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Real world crashes down on Jackson's Neverland

Questions about hidden bedroom overshadow pop star's child-like playland
/ Source: The Associated Press

Stand at the gates of Neverland and it’s hard to tell Michael Jackson’s property from any of the ranches and wineries stretching up the hills of northern Santa Barbara County — until you see the handmade signs.

“Michael is the victim,” reads one, a few feet from the gate. “100 percent innocent” states another. “We Support Michael.”

For 15 years, Neverland has been Jackson’s sanctuary from the outside world. It’s a fairytale shrine to innocence, where young guests pass the hours listening to music from Disney films, darting from one carnival ride to the next and staring wide-eyed at a menagerie of exotic animals.

But grown-up troubles are knocking on Neverland’s door. Jackson’s critics see the self-styled King of Pop’s home as a secretive compound where he hides from scrutiny and indulges his fixation with children.

At a Nov. 19 news conference where authorities announced an arrest warrant for Jackson, a reporter asked if it was safe for parents to let their children go to Neverland for sleep-overs.

“My advice is don’t do it,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Jim Anderson said.

Added District Attorney Thomas Sneddon, “None of our kids are there.”

The new allegations revolve around one of the many boys Jackson has welcomed into a bedroom that is the subject of almost as many conflicting stories as Jackson himself. Some say Jackson has a secret room and an alarm outside the bedroom door, but whether they exist depends on who you ask.

Completely innocentAhmad Elatab, a 17-year-old who visited last year, said everything that happens at Neverland is completely innocent. He describes long days of playing hide-and-seek and other games, and said no section of the massive complex was off-limits.

“I was in awe,” said Elatab, of Passaic County, N.J. “It was just amazing with all the lights. It was just like heaven for kids. It’s made just right for kids. All the rides, all the animals, all the toys, everything.

“We’ll go play games, play water balloon fights,” said Elatab, who met Jackson through a friend of his father’s in the music industry. “He shows us how to dance and sing and stuff like that.”

Jackson was booked last month on suspicion of molesting a 12-year-old boy and has denied the accusations. He could face charges from Santa Barbara County authorities this week.

The allegations mark the second time in a decade he has been accused of molestation. Jackson never faced charges for the 1993 accusations, instead settling with the boy’s family for a reported $15 million to $20 million.

Jackson paid $14.6 million for the 2,600-acre estate he moved into 15 years ago, when he dominated the musical world.

Besides rides and a zoo, the estate includes two trains, two lakes and a series of buildings. They include the main house, a ranch house, guest cottages and another house for his memorabilia and costumes, according to Robert Wegner, his former security chief.

The ranch is nicknamed for the fairytale land in Jackson’s favorite story, Peter Pan, about a boy who wouldn’t grow up. Jackson often opens its gates to children, some coming by the busload from area schools. Others come to his attention through charities or hospitals and are invited as a way to raise their spirits.

“He did it to help disadvantaged kids, and also because he wants to recreate his childhood,” Elatab said. “It’s like he is Peter Pan and we’re the lost children. ... Kids that don’t have love become messed up in the head, so that’s what he’s trying to stop.”

Jackson’s latest troubles began with a documentary that aired on ABC-TV in February, in which he acknowledges sharing his bed with “many children” and acknowledges sleepovers with the boy he is now accused of molesting.

But the documentary’s interviews with Jackson also provide insight into Jackson’s home life and his love of Peter Pan, who Jackson said “represents youth, childhood, never growing up, magic, flying.”

“And to me, I just have never, ever grown out of loving that ...” Jackson tells British journalist Martin Bashir.

When Bashir asks if Jackson identifies with Peter Pan, Jackson replies, “I am Peter Pan.”

At one point, Jackson lets Bashir in on what he calls a “big secret” — a tree overlooking a fountain Jackson calls his “Giving Tree.” He says he wrote the songs “Heal the World,” “Black or White” and “Childhood” while nestled in its branches.

“I think it’s my favorite thing,” Jackson tells Bashir. “Having water balloon fights and climbing trees — I think that those two are my favorite.”

As Jackson climbs the tree, Bashir looks skeptical. But other adult visitors to Neverland feel almost as if they’re under a spell.

“It was really magic and just a fabulous place, a dreamy place,” said Diana D’Alo, a Paris fan who has been to Neverland several times. “It was like a dream come true for me to be there. It’s a place where you go and you have fun, and all the cares in the world you leave outside.”

But the most dazzled visitors are the children. Wegner said there were three types of children who visited the ranch: the disadvantaged, relatives who live near the ranch and their friends, and a group Wegner calls “Michael’s favorites.”

Wegner said the third group includes child star Macauley Culkin and the boy who accused Jackson of molestation in 1993 — the last year Wegner worked for Jackson before he slipped on ice at the ranch and left on disability. Wegner has written a book about his experiences titled “My Three Years Working for Michael Jackson.”

Sleeping arrangements
He also said Neverland had a board listing sleeping arrangements so Jackson’s personal fire department would know where to search in case of a blaze.

“There was always a number plus Michael in his bedroom, mostly all boys,” said Wegner, who said he was in Jackson’s bedroom twice.

Jackson spokesman Stuart Backerman said Wegner talks about Neverland merely to sell copies of his book.

“Robert Wegner is an opportunist,” Backerman said. “He claims certain things that he has no proof of or that he never saw. It’s all hearsay and consequently not believable.”

The abuse allegations against Jackson have brought disputed reports of a secret room off Jackson’s main bedroom.

Elatab said Jackson told him he did have a separate room, and that it was there so he could hide if someone broke into the house.

Also in dispute is whether Jackson has an alarm outside his bedroom door. Former Los Angeles Police Detective William Dworin said he saw such a security system when he searched Neverland to investigate the previous molestation allegations.

“It was a warning system when someone approaches the door of the bedroom. It sets off a musical tone as well as an alarm-type sound in the bedroom,” said Dworin, who now works with the Los Angeles city attorney’s office on sexual abuse prevention programs.

Wegner, who was at Neverland on the day of the 1993 search, said he recalls no such alarm. In fact, he said, Jackson sometimes expressed almost childlike concerns about his safety, at one point calling security because he heard noises on the roof.

“I said, ’Michael, it’s just raccoons. We have raccoons out here,”’ he said. “He still wanted somebody to sit there all night.”