Vanity Fair – July, 2005
Michael Jackson has finally wound up in a courtroom facing charges of pedophilia, a disaster people had warned him for years was coming. In 1993, police in California investigated claims that he had molested a 13-year-old boy, whose silence Jackson bought for $25 million. Another boy, the son of one of his former maids, has now testified that Jackson started groping him when he was seven. The boy’s mother received $2.4 million for their silence. As if those had not been sufficient warning signs, Jackson in February 2003 told interviewer Martin Bashir in a TV documentary that there was nothing wrong with sleeping with young boys. “The most loving thing to do is share your bed with someone, you know?” This time, however, a second 13-year-old boy, a former cancer patient who appeared in that documentary holding hands and cuddling with Jackson, did not remain silent. His charges that Jackson gave him alcohol, showed him pornography, and masturbated him have resulted in the sensational criminal trial that began February 28 in Santa Maria, California, a half-hour drive and many galaxies away from Jackson’s 2,700-acre Neverland Valley Ranch.
The documentary was meant to herald a comeback that Jackson’s new business team hoped would revive his fading career. But it backfired, serving instead only to remind the world—just months after Jackson had dangled his baby son over a balcony in Berlin—that the father of three, who was 44 years old, still wanted to sleep with little boys.
I have been chronicling Jackson’s downward spiral for 12 years and have sat in the courtroom for most of the trial. Even though the case is constantly in the press—even re-enacted daily on E! Entertainment Television—there are sinister parts of it that were designed to influence the jury without their knowledge. A host of sleazy characters have surrounded the tarnished icon, and his world is full of dark undercurrents. We saw 135 witnesses—from stand-up comics to a maid who had to scrub the feces of Bubbles, the pet chimpanzee, off Jackson’s bedroom walls. A forensic accountant detailed the ruinous state of Jackson’s finances—the prosecution said he is more than $300 million in debt—and some 600 exhibits were entered into evidence, including Jackson’s collection of fetish “Barbies,” bare-breasted plastic dolls dressed in S&M gear. Almost every day brought a new, incredible twist.
Take General Maximo Overkill, for instance. That’s his soldier of fortune’s nom de guerre. His real name is Gordon Novel, and he moves in those spooky circles which he calls “high strange,” where conspiracies flourish and cloak-and-dagger investigations overlap. He cut his teeth working for former New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison on the J.F.K. assassination, and he boasts that he served as former attorney general Ramsey Clark’s “Doberman” at Waco. Several weeks before the trial began, I was put in touch with him through Steven Saltzman—the son of a James Bond–film producer—in Monaco, who told me that Michael Jackson’s brother Jermaine had been seeking Novel’s advice on how to stop the trial. According to Novel, the Jacksons believed that it was all a grand conspiracy, that the accuser’s mother was being paid by Jackson’s enemies, who wanted to take control of his major economic asset, the Sony/ATV Music catalogue, which holds publishing rights to 251 Beatles songs and works by scores of other pop artists. Jackson claimed that the main conspirators were Sony Records; its former president, Tommy Mottola; and Santa Barbara County district attorney Tom Sneddon, the prosecutor, who also investigated Jackson in 1993. The catalogue is held jointly by Jackson and Sony, and Jackson’s share is mortgaged for more than $200 million. If Jackson defaults, Sony has first chance to buy his half as early as this coming December. (A Sony spokesperson said, “We are not going to comment on any aspect of this.”)
Jackson explained to Novel that the conspirators had introduced him to Al Malnik, a wealthy Miami attorney who had once represented Meyer Lansky. Malnik later helped Jackson refinance his loans. That was not what Jackson told Novel, however. According to Novel, Jackson said he was lured to Malnik’s house in Miami Beach by film director Brett Ratner to see a house so beautiful it would make him catatonic. He said that once he was there, however, Malnik, who Jackson claimed had Mafia ties, wanted to put his fingers in the singer’s business. Jackson also said he received a call from Tommy Mottola while he was there, which aroused his suspicion, but he did not tell Novel that he later put Malnik on the board of the Sony/ATV Music partnership. (Reached by telephone, Malnik scoffed at the idea of a conspiracy or of his having any Mafia ties. He said, “It does not make any sense.” Ratner confirmed that he took Jackson to Malnik’s house and that he considers Malnik a father figure.)
Jackson and Mottola have been at odds for years. In New York in July 2002, Jackson staged a public protest against Mottola with the Reverend Al Sharpton, calling him a racist and “very, very devilish.” He called for a boycott of Sony, which is believed to have contributed to Mottola’s ouster from the company six months later. Jackson is reportedly so frightened of Mottola that one of the reasons he surrounded himself with Nation of Islam guards in 2003 was that he thought Mottola could put out a hit on him. (Mottola could not be reached for comment.)
Jackson wanted Novel to find the links among these characters. Novel told me in March that “he believes he’ll get convicted. He believes the judge, the D.A., and the Sony guys are a conspiracy to take over his money.”
On March 17, nearly a month into the trial, Novel went to Neverland to strategize. Maximo’s first thought was that Michael was in need of “an extreme makeover” of what he calls “imaggio.” Jackson drove him around the ranch in an old pickup truck. “He acted like he was scared silly,” Novel told me. His fear was “six foot thick. He kept asking me what prison was like. Can he watch TV and movies there? He wanted me to stop the show.” When I asked Novel what that meant, he related that Michael said, “‘I want this trial stopped.’ He said the judge and Sneddon had rigged the game.”
The general was blunt with Jackson. “I told him, ‘Get rid of the weird persona. You look like the weird pedophile. I’m talking about the hair, lipstick, eyebrows. Just be yourself, and say why you’re doing it. Say that’s your show-biz personality. It’s just what you do to sell LPs.’ He said, ‘No. I just want to be me.'” The general also told him to find a female lover. “He didn’t want to go with girls, do the romance thing either. He didn’t want to come to Jesus; he thinks he’s already religious. I said, ‘Why didn’t you stop fooling around with kids?’ He said, ‘I didn’t want to.'”
Novel told Jackson that he could walk away free if he would just submit to a lie-detector test, undergo hypnosis, and take truth serum, which Novel would administer in “a controlled environment.” While he was under the influence on video, Novel said, Jermaine could ask him questions, and they could distribute the video worldwide, proving his innocence. Jackson refused to take truth serum, Novel said, claiming it was against his religion.
Novel told me that he was ready to go public with this information and sell it to the highest bidder, because Jackson had stiffed him on his $5,000 consultant’s fee. I told him that Vanity Fair does not pay for information, but he nevertheless related in detail a conference call he had had with Michael, Jermaine, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson. Many of the things he said they had discussed were echoed in an interview Michael gave Jesse Jackson on Keep Hope Alive with Reverend Jesse Jackson the following Easter Sunday.
Michael said on the phone that what was happening to him was the result of racism. He told Jesse Jackson in the radio interview, “I’m totally innocent, and it’s just very painful. This has been kind of a pattern among black luminaries in this country.” He told him he got strength from the examples of Nelson Mandela, Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ali, and Jesse Owens. Novel told me he had said to Michael, “You can either be a victim or a warrior.” In his interview, Michael told Jesse Jackson, “I’m a warrior.”
On the phone, Novel told me, Michael and Jesse had decided that telling the press they spoke with each other frequently was a good way to give a positive spin to Michael’s predicament. Sure enough, Raymone Bain, Jackson’s attractive spokeswoman, promptly told reporters that Michael woke up before dawn every day and spoke with Jesse for 15 or 20 minutes. She said, “They talk together and pray together.” In the interview Michael said, “I gained strength from God. I believe in Jehovah God very much.”
Novel told me they had discussed the conspiracy at length on the phone. In the interview, Jesse Jackson asked Michael point-blank about the catalogue and what was in it. Michael said that “it’s a huge catalogue. It’s very valuable, it’s worth a lot of money, and there is a big fight going on right now as we speak about that.” He added, “I can’t comment on it. There’s a lot of conspiracy. I’ll say that much.”
What irked Novel was not that Michael Jackson had used his advice so freely, but that he had done so on Easter Sunday.
The trial has provided a bird’s-eye view of how celebrity and wealth enable Jackson to live according to his every freakish whim. The unspoken excuse that justifies everything from mothers’ allowing their boys to sleep in his bed to employees’ ignoring alleged felonies at Neverland is always the same: Because he’s Michael Jackson! The defendant started out treating the trial as he had so many court appearances in the past—determined to set the agenda. In mid-February, jury selection was interrupted for a week when he went to the emergency room of the local hospital with the flu. Few who have tracked him over the years believed that he could sustain a lengthy trial. Indeed, a friend of Thomas Mesereau, Jackson’s lead attorney, told me that the defense’s greatest problem would be controlling their client. With Jackson facing 10 felony charges, including conspiracy, giving alcohol to minors with intent to molest, and molestation, the source observed, the defense would be forced to play this as “an all-or-nothing case,” adding, “If he could plead guilty to one year right now, the defense would take it.”
As the prosecution paraded witness after witness who had to admit to having sold their stories to tabloids or lied under oath in other cases, however, the defense grew far more confident.
Now 15 and in remission from cancer, Jackson’s accuser seemed more self-assured than his older sister and younger brother had during their testimony. But on his second day in court, which everyone assumed would be the biggest day of the trial for the prosecution, Jackson failed to show up. Judge Rodney Melville, a mild-mannered man but a stickler for rules, said, “The defendant’s not here?” Mesereau replied, “No, Your Honor, Mr. Jackson is at Cottage Hospital in Santa Ynez with a serious back problem.… He does plan to come.” The judge snapped, “I’m going to issue a warrant for his arrest. I’m forfeiting his bail.… I’m going to hold that order for an hour.” Then he swept out as jaws dropped all over the courtroom.
Outside, I was near enough to Mesereau to overhear him repeat agitatedly on his cell phone, “Michael, you’ve got to get here now!” This was the kind of drama the media encampment—hot from the Laci Peterson trial and set up in white tents and satellite trucks all around the courthouse—had been praying for. When Jackson’s black S.U.V., with a police escort, pulled up eight minutes past the deadline, his small crowd of fans yelled, “We love you, Michael!” It was clear that Jackson had not planned to leave the hospital, because he emerged wearing bright-blue pajama bottoms. His hair was disheveled, and he appeared to be heavily sedated. The blue pajama bottoms stole almost every major headline away from the prosecution.
The accuser’s testimony was more shocking than anyone could have imagined. I was struck by the amount of liquor the boy said he and Michael had consumed together—not just the “Jesus juice” (white wine) in Diet Coke cans I reported last year, but vodka, rum, and what he called “Jim Bean.” He said that they would take alcohol from the secret wine cellar at Neverland to Jackson’s bedroom, where, his brother had testified, they played a game in which they placed crank calls, and if no one answered, the person dialing had to take a big gulp of wine. The brother had also testified to seeing Michael with an erection and with his hand moving on the accuser’s crotch.
The accuser testified that Michael had given him a jacket and a watch he told him was worth $75,000. He also said Michael had taught him how to eavesdrop on phone conversations in Neverland. He recounted how Michael had once simulated sex with a mannequin of a young girl, and how they had looked at pornography in magazines and on the Internet. An issue of Barely Legal magazine presented as evidence had both their fingerprints on it. Police searching Neverland in 2003 had found dozens of erotic magazines and books in Jackson’s bedroom and bathroom.
About the molestation itself, the boy testified, “We just came back from drinking in the arcade … and Michael started talking to me about masturbation. He said that if men don’t masturbate that they can get to a level where they can—might rape a girl or they might be like, kind of unstable.… He told me a story of [knowing] a boy one time who didn’t masturbate and he had sex with a dog.” He said Michael had told him that if he didn’t know how “he would do it for me.” Then, he said, they were in the star’s bed wearing pajamas and Michael told him “it’s natural for boys to do it.… I was under his covers and then that’s when he put his hands in my pants and started masturbating me.” After about five minutes, the boy said, he ejaculated. The next time, he said, they were on top of the covers when Michael “grabbed my hand in a way to try to do it to him. I pulled my hand away, because I didn’t want to do it.”
Mesereau in his cross-examination treated the teenager like a hardened criminal. “So, after you meet with an attorney, you suddenly come up with a story that you were masturbated by Michael Jackson?” A few days later Mesereau got him to admit that something he had said Michael had told him about the necessity for masturbation had also been told to him by his grandmother. As Mesereau pressed down, the boy became more sullen. An expert witness later testified that only about 2 to 6 percent of children who make allegations of sexual abuse lie. Boys entering puberty almost never do, owing to the stigma attached. The expert knew of no example in the literature of a child’s making up such a story for money.
The two lead lawyers are polar opposites. Tom Sneddon, the 63-year-old veteran California prosecutor, is a graduate of Notre Dame, a Republican, and a father of nine. His wife, an evangelical Christian, has written two books for teens and contributes to Christian Parenting Today magazine. Elected district attorney in 1982, Sneddon has said that he will retire when his current term expires, in 2006. This is probably his last big case. Sneddon has no reservations about Jackson’s guilt. He was present in 1993 when the police photographed the star’s genitals in order to see if he had certain identifying spots which his first accuser, Jordie Chandler, had drawn for the authorities. The photos matched the drawings exactly and would have been Sneddon’s most powerful evidence if the case had gone to trial. Instead, they helped Chandler collect $25 million in a civil suit.
Sneddon’s biggest disappointment was that Chandler, now 26, refused to testify in the current case. For a year and a half Sneddon entreated him, but he also gave him his word that he would not subpoena him. Chandler was in fact pressured by both sides. I have learned that a prosecution witness told authorities that Brian Oxman, a member of the original defense team and a Jackson-family lawyer, had obtained Chandler’s cell-phone number and placed repeated calls to him. In addition, Oxman reportedly told Chandler he could write his own check if he would refuse to testify. That information is in the hands of the law, which could investigate for obstruction of justice. (Oxman said he is prevented from commenting because of the gag order.)
The Jackson camp repeatedly suggested that Sneddon was waging a vendetta against the defendant. Last February, Jackson’s mother, Katherine, told Rita Cosby on Fox News she had heard that Santa Maria was full of skinheads and that Sneddon’s son was one. (Neither is true.) Ever since Sneddon’s investigation led to a 14-hour search of Neverland by 70 officers, he has had to overcome the impression he gave at a press conference at the time that he was gloating.
Tom Mesereau, the chief defense counsel, was the quintessential alpha male prowling the courtroom, a towering figure with white Prince Valiant hair. He had previously gotten five defendants accused of sex crimes off. A pillar of the West Los Angeles liberal community, he does pro bono work for African-Americans, and his significant other is a black chanteuse named Minnie Foxx, whose Web site features pictures of her performing at Hustler publisher Larry Flynt’s supper club. A graduate of Harvard, Mesereau got Mike Tyson off in his 2001 rape case, but last year parted ways with Robert Blake before the actor’s murder trial began. Mesereau replaced Jackson’s first lawyer, Mark Geragos, whom Jackson had let go for concentrating too much on his other client at the time, Scott Peterson.
From the first, Mesereau set out to control the courtroom, which he often succeeded in doing with hardball tactics. At times his cross-examinations went on forever as he attempted to distance the jury from disturbing testimony. At one point Geragos, who had been granted a waiver of attorney-client privilege to testify, came back from a break in cross-examination and refused to answer certain questions, saying he had just seen the waiver and it ended on the day of Michael Jackson’s arrest. Judge Melville later threatened to sanction Mesereau for this stunt. But he allowed Geragos’s testimony— in which he said the idea to investigate the accuser’s family was his, thereby removing blame from Jackson—to stand.
There was such animosity between the two teams that one day Sneddon and defense attorney Robert Sanger had to be separated by bailiffs. Sneddon had three deputies, Gordon Auchincloss, Mag Nicola, and Ron Zonen. An expert on child-abuse cases, Zonen produced one of the great moments of the trial when he cross-examined the first defense witness, 22-year-old choreographer Wade Robson, a former “special friend” of Jackson’s who had begun sleeping with the pop star at the age of seven and who testified that Jackson never touched him inappropriately or showered with him. Former Neverland maid Blanca Francia, the mother of the second accuser, had already testified to seeing Jackson with a small boy in the shower and finding Robson’s tiny green undershorts outside.
Mesereau inadvertently opened a door for Zonen by asking Robson, “If you had known Michael Jackson, as a grown man, was reading Playboy, Hustler, Penthouse, magazines like that, showing naked women, would that have concerned you?” Robson said no, but it would depend on the kind of pornographic material. Zonen seized the opportunity. He strode over to the table where the evidence was kept and pulled out a large photo book called Boys Will Be Boys. Over and over he asked Robson to pick a page and describe what he saw—naked boys of 10, 11, or 12 with their genitalia prominently displayed. Then Zonen produced a second book, “of photographs of two men engaged in sex acts with one another.” He asked, “And, in fact, the sex acts are all acts of either masturbation, oral sex, or sodomy; is that right?” Robson said yes. “Would you be concerned about a person who possesses that book crawling into bed with a 10-year-old boy?” Robson said, “Yes, I guess so.” And so on. Every time Mesereau tried to blunt the previous testimony, Zonen would get up and grab another book—seven in all.
Mesereau was his team’s Babe Ruth. It included Susan Yu, his indispensable colleague, and Santa Barbara attorney Robert Sanger, who had successfully defended Jackson against several Neverland employees when they sued him for wrongful dismissal in 1997. Verbose and self-satisfied, he was referred to in the press corps as Human Ambien. Examining a detective who had found a questionable book in Jackson’s bedroom suite, he could not resist chortling, “Well, did you see a letter sitting on the piano from Steven Spielberg?”
Each side accused the other of being liars, and they presented utterly different versions of reality. The prosecution insisted that the Bashir documentary had so “rocked” Jackson’s world that it resulted in a conspiracy to control the accuser’s family and coerce them into speaking favorably of Jackson before they were packed off permanently to Brazil. Prosecutors even produced the travel agent who had been directed to purchase one-way tickets for them. The defense maintained that if there was any conspiracy it consisted of the elaborate efforts of the accuser and his family, who they said had a history of hustling celebrities, to fleece Michael Jackson.
These dueling versions of the truth became apparent in the opening statements, when the two lawyers described Neverland. For the prosecution, the amusement park, big house, zoo, video arcade, and movie theater were nothing but a trap set by a pedophile posing as Peter Pan. One maid described it as “Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island.” Sneddon said, “And people who walk in there with manners walk out and can be described by some of the staff as hellions, rude, obnoxious.” The defense contended that “if you go into Neverland you are struck by the child-like, Disney-like, fantasy-like atmosphere.… Michael Jackson met [the accuser’s] family because he was contacted and told a young boy had cancer and wanted to meet him and needed his help. And unlike others, who smelled the ruse, he didn’t.” Late in the trial, over vehement objections by the prosecution, the defense showed a 20-minute film of Neverland at its most pristine.
The lead lawyers’ first big clash came after the prosecution requested that evidence regarding Jackson’s former accusers be admitted. California’s criminal code has a unique section (1108) that allows prior “bad acts” to be brought before a jury in order to show a propensity on the part of the defendant to commit sex crimes. The law was created because these crimes are usually committed in secret and without witnesses, and often involve children, who can be vulnerable on the stand. Judge Melville said that he would hear these arguments after the accuser and his family had testified.
Sneddon had wanted to get the family on and off the stand right away, but the boy’s mother was in such a state of panic that she refused to testify as scheduled. On the day of the 1108 arguments, both lawyers were unsparing in their remarks. Mesereau said, “What the Court has seen the prosecution do is the following: they have desperately tried to prove to this jury why their witnesses would tell repeated lies, why they would contradict themselves, why they were caught in numerous inconsistencies. They are reduced, as prosecutors, not to just proving a case beyond a reasonable doubt, but trying to prove to a jury why their witnesses lied.”
Sneddon said, “[The accuser] sat on that witness stand for almost three days. The first day he was on there for almost 40 minutes, and Mr. Mesereau was as abusive, was as mean-spirited, and was as obnoxious, frankly, as you could be to a child witness in a case.”
Anyone sitting in the small courtroom had to be struck by how much the boys named as intimate friends of Michael Jackson’s looked alike. They could be cousins or even brothers. In fact, the 1993 accuser, the current accuser, the maid’s son, and another boy were so similar in appearance that one witness misidentified them. Handsome pre-teen boys with dark hair and eyes, they almost all came from troubled homes where the father was out of the picture and the mother was starstruck. Blond former child star Macaulay Culkin, who took the stand for the defense, was the single exception.
For Mesereau, who was trying to figure out how to position his exotic client and whose only explanation for Jackson’s having paid $25 million to silence Jordie Chandler was that he “wanted to get this case behind him and pursue his music career,” the current accuser’s mother turned out to be the gift that keeps on giving. If she was a nightmare for the prosecution, she was a dream for the defense, behaving so strangely that she seemed almost willfully self-destructive. “For two years I’ve been waiting,” she told the jury. On her first day on the stand, she burst into tears and begged the jurors, “Please don’t judge me,” as she related seeing Jackson lick the head of her son on an airplane.
By the time the jury saw her in person, the defense had managed to have what became their most valuable piece of evidence—”the rebuttal tape,” an 80-minute interview of her and the three children produced by Jackson’s people in an attempt to undo the damage caused by the Bashir documentary—played three times. On the tape she was giggly and hyper-vivacious, with Kewpie-doll lips and permed hair, heaping praise on Jackson. Her delight at being in the spotlight put off many people in the courtroom, who dismissed her as a disturbed narcissist. The plain woman in her late 30s who took the stand scarcely resembled the person in the film. Stocky and pale, wearing no makeup, her straight hair held with barrettes, she came through the courtroom’s metal detectors covered with a hooded jacket, as if she were a criminal.
Yet she had an almost unbearably painful story to tell, starting with marriage at 16 to an abusive drug user, who beat her, broke her children’s bones, and tortured their pets. During the 17 years of that marriage, she raised three children, one of whom developed Stage Four cancer, had his spleen, a kidney, and a 16-pound stomach tumor removed, and underwent a year of chemotherapy that left him vomiting and urinating blood. After that she found that the boy was allegedly being molested by the man who had become his idol.
She testified that Jackson, who had generously befriended her son when he was within weeks of death, later had his assistant call her out of the blue to invite the family to Neverland. She said that she had no idea her children were filmed there, and when the Bashir documentary aired in Europe, the family was suddenly contacted by tabloid reporters. Next, they were summoned to Miami by Jackson, ostensibly to participate in a press conference, which never took place. She said that Jackson had told her there were “killers” after the family, and his people had scripted a statement from her to the press calling him Daddy Michael. According to the accuser, he first drank Jesus juice with Michael in Miami.
There, too, the mother met three of the unindicted co-conspirators in the case: Frank Cascio (or Tyson), who as a little boy had traveled the world with Jackson and who, at 24, was still part of his entourage, and two Germans, Dieter Wiesner and Ronald Konitzer, who had taken over Jackson’s business affairs. Before the subject of molestation ever arose, they brought in Mark Geragos as Jackson’s attorney and Geragos’s private investigator, Bradley Miller, to start doing damage control, mainly in the form of a rebuttal video, followed by other Fox television specials, which netted at least $13 million. The rebuttal video was produced by former gay-porn director F. Marc Schaffel, then a partner of Jackson’s in Neverland Valley Entertainment and another unindicted co-conspirator. The mother said that every word she uttered on it was scripted. The next morning, she testified, Bradley Miller put her in contact with Vicki Podberesky (a lawyer Geragos recommended), who advised her on how to talk to the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, which had requested an interview after receiving a complaint concerning the children’s appearance on television. A Jackson security guard asked to be present at the meeting and tape it, but his request was denied. He then told the mother to tape the meeting, but she refused. A tape of the mother and the security guard was played for the jury.
The children were taken back to Neverland, where the alleged molestation began, without the mother’s knowledge. She stayed behind for a court appearance with her ex-husband. Meanwhile, again without her knowledge, she claims, the family’s belongings were moved out of their modest apartment and put into storage by the Jackson team. She said they were told that, because of the “killers,” they would have to go to Brazil in order to be safe. A former security guard testified that he had seen a notice board saying, “[The accuser] is not allowed off property.” Defense witnesses countered that the mother never expressed fear and seemed totally happy to be at Neverland.
The mother said that she was threatened by Cascio and his sidekick, Vincent “Vinnie” Amen, who, the prosecution showed, had falsified passport applications for the family and taken the children out of school on the pretext that they were moving to Phoenix. The mother left Neverland and returned three times, but she maintained that she was held prisoner—a claim the defense openly ridiculed. The jury, however, heard a secretly recorded audiotape of Cascio begging her to return. Finally, with the help of her boyfriend, U.S. Army Reserve major Jay D. Jackson—whom she has since married and had a child with—she left for good. The last straw, she said, was when she learned that her son did not want to take a urine sample to his regular doctor’s appointment because he feared the alcohol he had consumed with Jackson would be detected. She insisted, she said, but then implied that Vinnie Amen, who drove them to the appointment, had caused the specimen jar to spill while she was in a roadside ladies’ room.
She never notified the authorities, however. Instead, she testified, she tried to “drop clues” and to believe in “God’s miracles.” She even considered escaping from Neverland by hot-air balloon. In the end, she got her children out by pretending that their grandparents were ill. However, the accuser was furious at being taken home, she said, and demanded to return to Michael. The family was kept under video surveillance by Jackson’s team. The children’s Mexican maternal grandmother testified that rocks were thrown at her house by a man standing outside. The accuser’s sister was seen entering the house on one of several videotapes found in Bradley Miller’s office and shown to the jury.
Once away from Neverland, the mother said, her boys acted “cuckoo,” particularly the accuser. He refused to speak to Jay Jackson, who testified, “[He] couldn’t see me, because if he did, he couldn’t return to Neverland to see Michael.”
All during the mother’s examination by Ron Zonen, Mesereau was uncharacteristically silent, not objecting, just letting her set herself up. In his cross-examination, he proceeded to portray her as a lying grifter. He leaned on the fact that the family had lied under oath in a civil case five years earlier, when they sued J. C. Penney, Inc., after having been assaulted in a parking lot by security guards, who found clothes on the accuser that he had not purchased. Some time after filing the suit, the mother also charged that she had been sexually harassed by the guards. On the stand she admitted that she had lied under oath about her husband, because she was afraid of him. When the prosecution showed pictures of the accuser with a broken arm and the mother with big bruises on her body, allegedly inflicted by the guards, Mesereau suggested that the injuries may have been inflicted by the abusive husband. J. C. Penney settled, however, for the sum of $152,500.
The defense spent an inordinate amount of time disproving the conspiracy charges, which they clearly hoped would plant doubts about the more serious, molestation accusations. Mesereau maintained that the mother was free to come and go, never called police, and went on shopping sprees—even had a body wax and charged it to Jackson. The mother told the jury, “It was only a leg wax.” The defense later produced the receipt from the spa, however, which showed that she had perjured herself.
Mesereau lambasted the mother for her ingratitude after all Jackson had done for the family. She responded by telling the jury that Jackson “really didn’t care about children, he just cared about what he was doing with the children.” At another point she shot a glance at Jackson and said, “He’s managed to fool the world.” Turning back to the jury, who barely looked at her, she said, “Now, because of this criminal case proceedings, now people know who he really is.”
The last prosecution witness, Rudy Provencio, an associate of Marc Schaffel’s, testified that the family members were used as pawns by the co-conspirators, who referred to them as “stupid Mexicans” and to the mother—with no justification—as “a crack whore.” The mother’s credibility, however, was pretty well destroyed by one of the final defense witnesses, Mary Holzer, a paralegal who had dealt with her on the J. C. Penney case. Holzer testified that the mother had lied, had coached her children to lie, and had admitted that her bruises were inflicted by her husband. Holzer also said the mother told her that her brother-in-law was in the Mexican Mafia and could kill Holzer and her daughter if Holzer revealed the lies.
As I watched the mother on the stand, one thing seemed clear to me: Michael Jackson would probably never have spent more than a moment’s time with this poor, dysfunctional family if he hadn’t had an ulterior motive.
As dysfunctional families go, it’s hard to top the Jacksons. Katherine Jackson, the matriarch, once filed a petition for divorce and withdrew it, but papers found a few years ago in a warehouse where Jackson-family memorabilia had been stored revealed that she and three of her children had had a six-figure settlement against them for beating up one of the girlfriends of her husband, Joseph Jackson. In addition to his children by Katherine, Joseph has an illegitimate daughter. Rebbie, the eldest of the nine children, reportedly once pressed charges against her father for sexually molesting her when she was 12. Jackie, the eldest son, once suffered a broken leg when his first wife ran over him with a car after having caught him in bed with the singer Paula Abdul. Jermaine, a convert to Islam, has a girlfriend and two wives, one of whom, Alejandra, is in the process of divorcing him. She has one child, Jermajesty, with Jermaine and two with Jermaine’s brother Randy, to whom she was engaged before Jermaine stole her away. In 1994 brother Tito’s ex-wife drowned in a swimming pool, and her older lover was convicted of murdering her. At the 2004 Super Bowl, Janet caused a nationwide scandal with her “wardrobe malfunction.” In 1989, La Toya left home, married her manager, wrote a tell-all book about the family, then returned to the fold, recanted, and accused her husband of beating her. Police recently questioned at least one of Michael Jackson’s nephews about his relationship with his uncle.
Katherine Jackson is the only one of the clan who came to the trial every day. According to a lawsuit filed against Jackson by Marc Schaffel, Katherine, after appearing in a rebuttal video, asked Michael for $250,000. Michael’s hatred of Joseph Jackson has been amply documented, and it is a measure of how serious his latest predicament is that he allowed his father to be with him in court. The elder Jackson wears one gold earring and has a thin mustache that appears to be tattooed on his upper lip. Some of the siblings never came to the trial. Michael’s brothers’ solid frames and dark skin are in stark contrast to his grayish-white pallor and his anorexic body. Michael, who wears a wig and has what seems to be yet another new nose, has lost considerable weight since the Bashir documentary. One day I saw him order Jermaine with an abrupt finger gesture to get up and go with him to the men’s room. “When the king’s in need, the peasants must be there,” says family friend Stacy Brown, a prosecution witness at the trial and the co-author of two unpublished books with family members and a new book with longtime Jackson publicist Bob Jones, entitled Michael Jackson: The Man Behind the Mask. “Until November 2003 they had been completely shut out. Now he needs them.”
Jackson’s estrangement from his family, especially his father, has been such, according to Jones’s book, that he did not use his own sperm in conceiving his children. “He hates dark-skinned people,” Brown says. “He did not want to take the chance that a child of his would look like Joseph.”
The strangest member of the Jackson clan after Michael is Debbie Rowe, the second of his two ex-wives. Once known as a “biker babe,” the pale-blonde, zaftig Rowe, in her role as the assistant to Jackson’s dermatologist, Arnold Klein, helped make the pop star white and later became the surrogate mother of his first two children, Prince Michael I and Paris. (The identity of their biological father has never been disclosed by her, but Rowe, a Jewish convert, has claimed that the children are Jewish.) Rowe and Jackson never lived together as man and wife, and in July 1999, according to his former business adviser Myung-Ho Lee, she called him and demanded a divorce and $10 million, threatening to tell the family secrets if he did not comply. She then gave up all parental rights, and, in what was one of the strangest moments in this whole trial, she revealed that she had never met her own children until they were three or four, and then she was not introduced as Mommy. “I could be introduced as a friend, as a friend of Daddy’s. And you don’t confuse a child by saying, ‘Oh, this is your mother.'” She was not allowed to see the children more than eight times a year. (Jackson told a friend, “I bought all rights to my kids.”)
The first sign that she might not be a reliable witness for the prosecution was when she gave her name as Deborah Rowe Jackson and said that she wanted “to be re-introduced to [her children] and to be re-acquainted with their dad.” Initially, however, the defense was so fearful of her that they moved to have her entire testimony of the first afternoon stricken after she admitted that she had not answered all the questions on the rebuttal video “truthfully and honestly.” The judge said he would have to hear more. When Rowe returned to the stand the next morning, he got an earful, and the prosecution was thrown for a loop.
She called Jackson a wonderful father, “generous to a fault … a brilliant businessman.… There’s different Michaels. There’s like my Michael, and the Michael that everyone else sees.” She added that her Michael was easily manipulated when he was scared, and she completely distanced him from the unindicted co-conspirators, whom she called “opportunistic vultures.” Further eroding the conspiracy charge, she denied that her fulsome praise of Michael on the rebuttal video had been scripted. To secure her appearance, Jackson had spoken to her for the first time in years and had given her permission to violate the confidentiality agreement she had signed in order to collect her millions. Now the prosecutors expected her to say what she had told the sheriff’s deputies, who said she described Michael as “a sociopath and his children as being his possessions.”
Instead, she longingly asked him directly from the stand to help her remember on which tour she had met one of the conspirators. (The New York Post’s headline the next day was BEST EX HE EVER HAD.) Some speculated that her testimony was simply a ploy to see her kids again, for she is in a heated legal battle with Jackson for custody and since 2001 had not been allowed to be with them. When Zonen asked her who she thought was responsible for that, she answered, “He’s their father. Ultimately it’s his decision. I don’t want to believe that. I want to believe that it’s other people.”
As she walked out, she stopped in the aisle near my seat, turned, and cast a last, hopeful glance at her former husband. After that the defense, to much laughter, withdrew its motion to strike her testimony.
A few days later the prosecution called Detective Sergeant Steve Robel to the stand to repeat Rowe’s original, damning testimony, but the damage had been done. Prosecution witness Rudy Provencio, who was present during the videotaping, said it took many hours to get Rowe’s interview right, and she had to be coaxed to “cry better.”
Debbie Rowe was not the only witness to be stricken with celebrity-worship syndrome. Bob Jones, fired by letter in 2004 after having been Jackson’s publicist for 16 years, was expected to repeat an episode in his memoir, that he had seen Jackson lick the head of Jordie Chandler. Once on the stand, however, Jones began to equivocate. “I could definitely say that they embraced.… I don’t recall anything about head licking,” he said. What caused this change of course? According to Stacy Brown, “Bob saw Michael there and he melted. He just realized, We’ve come this far—this is the place I’ve warned him about.” According to the book, Brown says, Jones warned Jackson twice about his relationship with Jordie Chandler: “‘This is going to cost you a lot of heartache and a lot of money.’ Michael said, ‘You mind your own business. I know what I’m doing.'”
Cynthia Bell, a flight attendant on private jets, was another prosecution witness who became a liability. She was on the trip from Miami on which Jackson is charged with giving Jesus juice to the accuser and was expected to testify that the boy had been drinking from Jackson’s can. Instead, she denied it, even claiming it had been her idea to serve alcohol in soda cans.
Jesus Salas, a former house manager at Neverland, testified to having often seen Jackson drunk on the premises. One night, he said, when the accuser and his brother were there with Frank Cascio’s little brother, he answered his boss’s order to bring a bottle of wine and four glasses to his bedroom, and the next morning he found the bottle empty. Then Salas suddenly added, “He also ordered some sodas with that.” When Gordon Auchincloss reminded him that he had never included that detail in interviews with sheriffs, he replied, “It just flip out right now to my mind.”
When Salas testified that he had seen Jackson exhibit the effects of drinking “on a pretty much regular basis,” Mesereau asked him, “And were you aware that there were times when he had a prescription-drug problem … and he had gotten a lot of injections from various physicians?” Mesereau was trying to suggest that Jackson’s “appearing intoxicated” could actually be the result of taking medication for his health. However, Jackson checked into drug rehab when he was charged with molestation by Jordie Chandler in 1993, and I observed his bizarre performance on the stand when he was in Santa Maria in 2002 to testify in the civil trial he lost. A medical worker who treated Jackson that year told me recently that Jackson’s bodyguards were worried about him, and that Jackson himself acknowledged how easy it was for him to obtain drugs from doctor friends. He said that Jackson traveled with a huge black suitcase containing an array of powerful prescription drugs, pre-loaded syringes, and IV bags and a collapsible IV pole, and that he spent whole days watching a video of Disney’s Fantasia over and over again. He said Jackson’s children got bored watching the film so many times, and he added that Prince Michael had several teeth rotting from eating too much candy. Jackson’s drug use made it nearly impossible to fall asleep, and at one point he had to check into a nearby hospital and be given a powerful anesthetic in order to get rest. Once again, the medical worker said, Jackson’s celebrity protected him. Stacy Brown told me, “In December of 2001, Janet, Tito, Rebbie, and Randy flew to New York for an intervention with him. He told them to leave him alone. He said, ‘Look, I’ll be dead in a year anyway.'”
Last November, Marc Schaffel said in the suit he filed against Jackson for repayment of cash loans, “Jackson’s need to borrow cash from Plaintiffs greatly accelerated when Jackson’s increasingly more frequent excessive use of drugs and alcohol impelled him into irrational demands for large amounts of money and extravagant possessions.”
The most affecting witnesses for the prosecution were those permitted to testify under 1108. June Chandler, Jordie’s mother, admitted that she had allowed Jackson to sleep over at her house in the same bed with her son more than 30 times. Jackson would leave by limo in the morning when it was time for Jordie to go to school, she said, and would return after school. Slim and striking, part Asian and part black, she recounted how the star, then 34, seduced her son with trips to Toys “R” Us and Disneyland while he kept her happy with a $7,000 Fred Segal gift certificate, jewelry, and several handbags. She recalled a night in Las Vegas when she answered a knock on her door around 11:30 to find her son and a “sobbing” Michael: “He was crying, shaking, trembling.” He said to her, “‘You don’t trust me? We’re a family. Why are you doing this? Why are you not allowing Jordie to be with me?’ And I said, ‘He is with you.’ He said, ‘But my bedroom. Why not in my bedroom?'” After his tantrum had gone on for half an hour, June Chandler testified, she relented. And by turning her son over to Jackson she lost him.
Jordie Chandler has not seen his mother since he went at 14 to live with his father, Evan, whom Jackson’s lawyers accused of extortion. Today Evan Chandler lives as a recluse, supported by his son. June Chandler’s voice nearly broke when she was asked how long it had been since she had spoken to her son. “Ten years,” she said, and the look of grief on her face was unforgettable. The Chandlers are living proof that money can’t buy happiness. The current accuser’s mother, who claims she will not institute a civil case, told the grand jury, “I don’t want the devil’s money.”
Jason Francia, the handsome son of a former personal maid at Neverland, was the only young man to come forward and tell the jury that Michael Jackson had molested him, beginning when he was seven. After five years of therapy, the devout evangelical Christian said, he now works as a mentor to troubled young people and as a salesman of auto parts. He was 17, he said, when he learned that his mother, Blanca Francia, had agreed to a $2.4 million settlement with Jackson over three allegations of fondling him, and he had found out only two days prior to taking the stand that she had sold her story to tabloid TV for $20,000.
Francia testified that twice at Jackson’s “hideout” apartment in Los Angeles the pop star had engaged him in tickling games during which he would move his hands over the boy’s genitalia on the outside of his shorts. “Pretty much at every tickle thing there was money,” he said, adding that both times Jackson gave him a hundred-dollar bill. As he described a third time, at Neverland when he was about 10 and Jackson’s hands were inside his pants, his eyes welled up with tears, and he had to stop. When detectives questioned him in 1993, during the investigation into the Chandler case, he was 13 and at first denied that anything untoward had happened to him. A short time later, however, he disclosed details to the police.
During a break the judge took for a conference at the bench in the middle of Francia’s testimony, I was alarmed by the indifference of the jurors. The young man sitting in the witness-box before them had just gone through one of the most humiliating ordeals of his life, but they did not exhibit the slightest sign of empathy. They ignored him as they laughed and talked together. I suddenly wondered if we have not all watched so much Dr. Phil and Oprah that we can no longer distinguish between real pain and entertainment.
Attorney Brian Oxman, who had allegedly tried to keep Jordie Chandler from testifying, was the caboose of the defense team and a running soap opera all on his own. He’s suspected of doing quite a lot of dirty work for Jackson. Oxman was thought to be the eyes and ears of Randy Jackson, who was supposedly calling the shots. In a pre-trial hearing, Judge Melville slapped a $1,000 fine on Oxman for ignoring his order to stop questioning the psychologist of Jackson’s young accuser about another patient—none other than Bradley Miller, Geragos’s private investigator. About a month into the trial, a Court TV microphone picked up Oxman on his cell phone bitterly complaining about his shabby treatment by the Jackson team. He said, “Michael wanted to can [Mesereau] a week before the opening statement. He said, ‘Brian, please, I want to fire him.'” He warned the party on the other end, “This is going to get intolerable. There is going to be harmony or there is going to be shit—take your choice. Which is it?” In early April, Oxman was taken from the courtroom on a gurney and diagnosed with a collapsed right lung. At the end of April he was caught on film in a public shouting match with Mesereau, after having been served with papers that took him off the case. The useful servant had become a loose cannon.
“Oxman is a very good preparer,” said Loyola Law School professor Stan Goldman, who has known him 30 years, “but sometimes he shows massive lack of judgment.” Cynthia Montgomery, the Jackson travel agent who testified that Marc Schaffel had requested one-way tickets to Brazil for the accuser’s family, was under investigation by the F.B.I. and was suing and being sued by Jackson, all over the taping of him on a private jet from Las Vegas to Santa Barbara for his arraignment. She denies any involvement in the taping. She claimed that Oxman had improperly contacted her lawyer about the F.B.I. case, and she had reported it to Sneddon and the police. “He was trying to blackmail me,” Montgomery said. According to her, Oxman told her attorney that they would hold up a statement to the F.B.I. or not cooperate at all if she would drop her lawsuit against Jackson over $50,000 in unpaid travel expenses. “He said, ‘If she’s not willing to drop her lawsuit, we’ll really make her life destructive.'” Montgomery’s attorney, Robert Moore, corroborated her account, adding, “It’s a violation of the code of ethics to attempt to gain advantage in a civil action to threaten government sanctions.” Oxman told me, “I had requested they withhold their claim against Michael Jackson, and I promised them nothing in return.” A few days after Montgomery’s testimony, Jackson dropped his suit against her.
Oxman reportedly got attorney Tony Capozzola hired by Jackson to assemble a dossier of the accuser’s mother’s welfare records and to write to the Los Angeles County district attorney in order to generate a legal case against her and undermine the prosecution as the molestation case went to trial. (In court the mother took the Fifth on welfare questions. She had wrongfully cashed two welfare checks, worth $1,500, while she was being supported by Major Jay Jackson.) In the dossier Capozzola prepared, all the food and lodging costs paid by Michael Jackson, including the family’s stay at Neverland, were itemized as income for her. Capozzola also filed a motion in the California State Supreme Court against District Attorney Sneddon for vindictive prosecution.
At the beginning of the trial, the defense announced that it would call dozens of celebrities as character witnesses, including Elizabeth Taylor, Stevie Wonder, and Diana Ross. On May 6, as the defense got its case under way, Sneddon said that he planned to impeach the character witnesses. A motion by the prosecution listed relevant impeachment topics, including: “Statement of Latoya Jackson, defendant’s sister, said on national television that she saw a payment of $1m check to [Michael’s early special friend] Jimmy Safechuck’s family for purposes of buying silence; Evidence that Defendant has taken numerous children into his room and bed while heavily addicted to Demerol and other controlled substances; Evidence that Defendant has given alcohol to children.” After that the defense decided not to call any character witnesses or to put Michael Jackson on the stand, although Mesereau had promised the jury in his opening statement that they would hear Jackson defend himself.
That was probably wise. In a sealed deposition, taken for a civil case in 1996, Jackson claimed under oath not to know who Jason Francia was; said he had never talked to his biographer Randy Taraborrelli or knew of any book he had written (Taraborrelli says he started talking to Jackson in 1976); and could not name the father of six boys he was asked about, including the first two defense witnesses in this trial, Wade Robson and Brett Barnes, both Australians, who emphasized in their testimony how close Jackson was to their families.
These two young men and their mothers and sisters—all of whom were currently staying at Neverland—backfired big-time on the defense. Joy Robson, Wade’s mother, testified that she had obtained a permanent residence visa by having her wages funneled through Jackson’s company, and had received a car, a $10,000 payment from Jackson, and a $10,000 loan from Jackson’s investigator. Karlee Barnes, Brett’s sister, eagerly testified that for half of each of two successive years she and her brother were taken out of school to go on tour with Jackson in Europe and South America. She sent the courtroom into shock when she revealed that Michael and her brother, who was then 11 or 12, had slept together 365 nights. Barnes, an unemployed casino worker, testified that he had stopped sleeping with Jackson at age 19, because “he’s got kids now.”
As Vanity Fair goes to press, the defense has ended its case early. Their biggest asset remained the accuser’s mother, who ended up being as much of a defendant as Jackson, even though the conspiracy charge was peripheral to the molestation charges. Many legal experts felt that the conspiracy charge should never have been brought, since the mother’s veracity was so questionable, and since none of the five unindicted co-conspirators ever got near the courthouse.
If Jackson beats these charges, he reportedly has big plans for revenge. A tour called “Framed” has been suggested. There is a deal of about $35 million on the table to sell as a package Neverland—which will be turned into a Graceland-like theme park—and his other assets: book rights, movie rights, even cell-phone ringtones. Only Jackson’s heavily encumbered song catalogues are not included. Jackson told Gordon Novel he wants to bring suit against Sony on financial-conspiracy charges. His former business adviser Myung-Ho Lee, who once sat on the board of Sony/ ATV Music, says that Sony’s half of the catalogue is unprofitable, due partly to heavy administrative costs, while Michael’s share is very profitable. “He’s in a box,” Lee told me. “The only way out of the box is to sue Sony.”