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Officers Search Neverland Ranch

About 60 investigators swarm the property of singer Michael Jackson, amid independent reports of another molestation allegation.

November 19, 2003|Steve Chawkins, David Reyes and Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writers

SANTA YNEZ VALLEY — Scores of Santa Barbara County law enforcement officers descended on Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch on Tuesday morning, scouring the amusement park estate for evidence in what authorities would only describe as an "ongoing criminal investigation."

More than 60 sheriff's deputies and district attorney's investigators arrived in unmarked vehicles at 8:30 a.m. to search the 2,600-acre Santa Ynez Valley ranch, which includes a mansion, amusement rides and a zoo. The raid occurred as the pop star was shooting a music video in Las Vegas, according to a spokesman. No arrests were announced.

Authorities would not say what they were searching for or describe the nature of the investigation. A spokesman for Jackson, 45, said he and the star were unaware of the purpose of the probe and could not comment.

"Michael will cooperate with the investigation," said Stuart Backerman. "At this point, we don't have any substantive information. When we do we will address it."

As investigators continued to search the property, a lawyer who represents Jackson's family said the investigation stemmed from accusations of child molestation.

"There was a search warrant concerning allegations by a 12-year-old child ... about molestation," said lawyer Brian Oxman of Santa Fe Springs. "This was a surprise, not only to me, but to everyone."

Jackson was made aware of the search after it began, Oxman said. Relatives don't know the identity of the child, but the incident was alleged to have occurred two months ago, he said.

Oxman has represented the Jackson family for 14 years but does not specifically represent Michael Jackson. Oxman said the singer's younger brother, Randy Jackson, told him: "Here we go again. It's going to engage Michael all over again. Michael is just a target."

Authorities would not comment on the lawyer's remarks, nor would they confirm a similar report by Court TV that cited anonymous sources. They plan to discuss details of the investigation in a news conference at 11 a.m. today.

Jackson has spent the last three weeks in Las Vegas accompanied by his three young children, according to Backerman. He was told of the search by staff at the ranch.

The search occurred the same day that Epic Records released "Number Ones," a collection of Jackson's hits. Through his spokesman, Jackson suggested that the timing was not just a coincidence and denounced those who he said were claiming to represent him.

"I've seen lawyers who don't represent me and spokespeople who do not know me speaking for me," said Backerman, quoting Jackson. "These characters always seem to surface with dreadful allegations just as another project -- an album, a video -- is being released."

The $12.3-million Santa Ynez Valley property has often been the site of children's parties, and figured prominently in a television documentary broadcast on ABC in February, in which Jackson said he had slept in bed with many children, but that it was innocent fun.

In Martin Bashir's film, a 12-year-old boy told of how he struck up a friendship with Jackson two years ago. The child stayed at Neverland with his family's blessing and spoke on camera of occasions when he shared a bedroom with Jackson.

When Bashir suggested to Jackson that many people would think it inappropriate for a middle-aged man to share a bed with a young boy, Jackson dismissed them as "ignorant" and "wacky."

"Why can't you share your bed?" Jackson asked. "The most loving thing to do is to share your bed with someone. It's a beautiful thing. It's very right; it's very loving. Because what's wrong with sharing a love?"

Jackson was the subject of a civil and criminal investigation in 1993, after a 13-year-old boy alleged that the singer had molested him. The civil case was settled out of court the next year for a reported $15 million.

In September 1994, then Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti said that he had closed the 13-month criminal investigation, because the boy who made the initial complaint decided he did not want to testify.

Prosecutors said the investigation had turned up two more children who alleged that Jackson had molested them, but that they too were unwilling to take the stand.

They said, at the time, that they would be willing to reopen the case if any of the children changed their mind.

But the district attorney's office said Tuesday that it had no involvement in the search warrant served at Jackson's ranch.

As investigators continued to look for evidence, at least 50 news vehicles were parked along the narrow road leading to Jackson's ranch. Behind the large wooden gate and beside its Tudor-style gatehouse, deputies chatted, keeping an eye on reporters across the street.

Four miles away, in the town of Los Olivos, a tony community where wine-tasting rooms line the main street, the talk centered on Jackson.

Art gallery employee Alison Irvine, 19, expressed sympathy for Jackson.

"He's generous; he's a nice guy. When I was in the eighth grade, I went to the ranch on a field trip."

While many in the community are more critical of Jackson, Irvine suggested he might be the victim of a shakedown.

"I feel sorry for him," she said. "If he weren't Michael Jackson, there wouldn't be all this hype."

*

Times staff writers Richard Winton, Catherine Saillant, William Overend, Greg Krikorian, Jeff Leeds and Monte Morin contributed to this report.

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