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‘All-American town’ braces for start of Jackson trial

A small California town braces for the spotlight as the Michael Jackson child molestation trial is set to begin.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The site of Michael Jackson’s child molestation trial has had brushes with celebrity before, as a stopover for the biggest stars of Hollywood’s golden age en route from Los Angeles to the Hearst Castle and other Central Coast destinations.

However, while residents of the conservative agricultural town appreciate the economic boost when hordes of reporters and Jackson fans pack hotels and restaurants, many could live without all the commotion and attention.

“It’s not a good place to wear makeup to court,” attorney Steve Balash said.

With opening statements scheduled to begin Monday, and the trial expected to last until summer, Santa Maria is bracing for its close-up.

'All-American town'Located 170 miles north of Los Angeles, the quiet community is surrounded by majestic mountains, ranches and farms growing grapes, strawberries and broccoli. The Oscar-nominated film “Sideways” was shot in the tasting rooms and cellars of several local wineries.

Signs welcome visitors to the “All-American Town,” and big box stores, chain restaurants and new housing give it the look of countless other fast-growing communities.

Over the past five years, the population has jumped about 10 percent to 85,000 — fueled by people willing to commute to jobs 70 miles south in Santa Barbara or 30 miles north in San Luis Obispo.

A new three-bedroom house goes for about $350,000 — half the price of Santa Barbara or Los Angeles, said Bob Hatch, president of the Santa Maria Chamber of Commerce.

“When I was offered a job up here, I didn’t realize I could buy three times the home,” said John Reinacher, manager of the Santa Maria Inn, who moved to town from Santa Barbara.

The inn is a local landmark. Guests have included Bob Hope, Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Jimmy Stewart and Rudolph Valentino.

Ghost storiesSanta Maria Inn bartender Angel Bourbon — yes, it’s his real name — said many visitors stay at the hotel because they’ve heard ghost stories about mysterious footprints, a piano that plays itself and music from disconnected speakers.

Employees like to recount the tale of a murder decades ago involving a sea captain and his mistress.

“The captain has appeared to many people,” said Bourbon, who has tended bar at the hotel for 48 of his 71 years. “You turn around and you can see someone there, but then you really look and there’s no one. ... You get real cold chills in the back of your neck.”

Restaurant menus show Santa Maria hasn’t strayed too far from its cattle-town roots. A staple is tri-tip steak barbecued over native red oak firewood.

And while defendant Jackson’s court attire has included armbands and reflecting shoes, the local dress code leans toward Western casual.

“I generally wear cowboy boots most of the time, but let’s say they don’t stand out in Santa Maria,” said lawyer Balash. “If you go into the courtroom, you will probably see the DAs and some of the others in cowboy boots.”