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Hoopla Eclipses Jackson Hearing

Global media, hordes of fans, hucksters and police turn out for the singer's day in court.

January 17, 2004|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

SANTA MARIA, Calif. — The arraignment of Michael Jackson on child molestation charges Friday was part legal proceeding, part pep rally, part media mob scene and part personal crusade.

As Jackson pleaded not guilty, thousands of fans crammed the sidewalks and parking areas outside the Santa Barbara County courthouse here. Some had hopped continents to show their support, flying in from as far away as Poland and Japan. Others stayed up all night to board the "Caravan of Love," a convoy of buses that rolled through predawn Los Angeles picking up supporters. They were joined by scores of journalists on hand to chronicle this collision of criminal justice and celebrity culture. Photographers perched atop ladders, and TV reporters beamed their live reports from a long row of satellite vans parked along the side of the courthouse

The 60 courtroom spectators chosen by lottery applauded as Jackson entered the room. The judge immediately admonished the singer for being 20 minutes late.

"From now on, I want you to be on time," Superior Court Judge Rodney S. Melville said. "It is an insult to the court."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday January 30, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Michael Jackson -- A Jan. 17 article in Section A about Michael Jackson's arraignment on child molestation charges incorrectly stated that the singer wore a white band on his left arm. He wore the band on his right arm.

The frenzied atmosphere outside the courthouse contrasted with the serious charges Jackson faces. Prosecutors accuse him of molesting and giving an intoxicant to a 12-year-old cancer patient who was living with the entertainer at his Neverland ranch last year.

If convicted, Jackson faces up to 24 years in prison.

The charges come a decade after Jackson was accused in a civil lawsuit of molesting a 12-year-old boy at the ranch. That suit was settled for at least $15 million, and no criminal charges were ever filed.

Wading through a crush of fans after Friday's court proceeding ended, Jackson acknowledged the adoring crowd by climbing atop his sport utility vehicle and waving as he moved to the rhythms of his recorded music. He also had his supporters distribute printed invitations to an afternoon picnic at Neverland, 20 miles to the south.

"In the spirit of love and togetherness Michael Jackson would like to invite his fans and supporters to his Neverland ranch," it read in wedding-style script. "Refreshments will be served. We'll see you there!"

Hundreds of fans accepted the invitation. After signing confidentiality agreements, they strolled into the compound and hopped aboard Jackson's famous amusement park rides.

As with so much related to the case against the entertainer, the scene at his arraignment was unorthodox.

Vendors hawked hot dogs, tri-tip sandwiches, peanut brittle and "Free Michael!" T-shirts.

Reporters and camera operators circulated through the throng outside, some stationing themselves on the rooftop of a law firm across the street. Their bosses paid a hastily jacked-up fee of $350 to park their TV trucks in a county lot at the courthouse.

While the hearing proceeded behind tight security inside, fans outside unfurled banners, held hands in prayer and break-danced in the parking lot.

Deputies patrolled with bomb-sniffing dogs. Impersonators of Jackson and Charlie Chaplin, one of the entertainer's heroes, sauntered through. Some singers launched into a modified version of the civil rights anthem: "Michael shall overcome!"

Most, but not all, of the spectators were Jackson supporters. Santa Maria construction workers were jeered for their signs that said, "Go Get Him, Tom!" -- supporting Dist. Atty. Tom Sneddon's pursuit of Jackson.

And some Santa Maria residents rolled their eyes Friday at the sudden attention their town was receiving.

"Well, I guess we're on the map now, but this isn't exactly the way we wanted to get there," said one woman, who declined to give her name.

After the hearing, fans clogged the road leading to Neverland. At the entrance to the compound, security personnel stopped visitors and required them to sign papers prohibiting them from taking in cameras and recording devices.

Jackson's guests rode his carnival rides and toured the grounds on his miniature train. They ambled by cascading fountains, pink flamingos and dozens of bronze statues of children at play. Soft music streamed from stereo speakers hidden in trees as parents pushed strollers down tree-lined paths. A banner at the entrance to the compound read: "You are not alone."

Jackson was reportedly in a guesthouse on the grounds, but it was not clear whether he met with any of the guests.

The visit marked the end of an exciting day for Nancy Balcorta and her son Troy, 7.

They left their La Crescenta home at 3:30 a.m. to try to catch a glimpse of Jackson at the courthouse. Pushing his way to the fence, Troy even got to shake the singer's hand.

Tomoko Satomura, a 41-year-old English teacher from Japan, had dug into her savings for a quick, cross-hemispheric trip to Jackson's arraignment.

"I love Michael," said Satomura, who paid her respects at Neverland's gates each day during a two-week stay in nearby Solvang last year. "This is important! I couldn't just sit at home in Japan. I had to be here."

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