During the later part of his career, Michael Jackson faced several allegations that he molested young boys.
The police investigated him in 1993. Another accusation led to a trial in 2005 that became a pop culture spectacle, complete with crowds of supporters waiting outside the courthouse. Jackson was acquitted and died four years later while preparing for a string of concert dates he hoped would revive his career.
A new documentary, “Leaving Neverland,” has rekindled interest in the accusations. The film had its debut at the Sundance Film Festival and will air on HBO in March.
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The first accusation
In August 1993, when Jackson was still a major star on the pop charts and touring to support his album “Dangerous,” the Los Angeles Police Department began investigating claims that Jackson had molested a 13-year-old boy. Executing search warrants for a condominium in Los Angeles and Jackson’s Neverland Ranch in Santa Barbara County, Calif., the police seized videotapes but found no incriminating evidence.
On Sept. 14, while Jackson was on tour in Moscow, the boy’s parents sued the star, saying that Jackson had “repeatedly committed sexual battery” on their son. Among the accusations were that Jackson had performed oral sex on the boy and masturbated him.
Anthony Pellicano, a private investigator working for Jackson, called the suit part of an extortion attempt. “A demand for $20 million was made and presented,” he said. “It was flatly and consistently refused.” (Years later, Pellicano, known as a top Hollywood “fixer,” was accused of making death threats against journalists, and in 2008 was sentenced to 15 years in prison for illegal wiretapping.)
As the case drew headlines, the Jackson camp introduced the news media to children who gave interviews supporting the star. One, a 10-year-old boy named Wade Robson, told CNN about harmless “slumber parties” in Jackson’s bedroom.
On Dec. 20, 1993, Jackson was strip-searched by police at Neverland, and photographs were taken of his genitals to compare to a description given by the boy. Two days later, Jackson spoke on live television, denying the accusations and excoriating the news media.
“I am not guilty of these allegations,” Jackson said. “But if I am guilty of anything, it is of giving all that I have to give to help children all over the world.”
In January 1994, Jackson settled the case for $23 million, with $5 million going to the family’s lawyers.
Fallout from a documentary
In February 2003, with Jackson’s music career in decline, the documentary “Living With Michael Jackson,” based on interviews by the journalist Martin Bashir, was broadcast in Britain and the United States. In it, Jackson openly discussed sharing his bedroom with a young cancer survivor, and called people who object to such behavior “ignorant.”
The documentary sparked a criminal investigation, and in December, Jackson was charged with child molesting, serving alcohol to a minor, conspiracy and kidnapping. He faced up to 20 years in prison.
[Why is everyone suddenly talking about Michael Jackson? We explain.]
The molestation trial
Jackson’s trial began on Feb. 28, 2005. Throughout, the global news media paid close attention to Jackson’s erratic behavior, like arriving in floral pajamas.
The boy from the documentary, who was 14 at the time of the trial, testified that Jackson had masturbated him. His brother said he had witnessed the abuse, and that Jackson had showed them both pornography and served them wine, calling it “Jesus juice.” A former housekeeper, Blanca Francia, said she had seen Jackson taking a shower with Wade Robson, the young man who had spoken in support of Jackson in 1993.
Jackson’s lawyers portrayed the boy at the center of the case and his family as practiced grifters, and several witnesses who had been close with Jackson as children — like the actor Macaulay Culkin, then 24 years old — took the stand to deny any abuse. Robson, by this point a choreographer for stars like Britney Spears, testified that he had spent the night at Neverland more than 20 times but that Jackson had never molested him or taken a shower with him.
James Safechuck, who had met Jackson as a young boy in the 1980s when he was cast in a Pepsi commercial, also denied publicly that he had been abused, although he was not called to testify.
Jackson was found not guilty of all charges on June 13, 2005; outside the courthouse, a fan released 10 white doves, one for each count that was acquitted. Jackson died four years later, at age 50, on the eve of a comeback attempt.
Fresh accusations and lawsuits
In 2013, four years after Jackson’s death, Robson sued the star’s estate, saying that Jackson had molested him for seven years, beginning when he was age 7. In an interview on the “Today” show, he said that “brainwashing” by Jackson had led him to testify on the star’s behalf. Lawyers for Jackson’s estate blasted Robson’s credibility, saying that in the past he had repeatedly denied abuse. Robson’s case was later thrown out by a judge for being filed too late.
Safechuck filed his own suit in 2014, saying that Jackson had abused him “hundreds” of times from 1988 to 1992, beginning when a 10-year-old Safechuck — and his mother — accompanied Jackson on his “Bad” concert tour. According to his complaint, Jackson kissed Safechuck’s genitals and gave him jewelry as rewards for performing sexual acts. His case was also dismissed.
A new documentary roils Jackson’s family
On Jan. 25, “Leaving Neverland,” a two-part, four-hour film by Dan Reed, with Robson and Safechuck describing accusations of abuse in great detail, opened at the Sundance Film Festival. Before the screening, the festival director told the audience that health care providers were available to help anyone disturbed by the film.
The Jackson estate condemned the film as “yet another lurid production in an outrageous and pathetic attempt to exploit and cash in on Michael Jackson.” In a statement, the Jackson family called it “a public lynching” and added: “We are furious that the media, who without a shred of proof or single piece of physical evidence, chose to believe the word of two admitted liars over the word of hundreds of families and friends around the world who spent time with Michael, many at Neverland, and experienced his legendary kindness and global generosity.”
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