More than a year ago, Michael Jackson let a BBC crew into his bizarre world for a TV documentary he no doubt hoped would boost his fading career. Instead, “Living With Michael Jackson” may have triggered the child molestation case that threatens to destroy Jackson and his multimillion-dollar music empire.
Exactly what happened is a matter of dispute, but interviews with several sources close to Jackson and the accuser’s family reveal one consistent thread: The documentary set in motion a series of events that led to the pop star’s arrest last month.
The TV special, broadcast worldwide last February to an audience of millions, offered images of Jackson’s fairy-tale estate, Neverland, his lonely trips to Las Vegas and his lavish spending habits. It also showed him talking about sleepovers with children at Neverland and holding the hand of a cancer-stricken boy - the boy who is now Jackson’s accuser.
Those close to Jackson’s defense team allege that around the time the TV special aired, the mother demanded a fee for her son’s appearance. When Jackson refused, they say, the relationship between the family and Jackson soured.
In an alternate version, those close to the mother’s side say she did not ask for payment. Instead, they say Jackson began acting strangely just before the special aired, telling the family they were in danger and would have to pack their belongings and leave their home.
According to this account, Jackson barred the family from Neverland, after which the mother hired an attorney - the same lawyer who had represented a boy in a molestation claim against Jackson 10 years ago.
Began with good deed
The sources spoke on condition of anonymity but are in a position to know each side’s version of events.
Jackson attorney Mark Geragos called the latest accusations “the big lie” and said the singer denies molesting the boy, now 13. The Santa Barbara County district attorney’s office said it expects to file formal charges the week of Dec. 15.
Everyone is in agreement on one thing: Jackson’s relationship with the boy began with a good deed. Jackson was told by Jamie Masada, a comedy club owner who runs a camp for underprivileged children, that a child hospitalized with cancer wanted to meet him.
Jackson, who supports many children’s charities, obliged and formed a relationship with the boy and his mother. The boy visited Neverland as his condition improved and gradually became part of Jackson’s large entourage.
In the TV documentary, which was filmed over an eight-month period and aired in this country on ABC, Jackson defended his habit of letting children sleep in his bed as “sweet” and non-sexual. In one scene, the boy, his head sometimes resting on Jackson’s shoulder, told the interviewer he had been a guest for sleepovers at Neverland.
The sleepovers have been a subject of curiosity for years: In 1993, Jackson was accused of molesting a 13-year-old boy. Jackson denied the allegations but paid the family millions in a settlement. The boy would not cooperate with prosecutors, and no charges were ever filed.
Documentary as evidence
The month the documentary aired, Jackson hired Geragos, a high-powered Los Angeles defense attorney who represented actress Winona Ryder and Whitewater figure Susan McDougal.
Sources familiar with Jackson’s defense said the singer hired Geragos because the boy’s mother was demanding payment for her son’s appearance in the 90-minute documentary. The documentary producers had neglected to get the boy to sign the standard disclaimer form.
Those sources said Geragos obtained an affidavit and a tape-recorded statement from the child and the mother. They praised Jackson as being like a father to the child and said nothing inappropriate had happened between Jackson and the boy.
Geragos declined to comment for this story.
A source who is in contact with the boy’s family said no demand for payment was made and outlined a different scenario.
Last February, when the BBC video was about to air, Jackson became alarmed because much of the pre-show publicity focused on his relationship with children and the previous child molestation allegations against him.
Shortly before the special aired, a source close to the family said, Jackson sent his assistants to the boy’s home and told the family to pack their belongings and leave, saying, “Someone wants to hurt you.”
They were then taken to Neverland, where Jackson met with them and said they had to leave town. There was talk of their leaving the country, but that never happened. Instead, they were whisked off to a lavish hotel in Florida, later returning to Southern California. Jackson then paid for them to stay in a hotel in Ventura, not far from Neverland.
At some point, Jackson told the family they were not welcome at his home anymore, a source close to the family said. The source also said Jackson put the family’s furniture and other belongings from their home in storage, and did not return them when the mother asked for them back.
It was then, the family source said, that the mother consulted lawyer Larry Feldman, who had handled the case of the boy who leveled the molestation allegations against Jackson a decade ago. She said she thought her son had been molested, and she claimed Jackson had given him wine.
The lawyer advised her to have the boy see a psychologist, according to other sources close to the family. Ultimately, the psychologist, who had handled celebrity cases before, went to authorities under a legal requirement to report any claims of child molestation.
Feldman declined comment on the case. Repeated attempts to contact the boy’s mother have been unsuccessful.
Geragos defended Jackson during a news conference last week and said the accusations against him were motivated by money. He said Jackson would not become “a pinata for every person who has financial motives.”
Jackson has claimed that “Living With Michael Jackson” was edited to show him in a bad light and said he felt betrayed. The documentary now is being rerun on cable and is likely to be a central piece of evidence in Jackson’s trial.