The world press descended in full force Thursday on the normally quiet Santa Maria Valley, setting up mini TV studios with satellite dishes to beam news around the globe when pop star Michael Jackson is arraigned on child molestation charges.
Call it O.J. deja vu.
Nearly 10 years after the O.J. Simpson trial brought a media horde to the Los Angeles courts, many of the same players have trekked 150 miles northwest to a rural area better known for its vineyards and strawberry fields than its criminal cases.
The feeling of a time warp was intensified by the presence of Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark, standing outside the courthouse doing reports for “Entertainment Tonight.” Clark, who never prosecuted another case after losing the nation’s most famous murder trial, admitted it was strange to be on the other side of the media attention.
“It’s a bizarre world,” she said. “It’s like everything is turned upside down. I now get to see what the press went through in Simpson. I feel your pain.”
She said her new career is less stressful than being a prosecutor.
“All I have to do is remember to refrain from stating an opinion. And if I screw up, no lives are hanging in the balance. So there isn’t that burden, that responsibility.”
Clark is not the only former law enforcement figure finding work on TV. Jim Thomas, the former Santa Barbara County sheriff who attempted to bring molestation charges against Jackson 10 years ago, has signed on as a commentator for NBC.
Thomas, a close friend of Santa Barbara County District Attorney Tom Sneddon, makes no pretense of impartiality.
“I can argue both sides but I have a personal opinion based on my knowledge of the 1993 case,” he said. “I think he’s going to be convicted.”
Although small compared to Simpson’s “dream team,” Jackson’s defense expanded Thursday with the addition of New York attorney Benjamin Brafman, a principal of the firm that won acquittal for Sean “P. Diddy” Combs on bribery and weapons charges in 2001.
Residents drove by the courthouse Thursday to gape at the broadcast gear — 18 microwave trucks by midday — and TV reporters doing stand-ups on the sunny front lawn in advance of Friday’s arraignment.
An enterprising local businesswoman, Lynelle Lowe, bought one of the prime parking spaces, which are going for $250 a day, and set up her “Cool Treats” business, selling yogurt, coffee, hot dogs and muffins out of a truck.
“It’s fun to be part of the hype,” she said. “I get to meet a lot of interesting people. Let’s face it. This is a small town. There’s nothing else going on.”
Perhaps the busiest man in the courthouse was Darrel Parker, assistant trial courts executive officer, who was in charge of setting up press arrangements.
“It’s still manageable,” said Parker, a veteran of high-profile trials in the Los Angeles court system. “I figured out it’s a matter of people, paper and parking. Oh yes, and Porta-Pottys.”