March 1, 2019
The author, who spent more than a decade covering the scandal for V.F., shares the key revelations and insights that viewers of the new HBO documentary Leaving Neverland need to know.
The anguished voice of Wade Robson’s father will always haunt me. Back in 1993, when the first charges of sexual abuse were leveled at Michael Jackson by a 13-year-old boy named Jordan “Jordie” Chandler, I was assigned to write about the case for Vanity Fair. I naturally wanted to know if Jackson had befriended any other young boys, and it wasn’t long before I heard the names Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck.
Wade’s mother, Joy, wasn’t talking, but his father, Dennis, surprised me by returning my call from his home in Australia. Dennis explained that Joy had taken Wade and his sister to Los Angeles so Wade could be with Jackson, adding that he was afraid that he might lose his son if he said anything against the pop superstar. Dennis’s sorrow was compounded by his own dark secret: he himself had been molested as a child, he told me, and had been unable to bring himself to tell anyone for 30 years.
Then, a week later, Dennis Robson called me back. He had just gotten through to his wife and now he wanted to change his story and give me a quote praising Jackson. I asked him what had prompted this sudden change of heart. He paused. It was all just a mixup, he said. Dennis, who had been diagnosed as bipolar shortly before his wife left, never got over losing his family, all because his son, then five, had won a local dance contest, and the first prize was a meeting with his idol, Michael Jackson.
In 2002, Dennis Robson committed suicide. In the new HBO documentary Leaving Neverland, Wade Robson says he never fully understood what caused his father’s pain; his father died without ever being close to his son again.
The two-part documentary, which premieres on HBO this Sunday, gives Robson and Safechuck, together with their surviving family members, the opportunity to tell their stories of being first befriended and then seduced, emotionally and—they allege—sexually, by Michael Jackson. What struck me most, as someone who spent more than a decade reporting on allegations against Jackson, was how closely Robson’s and Safechuck’s stories mirrored those of Jordie Chandler and Gavin Arvizo, the 13-year-old whose allegations prompted the 2005 trial in which Jackson was acquitted on 10 felony counts, including four counts of child molestation and one of attempted child molestation. Another boy, Jason Francia, whose mother worked as a housekeeper for Jackson, testified under oath that he was molested by Jackson, bringing to five the number of young men who’ve sworn that Jackson showed them pornography, masturbated them, or introduced them to sex when they were between the ages of 7 and 12.
So many details of each case were the same: the targeting of boys from troubled families, the skillful grooming, the gifts, the seduction, the Jacuzzis, the way sex was performed, the fear and threats of what would befall them if they ever told anyone what Jackson had done. Their dismissals followed a similar pattern, too: as puberty approached, Robson and Safechuck say in the documentary, they were abruptly thrown to the curb and replaced with a new, younger kid.
Even their families got similar treatment: the sisters were put off to the side by Michael, the supposed adorer of all children; the parents were whisked around in limos and private jets, taken shopping, and treated to vintage wine from Neverland’s cellar. Jordie Chandler’s mother got trips to Monaco and Las Vegas, along with a diamond bracelet. Jimmy Safechuck’s parents got a whole house; the documentary never mentions the cars they received, or the permanent residence visa that Wade Robson’s mother testified in 2005 to having received by funneling whatever wages she had received through the Michael Jackson Corporation. Joy Robson also acknowledged accepting a car, a $10,000 payment from Jackson, and a $10,000 loan from Jackson’s investigator.
Both Robson and Safechuck previously testified under oath that Jackson never touched them, but there is good reason to believe they are telling the truth now. Ron Zonen, a prosecutor in the 2005 trial who has tried many sex-abuse cases, told me he understood why Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck came out when they did, instead of “when we needed them.” Especially for male victims, he said, “it has to be on their terms. They finally decide to disclose when the pain becomes unbearable and it’s not going to get better until they talk to somebody and tell the truth about it.”
Jackson’s hardcore supporters allege that Robson and Safechuck memorized details from the other boys’ stories in order to get revenge after their own previous attempts to sue Jackson’s estate for damages were thrown out of court (not because the charges had no merit but because the statute of limitations had run out). That seems far-fetched to me. Why would anyone put himself through this? Robson and Safechuck are not being paid by HBO. They had to come to grips not only with what happened to them but also with the complicity of those closest to them. That kind of stress can and does destroy families. Anyone who has spent time hearing victims tell their stories of sexual assault knows that it is extremely painful to recall detail after detail. You never know which one will stick in your mind, causing depression, nightmares, and P.T.S.D. It can be something as simple as a song.
The Jackson family, for its part, has filed a $100 million lawsuit against HBO, trying to prevent the documentary from being aired. Given all the money and vaunted reputations at stake, that may have seemed like the best course of action, lest viewers see and judge for themselves why two men would go to these lengths and suffer the hate being hurled at them. Robson and Safechuck say it is because they are fathers themselves now. The experience of having children summoned these tangled and terrible memories up from the depths of their psyches and spurred the need to come clean, to point their moral compasses north. Now it’s the public’s turn.
To help viewers contextualize the documentary’s presentation of what ultimately amounts to a narrow slice of a sprawling saga, here are 10 undeniable facts about the sexual-abuse allegations against Michael Jackson.
1. There is no dispute that, at age 34, Michael Jackson slept more than 30 nights in a row in the same bed with 13-year-old Jordie Chandler at the boy’s house with Chandler’s mother present. He also slept in the same bed with Jordie Chandler at Chandler’s father’s house. The parents were divorced.
2. So far, five boys Michael Jackson shared beds with have accused him of abuse: Jordie Chandler, Jason Francia, Gavin Arvizo, Wade Robson, and Jimmy Safechuck. Jackson had the same nickname for Chandler and Arvizo: “Rubba.” He called Robson “Little One” and Safechuck “Applehead.”
3. Jackson paid $25 million to settle the Chandlers’ lawsuit, with $18 million going to Jordie, $2.5 million to each of the parents, and the rest to lawyers. Jackson said he paid that sum to avoid something “long and drawn out.” Francia also received $2.4 million from Jackson.
4. Michael Jackson suffered from the skin discoloration disease vitiligo. Jordie Chandler drew a picture of the markings on the underside of Jackson’s penis. His drawings were sealed in an envelope. A few months later, investigators photographed Jackson’s genitalia. The photographs matched Chandler’s drawings.
5. The hallway leading to Jackson’s bedroom was a serious security zone covered by video and wired for sound so that the steps of anyone approaching would make ding-dong sounds.
6. Jackson had an extensive collection of adult erotic material he kept in a suitcase next to his bed, including S&M bondage photos and a study of naked boys. Forensic experts with experience in the Secret Service found the fingerprints of boys alongside Jackson’s on the same pages. Jackson also had bondage sculptures of women with ball gags in their mouths on his desk, in full view of the boys who slept there.
7. According to the Neverland staff interviewed by the Santa Barbara authorities, no one ever saw or knew of a woman spending the night with Michael Jackson, including his two spouses, Debbie Rowe or Lisa Marie Presley. Rowe, the mother of two of Jackson’s children, made it clear to the Santa Barbara authorities that she never had sex with Jackson.
8. The parents of boys Jackson shared beds with were courted assiduously and given myriad expensive gifts. Wade Robson’s mother testified in the 2005 trial that she funneled wages through Jackson’s company and was given a permanent resident visa. Jimmy Safechuck’s parents got a house. Jordie Chandler’s mother got a diamond bracelet.
9. Two of the fathers of those who have accused Jackson, Jordie Chandler and Wade Robson, committed suicide. Both were estranged from their sons at the time.
10. In a 2002 documentary, Living with Michael Jackson, Jackson told Martin Bashir there was nothing wrong with sharing his bed with boys.
CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story misidentified the father of one of Jackson’s accusers. Wade Robson’s father, not Jimmy Safechuck’s, committed suicide. We regret the error.
Photo credit: Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock