With all the gusto of a latter-day Elvis sighting, word spread that Michael Jackson was back at his Neverland ranch in the Santa Ynez mountains Saturday.
Rumors of Jackson sightings passed from friends to friends of friends and on from there, transforming an otherwise wet and dreary Saturday into a media field day.
Reporters, photographers and TV crews lined the two-lane road outside the gates to Neverland, north of Santa Barbara, hoping for irrefutable evidence that Jackson had returned from abroad.
The guard, when he deigned to talk, told them nobody was home. But who could believe \o7 him\f7 anyway?
So instead, the race was on for any evidence--refutable or not--that Jackson was back in California to answer questions in connection with allegations that he sexually molested a 13-year-old boy.
Howard Weitzman, one of the attorneys representing Jackson, was characteristically tight-lipped about the whereabouts of his most famous client. "I certainly do know where Michael is, but I can't tell you," he said.
But others could be persuaded to tell all.
A tabloid television news show reportedly paid an employee of Pacific Aviation $2,000 for his "exclusive" account of seeing Jackson shortly after he landed at the Santa Barbara airport Friday afternoon.
Except that the exclusive account was overheard by secretary Michelle Waters, who had heard it before anyway because a co-worker whom she would trust with her life called her within minutes of seeing Jackson--or whoever it was--herself.
"The plane pulled up about 4:30," Waters said. "It was still light enough to see. It was a white plane, a 727. There was no flight plan and nobody would say who was on the plane. It was like, 'Wow, who could \o7 that\f7 be?'
"Then two or three bodyguard types got out and looked around. Then two young boys got out, maybe teen-agers, and ran to this blue Astro minivan. Then Michael Jackson got out. He had on a red hat, a red shirt, black pants and a red surgical mask over his mouth.
"He ran down the steps (leading from the plane), ran and got into the van. The manager here waved to him, gave him the peace sign, and Michael Jackson waved back."
Then Waters, 21, provided a little perspective. She said the Jackson sighting was "definitely" the biggest thing to hit the Santa Barbara airport in a long while.
"(Tennis star) Andre Agassi was here a couple of weeks ago," she said. "That was pretty exciting. But Michael Jackson. . . ."
And as if that weren't enough, there was word that a U.S. Customs agent in Billings, Mont., inspected the entertainer's plane--a chartered 727 arriving from London--when it touched down there earlier Friday.
(There also briefly appeared to be a Puerto Rican connection, but a customs agent in San Juan denied a rumor that Jackson had landed there.)
The customs agent in Billings, according to a source close to him, went on board to check the passenger list and the passports with the pilot.
"He saw Michael Jackson on the list and asked, 'Is that \o7 the\f7 Michael Jackson?' " the source said. Then, at the pilot's suggestion, the customs agent looked in the back of the plane and saw Jackson, the source said.
"It was a real fluke that you guys even found out about this," the source told a Times reporter. "But we weren't going to call the stupid Billings Gazette."
Closer to Jackson's home, however, the locals were more blase.
Michael Donohue, an employee at the Country Store in Los Olivos, said the entertainer had already arrived at Neverland before the media could catch sight of him.
"I know that because people who do work for him told me," Donohue said. "All his staff comes in here and they're really nice. I think the whole (sexual molestation investigation) is a scam. I think money is what's meaningful here."
Eddie Reynosa, 29, an actor who danced on Jackson's "Thriller" video, had a different take on the latest round of Jackson sightings. "There are a lot of games going on," he said. "They are setting up a lot of decoys."
Reynosa, who has known Jackson since 1981, said the person in the red hat and red surgical mask at the Santa Barbara airport Friday was Janet Jackson, not her brother.
Sources close to the Jackson case just laughed at that, although in the next breath they acknowledged that the way things have been going, anything is possible.
Ever since Jackson abruptly halted his world tour Nov. 12 and announced that he was addicted to painkillers, he has been sighted almost as frequently as Elvis.
Because Jackson often shows up in public surrounded by a huge entourage and wearing a mask, it's difficult to know when a sighting is real and when it's fake.
Fans and photographers burst into action outside a London drug treatment clinic last month when a man resembling Jackson and wearing a tunic, dark glasses and one glove jumped out of a limousine. That turned out to be a Jackson look-alike sent by a local TV station.