million in trust for his son; the rest got distributed among his former wife, June, the lawyers, and himself. Chandler always wanted to get money from Jackson, but initially he hoped to keep the case from going public. Ray says there was about a two-month period between his brother's suspecting the relationship between Jackson and Jordie and the case's being leaked to the media. During that time Evan argued with Jordie's mother, who was being advised by Bert Fields in her custody dispute with Evan and resisting Evan's attempts to see Jordie. Ray Chandler says that his brother wanted to avoid the chaos he knew would ensue. "He predicted a nightmare, but it was far worse than anything he could have imagined."

Since 1993, Ray Chandler has gone to law school and familiarized himself with every aspect of the case. He is convinced that the way Fields and Pellicano handled Jordie's charges "ruined" Jackson's career. "For Fields and Pellicano to think they could keep the lid on this—I'm not talking about before the case went public but after it came out—for them to think what was best for Michael Jackson was not to settle but to whip up the media and claim extortion, was an absurdity. It floored Larry Feldman." To make matters worse, says Chandler, "Fields then files a complaint and goes into court and asks for a six-year postponement [on the civil case] until the statute of limitations runs out on criminal charges, and says if Michael doesn't get it Michael will have to take the Fifth!"

Ray Chandler was at his brother's side from the beginning, a few hours after Evan says he got attacked by an unknown cameraman in the lobby of the building where his dentist's office was. Ray tells me he chased down a disturbed female fan of Jackson's who had flown over from England to make death threats to the family, and who even cleared the front door of Jordie's house. "Michael was everything to her," says Ray Chandler, who called the police, after which the woman was deported. Once, Jordie and the housekeeper were nearly run down by a car, which then also came at them in reverse. There were other terrorizing tactics, which the family suspected, but could not prove, Anthony Pellicano was behind. (At the time, Pellicano's lawyer would not respond.)

Recently, Jackson's sister LaToya, appearing on Cristina, the Spanish-language TV show, said that Michael had had an album to finish and he settled the case and paid the millions so that he could record in peace. The truth, however, is a little more nuanced.

After negotiations broke down, Jordie was sent to a psychiatrist, who pronounced his story of sexual molestation credible and submitted a mandatory report of it to the D.C.F.S. The report was immediately leaked for money to the tabloids, and the media had a field day. According to the family, however, they were willing to testify at the time they settled the civil case, in January 1994, but the prosecutors were not prepared to charge Jackson until May, and by then the family was too scared to proceed. (In December a spokesperson for the L.A. County District Attorney's Office said the authorities had not found the family's allegations of intimidation "credible," but earlier last year one of the prosecutors on the case told me that police had investigated the family's concerns and concluded that "they were true.") By then the authorities had found a book with nude pictures of young boys in Jackson's bedroom at the Jackson-family home and had located two other boys who could perhaps have been persuaded to testify, but because they didn't charge Jackson, they weren't able to subpoena witnesses (except through a grand jury), which seriously hampered investigators. Last April, I reported in this magazine that prosecutors were spooked by Jackson's celebrity back then and did not believe they could go up against him with Jordie alone.

In the end the Chandlers demanded witness protection before they would testify, and it could not be worked out. "Had the D.A. acted quicker, before they got so scared, they would have had them without witness protection," Ray Chandler tells me. A source close to the prosecution disagrees: "I think we got played by Feldman and the Chandlers. Jordie was always on the fence." Feldman responds, "Where were they for a year? I found them the maid [Blanca Francia, Jackson's personal maid] and brought them her testimony, and her son was allegedly molested."

Jordie Chandler has graduated from college, and today he manages his own money but does not work. He is haunted by his early experience. "Despite the fact he's got a lot of money," Ray Chandler says, "he'll always be 'the Michael Jackson kid.' It's a heavy weight to tote around." He says Jordie has had to start his life over at least three times. "Whenever he starts with a new social group, someone figures it out, and he can't stay in the group, because people continue to talk about it: How much money did you get? Did he do it?" Even in Germany, he was accosted by a stranger on the street, yelling, "You're Jordie Chandler!" Once, he received an e-mail through a brand-new account: "We know who you are."

Jordie, who underwent extensive therapy at the time the relationship was discovered, has not spoken to his mother since the ordeal. He blames her for putting him in harm's way. Evan Chandler has become a total recluse, estranged from his family, except for Jordie. "It's been psychologically devastating for him," Ray Chandler says. "In the last half of '93, he felt himself to be the most vilified man in the world." He adds, "Michael did break up this family. Michael doesn't seem to get close to children from solid, two-parent homes."

Ironically, Jordie Chandler is the tantalizing specter hovering over the current case. In order to establish a defendant's character, California law makes admissible prior allegations demonstrating the defendant's propensity to commit molestation. Therefore, Sneddon can subpoena Jordie Chandler to testify against Jackson today. If he refuses, he can be found in contempt of court but not jailed. In 1993, Jordie was interviewed eight or nine times by authorities, who probed him for inconsistencies to see if he would make a credible witness. He reportedly never wavered in his story. A judge must decide whether Jordie, any other alleged victims, or anyone who gave a deposition about witnessing "prior bad acts" can be called to the stand. All of these witnesses could be cross-examined as to their motives in making their original charges. Subpoenaing any or all of them, therefore, may be a tough call for Sneddon to make. According to Ray Chandler, "If Jordie were to testify today, he'd be a real hero for life. He should come out, because this boy is sick, he's brave, and he needs help. If Michael's acquitted, people will look back at '93 and say that was a hoax, too. Then Jordie and Evan will be in a much worse position than now." Feldman says Sneddon has already contacted Jordie Chandler about testifying.

From their nicknames for each other—Doo-doo Head, Apple Head, and Rubba—Jackson and Jordie Chandler appear to have had an extremely intimate relationship back when Jackson was 35 and Jordie was 13. Victor Gutierrez spells it all out in practically pornographic detail in his book, which Jackson's camp managed to suppress in the United States. "If Jordie thinks it's going to end with this one, he has to see nothing ends with this one," Ray Chandler says. "Jordie's testimony would be the nail in Michael Jackson's coffin."

Jackson's celebrity and his powers of seduction are not to be easily discounted. Myung-Ho Lee says he has seen Jackson meet presidents of countries, C.E.O.'s, and billionaires, "very worldly people, and he never fails to impress. People are in awe of Michael Jackson because he's Michael Jackson. If they are so impressed, you don't think Michael can't charm a 13-year-old?" A prosecution insider from the Chandler case adds, "So many [of the] boys enjoyed their relationships. They didn't feel like victims. They were showered with gifts. They got very, very special treatment. At that age a kid's sense of his own sexuality is just starting to develop. To our knowledge it was never a forcible situation—it was more an exploration. For a guy like Michael Jackson to say, 'I love you'—you're catching kids at a very vulnerable age, and they can't even fully process what's going on. As they get older, it hits."

After all the demonstrations of support for Jackson and all the brouhaha on cable TV are over, this case will come down to whether or not a jury believes the current boy and his family are telling the truth, and how the jury assesses their motives. Larry Feldman, described by Mark Geragos as "the money lawyer" the family sought out, says he is convinced that money is not the motive. If it were, he believes, the family would now be taking a different course of action. "Either this family set me up and slowly hooked me in or it's the truth," he tells me. Over the years, Feldman says, he has gotten numerous calls alleging abuse on the part of Jackson, but since 1994 he is more cynical than gullible, so he has turned all the others down. "Do you think the mother wakes up one day and says, 'We're going to take Michael Jackson to the cleaners?' How bad could a mother be to do this to her child who is [in danger of] dying of cancer? And she is doing it through the D.A. and not through me. Because if this child dies of cancer before Jackson is in a civil suit before a judge, there is no recovery whatsoever. If he dies, she could not even bring a suit, even if Michael Jackson is convicted." Feldman concludes that his answer on the money motive is "100 percent no."

William Dickerman agrees. "I believe the things the mother told me. It was critically examined many times in many different ways by qualified professionals. It was consistent. It's too rich a fabric of facts, allegations, and circumstances. You can't possibly be consistent and be lying."

The trial may not get under way for a year. In the meantime, as Jackson's flouting of the rules at his arraignment on January 16 and the party at Neverland that followed so clearly illustrated, the media circus has only just begun.

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