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The Neverland drug case that never was

When they searched Michael Jackson's Neverland ranch in 2003 and 2004, investigators seized "numerous prescription drug containers in at least four different names," court papers reveal.  So why didn't prosecutors make a case?
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At the time, it seemed to be little more than a footnote to the bigger story – whether or not Michael Jackson had molested a 13-year-old boy. Much was made of Jackson's possession of pornography and girlie magazines, and even his alcohol use came into evidence: the King of Pop filled Diet Coke cans with liquor to hide his drinking from his children. But as authorities were building a case against Jackson in 2003 and 2004, one aspect of his unusual life didn't come into play: his prescription drug use.

Police certainly had the evidence. When they searched Jackson's Neverland ranch in 2003 and 2004, investigators seized "numerous prescription drug containers in at least four different names," court papers reveal.

So why didn't prosecutors make a case?

Laurie Levenson, a Loyola Law School professor and former federal prosecutor who followed the Jackson trial, said the prosecutor in the case, Santa Barbara County District Attorney Thomas Sneddon, only cared about the drugs in the context of how they might win him a conviction on the molestation charges. "It wasn't a drug investigation," Levenson tells PEOPLE. "It was a lost opportunity for everyone to step in and say this not a healthy environment in every way."

The question has taken on urgency as authorities are now investigating a manslaughter case in Jackson's death, searching the offices of Jackson's doctors and subpoenaing a nutritionist he employed. Sources tell PEOPLE that federal agents are looking into whether Jackson took a powerful anesthesia before his death – and if so, how did he get it and who helped administer it.

Had prosecutors filed drug charges five years ago, they would have had their work cut out for them. Jackson did have legitimate ailments that required medication, and it would have been difficult to prove that prescriptions in the names of Jackson's employees were actually intended for him, Levenson says. It also may have distracted investigators and a jury from the central focus of the trial – the molestation charges. Yet Levenson says that, had prosecutors pressed the matter, they might have been able to compel Jackson to seek medical help. "Sadly, if they had pursued it, Jackson might not have been in this situation."

Trial’s toll on Jackson"Hindsight is 20-20, but had they launched an investigation he might be alive today," Anne Bremner, a former prosecutor and TV legal analyst, tells PEOPLE. "But Sneddon might have felt that had they gone after Jackson for the drugs, it might have been overkill." (Jackson ultimately was acquitted of the molestation charges in June 2005).

Requests to interview representatives from the Santa Barbara County District Attorney's office were referred to Sneddon. Calls to other county prosecutors who worked on the Jackson case were not returned.

The trial appeared to take a toll on Jackson physically and emotionally, featuring the bizarre spectacle of him showing up to court one morning in pajama bottoms. "On some days," says Bremner, who covered the trial for six months, "Jackson didn't seem to be all there. A few times, I felt he was out of it."

Jackson's defense attorney for the case, Thomas Mesereau, says he often spoke to Jackson by phone early in the morning before trial, and "mentally, he was always lucid and cooperative with me," he tells PEOPLE. "While he did deteriorate physically during the trial" — he had trouble eating and sleeping and was extremely worried about his children — "I thought the cause was this horrific trial and the allegations he was facing and that he was ultimately acquitted on."

Mesereau says he never saw Jackson take medication. "I had my own duplex and wasn't with him at Neverland everyday," he says. As for medication investigators found at Jackson's ranch, Mesereau says prosecutors never made an issue of it at trial. "I don't recall the prosecution asking a question about it," he says. "Now alcohol was an issue in the case but prescription drugs were not. I was just focused on what they charged him with."