LOS OLIVOS, Calif. — When an angry driver in a pickup truck swerved off the road Tuesday morning and mowed down 60 large hearts planted in a mile-long row outside the Neverland ranch, Michael Jackson fans jumped in their cars to give chase.
But they didn't get very far. The attacker's accomplice parked a big, blue SUV across the two-lane road a mile south of Jackson's estate, blocking their path, witnesses said. It was the second time in as many days that someone had run over the signs staked into the gravel shoulders of the road as symbols of support for the pop star.
The confrontation was the latest flashpoint in a mounting conflict between the 100 or so fans who have come from all over the world to back the pop star, and the farmworkers, ranchers and wealthy vineyard owners in this coastal hill country of pasturelands and oak forests, 30 miles south of Santa Maria, and two miles north of Los Olivos, a rustic nest of wine-tasting rooms, boutiques, art galleries and real estate offices.
On the one side are Jackson devotees, awaiting word from a Santa Barbara County Superior Court jury in Santa Maria on charges their idol molested a 13-year-old cancer victim in 2003. Dozens chipped in $5 each to buy the wooden stakes, foam-boards, paint and nails to make the "Avenue of Hearts" which fans began erecting Sunday.
They arrive in rental cars and battered used vehicles emblazoned with slogans -- "We Love You Michael" and "Frenchies for Michael" -- and posters. In the evening, they blast Jackson's music from boom boxes and dance in the dusk. When television journalists try to go live from the scene, they set off their car alarms to sabotage the journalists' feeds.
On the other side of the battle are the farmers and wealthy landowners of Los Olivos, many of whom came to the area because of its isolation. Until the trial started, they largely were left alone. Then came the interlopers.
The trouble began when charges were filed last year against the 46-year-old Jackson, and Neverland was besieged by fans and reporters on the ground and in the air. In recent days, however, the problem has been exacerbated by the drama of jury deliberations.
The rhythms of the day for both factions are on a collision course. The fans gather outside the ranch before court begins at 8:30 a.m. in hopes of catching a glimpse of Jackson, and again after jury deliberations end at 2:30 p.m.
Those are the hours parents are taking their children to and from the Family School, a nearby private school where David Crosby of Crosby, Stills and Nash sent his children. Some members of both factions drive fast down the winding country lane, racing to pick up students or return to their vigil.
The Avenue of Hearts was the final straw. Until Sunday, the fans had stayed close to the Neverland gates, but with the foam-board cavalcade, they pushed their audacious presence a mile from the ranch.
After the hearts were vandalized Tuesday, Jackson fan Maria Flynn, 30, of England reported the crime to the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department, pointing out that supporters had permission from a property owner to erect the hearts.
"It's all because of their hatred for Michael Jackson," Flynn said. "We're not giving up. We're going to put the hearts out on the road again and again and again."
But even as she spoke, Jackson supporters suffered yet another defeat. Just as they completed the sweaty task of staking the hearts into the ground for a third time, Santa Barbara County crews arrived in large tractors to clear the road of weeds. The signs, county workers said, had to come down, at least temporarily, while the crews worked.
It wasn't clear who flattened the signs, but many area residents are tired of the commotion.
"Parents are concerned about the people on the roads," said Family School Principal Eileen Doyle. "These are country lanes and usually there's nobody on them."
Recently, the school posted no-trespassing signs to keep Jackson fans and reporters from wandering onto the grounds. One parent said a fan had entered the campus and asked to use the bathroom.
Doyle added that the kindergarten-through-fifth-grade school has "a contingency plan for verdict day" for its 175 students. She declined to elaborate.
Parents of students who attend the school have grown weary of having to weave through the gauntlet of satellite trucks and Jackson fans, who walk the road at all hours, presenting a potential safety hazard, they said. Some are upset at having to answer their children's sensitive questions about the child-molestation case.
"For me, it's a safety issue," said Donna Griffin, whose daughter attends the Family School. "The fans start gathering just about the time school lets out and we have to pick them up. Once we drove past them and my daughter was afraid," she added. "There's 100 fans out there; where are they going to the bathroom?"
In any case, Jackson fans have vowed that the hearts will stand as long as the trial continues.
By 2:15 p.m. Tuesday, the 60 hearts were back up. The front of each was red, and on the back, each was inscribed with a message of adoration. One read: "The Power of Love."
This time, the signs were equipped with crude homemade spike strips -- planks of wood with four-inch nails pointing upward. Jackson fans declined to comment whether their aim was to damage any enemy's tires.