SANTA MARIA — It took only 10 slaps to split open the Tom Sneddon pinata strung up Saturday on a pepper tree at a local park.
Cheers went up, hard candies and Tootsie Rolls came down and a few Michael Jackson fans scrambled for the loot cascading onto the lawn. If the child-molestation case against their hero collapses as quickly as the effigy of his chief prosecutor, justice will, indeed, be sweet.
But the several hundred fans expected for the Many Nations, One Voice rally, which started Friday and is to continue through Monday morning, know all too well that Jackson is engaged in the fight of his life. And although they are quick to point out that they are driven only by love, quite a few are also downright angry.
From chat rooms to courtrooms to candlelight vigils, outraged fans sound variations on the theme offered at the rally: Jackson is being railroaded.
"Obviously, they're fairly upset," said Michael Jackson Fan Club president Deborah Dannelly, a legal assistant from Corpus Christi, Texas, who organized the rally. "It's a difficult time."
On Saturday, a couple of dozen fans gathered at a park pavilion to make posters for their Monday morning march, arrange for rides to a candlelight vigil at Jackson's Neverland ranch and smash the daylights out of an Incredible Hulk pinata whose face was a photograph of Sneddon, the Santa Barbara County district attorney.
Vernay Lewis, one of Dannelly's 14 volunteer assistants at the fan club, reminded the group that Jackson fans recognize Sneddon as "a child of God" and then invited the pinata smashers to step forward.
Blindfolded with a purple silk scarf, they walloped the Sneddon stand-in mercilessly. Seany O'Kane, a 23-year-old Irishman living in Liverpool, struck the coup de prosecutor.
"I'm a big fan of justice," he said. "At the very end of all this, when Michael is acquitted, there will be all these people who will say they knew he was innocent all along. Well, I ask you, where are they now?"
Some of Jackson's supporters have few kind words for journalists, whom many tend to see as uncharged co-conspirators in a plot to bring the pop star down.
At the gates of Neverland one afternoon last week, a wary fan ended an interview moments after it started by trying to rip a reporter's notebook from his hands.
"Give me my words back!" she screamed. "I want my words back!"
Early the next morning, three young women who had flown in from Germany were standing at a corner that Jackson's convoy would glide by on the way to court. They carried a doll with a photo of Sneddon pasted to its face and the letters KKK stitched onto its striped prison outfit. They unfurled a large German flag on which they had lettered: "Germany loves and supports you -- you'll never walk alone."
Although their props were eye-popping, their lips were sealed. They wouldn't talk to a reporter, beyond explaining that the words of fans had been too often twisted to make both them and Jackson look weird.
"We're not here to do interviews," one of them said. "We're here to support Michael."
Jackson has attracted millions of fans with his chart-busting songs and elastic dance moves. Even in jury selection for his current trial, a number of prospective jurors talked fondly about how much they enjoyed his music.
Early on, the pop star's support was a lot louder, with hundreds of Jackson's supporters massing in Santa Maria for several significant pretrial hearings.
For Jackson's Jan. 16 arraignment, the "convoy of love" bus flotilla had picked up fans at church parking lots throughout Los Angeles before dawn and taken them to the courthouse. After he was done in court that day, Jackson pleased the faithful by doing a few dance moves on top of his SUV.
Now the scene outside the courthouse is a study in serenity. Chatting groups of police officers outnumber the few fans who were unable to snag any of the courtroom's 50 seats reserved for the public.
Despite the low numbers in Santa Maria, Jackson's support has only increased, said Dannelly, who helped establish the Michael Jackson Fan Club in 1992.
Charges against Jackson have boosted membership to 17,000, she estimates -- a jump of 20% to 30% in about a year. Hers is just one of numerous Jackson fan groups.
"A lot of people weren't members but have always had an inner liking for the artist," she said. "When something like this happens, they feel it's time to get up and speak. They want to be heard."
The weekend rally is guaranteed "massive media coverage," the club promises on its website. "The eyes of the world will be on Santa Maria -- will you be there?"
Planned events include a fans' tribute to Jackson tonight and an Olympic-style procession to the courthouse Monday morning, with fans bearing their nations' flags.
Participants in the Monday event are urged to carry candles and wear white. Gold armbands -- like Jackson's -- will be provided.