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Stories of slumber parties raise more questions

Testimony from two boys and their relatives reveal that Michael Jackson spent at least a year's worth of nights with the young boys.
/ Source: NBC News

They’re all staying at Neverland. It came out in court.

Wade Robson and Brett Barnes, both Australians and young adults now, who for a dozen years have been denying sleazy suggestions by tabloid-friendly former Neverland employees that as boys they’d been molested by Michael Jackson, came to court from the singer’s fabled ranch to deny it once again, emphatically and unequivocally and under oath, in Jackson’s molestation trial. Their mothers and sisters, respectively, mentioned in their supporting testimony that they too were staying at “this paradise,” as Barnes’ sister Karlee called it, “…that every time I come back feels like I’m coming home.”

But Neverland cannot feel like home now and, for Jackson’s witnesses and for Jackson himself, will never again be the child’s innocent fantasy they have all proclaimed it to be.

I say that using the absolutes that journalism usually abhors because last week there was a sea change in the logical view from here to the finish line of the central contested question of the trial.  Anyone watching or listening—including, of course, the jury—now must decide not whether Michael Jackson is a weird, eccentric, idiosyncratic pop icon who is or is not a child molester; but whether Jackson is a grown man who has innocently spent hundreds if not thousands of nights (yes, thousands!, according to the high end estimate of one pro-Jackson source) in bed with a succession of individual boys--  or whether he spent all those nights with all those boys, and molested some of them.

The defense, in the presentation of its first witnesses who so vigorously insist that Jackson held their love and trust, then and now, has conceded the point:  Michael Jackson, as a man in his 30s and 40s, chose to go to sleep at night with a pre-pubescent boy in his bed, whenever he could.  How many nights? Karlee Barnes almost off-handedly estimated that, for her 10-year old brother and the then-35 year old Jackson, it was “maybe a year’s worth of nights.”

“365 nights Jackson shared his bed with your brother?” prosecutor Gordon Auchincloss asked on cross examination, “and you didn’t think that was odd?”

“Not at all,” Karlee Barnes answered breezily, her bright smile never wavering.

I looked at the jurors, shifting my gaze from one face to the next, then acknowledged my own feelings I could not suppress:  I am a father, I was 35 years old once, I have a son who was once 10.  I could not imagine sharing my bed with any young child, boy or girl; I do not know an adult male from my long experience who so thoroughly and instantly inspired my trust that I would have allowed my son to share his bed. That my answer to the Auchincloss question, “ … and you didn’t think that was odd?” could ever have been “ … not at all.”  I remembered being startled when the mother of Jackson’s 1993 accuser testified without challenge from the defense that the popstar and her young son shared a bed on perhaps 50 nights. Startled that Jackson’s lead attorney Tom Mesereau didn’t say, “On the 50 nights you claim Jackson was in a bedroom with your son,” as would have been his approach if he wanted to contest the testimony. He just let the number stand. Now I was thinking, 50 nights is just a hint of the whole story … at least that part of the story.

Jurors are asked to be reasonable people, and usually are. Jackson and his lawyers, through their very first witnesses, are asking those reasonable people to acknowledge if not accept the possibility of an alternate universe unlike any they’ve ever considered or could imagine.  At a key point in the defense case, a source told me, Mesereau will seize upon the conclusion of Dr. Stan Katz, the Los Angeles psychiatrist and prosecution witness who elicited the molestation story of Jackson’s current accuser. In his initial report to law enforcement, as NBC News was first to report last spring, Katz said Jackson “doesn’t present as a pedophile, but as a regressed 10-year old.”

Hence the “pillow fights, video games … and silly dancing” among Jackson and his child friends in his Neverland bedroom, on all those nights when bedtime was simply the time when you fell asleep. The water balloon fights and food fights, the bottomless supplies of candy and soda pop, the endless games of hide-and-seek and golf cart-bumper cars, and throwing pebbles at the lion cage to make the beast roar.

Until the beginning of the defense case, I thought the most important and largely unremarked testimony in this now 11-week old trial came from Sgt. Steve Robel, the chief investigator for the prosecution team. He was asked by District Attorney Tom Sneddon, who has pursued Jackson for a dozen years, about how the decision was made to execute the search warrants for Neverland and other locations, followed by an arrest warrant for Jackson himself on November 18, 2003.

Robel answered that after the last interviews with the accuser and his mother and two siblings, all of whom proved to be credibility-challenged witnesses at trial, there was virtually no investigation before the warrants were executed. “Sometimes, you know,” Robel testified, “we’ll go in and advance further … to gather more information prior to serving a warrant. In this case we chose not to,” because, he explained, there was a concern that Jackson or his people would destroy evidence.

I heard that exchange and made a mental note: surely the defense will argue that Sneddon, obsessed with proving his belief that Jackson is a serial child molester, decided that if a boy was willing to accuse Jackson on the witness stand -- no matter the circumstances and history of the boy and his family -- that was reason enough to arrest one of the most famous people on the planet. It’s faith-based prosecution, I could hear the defense arguing: saying he’s a molester, in the absence of physical and forensic evidence and of credible witnesses, doesn’t make it so.

Dinner at NeverlandNow, after the testimony of the first defense witnesses, I can hear the prosecution’s argument: Is it even thinkable that a grown man who admits he has slept with dozens of boys on hundreds of nights or more … who has issues with alcohol if not a full-blown problem of alcoholism … who collects pornography and has regaled his public for years with his version of urgent if mysteriously androgynous sexuality … is an innocent manchild, the self-proclaimed “Peter Pan” who has shared his home, his riches, his fantasy life and his bed with children purely out of love?

Look though the smoke, the prosecution can argue, and see the fire: saying “You’re making it sexual and it’s not … the world needs more love,” as Jackson told Martin Bashir in that infamous documentary that triggered this whole case, doesn’t make it so.

Leaving court Friday, I wondered if they’d all gather around the dinner table at Neverland in a while. Brett Barnes, who had to quit his job as a casino croupier in Melbourne to testify for Jackson, and his sister Karlee and mother Marie Lisbeth. Wade Robson, the choreographer of Britney Spears and N’Sync fame, and his sister Chantal and mother Joy. And Jackson himself, seeming more frail and diminished by the day and surely aware that a New York hedge fund, real bottom-liners, a source tells us, had just bought out his big loans from Bank of America secured by his Sony music catalogue (Beatles and Elvis songs) and by Neverland itself -- and that the New Yorkers would surely grab it all if the income-strapped Jackson can’t find a way to pay up by an onrushing end-of-year deadline.

And I heard a line of Chantal Robson’s testimony, an afterthought the judge allowed in when Mesereau had asked her to describe Neverland and her many visits there with her brother and Michael Jackson. She’d rhapsodized about the place, said “We just hung out, played games … what normal kids do.”

And then said, her eyes looking into some distant past memory, “It used to be the happiest place in the world.”