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Neverland: Paradise or Trap?

For Michael Jackson, the ranch is a shrine to childhood innocence. Prosecutors in his molestation trial call it a shortcut to depravity.

May 23, 2005|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

LOS OLIVOS, Calif. — Late one night at Neverland ranch, Michael Jackson and a 12-year-old boy hopped off his custom golf cart, named Moon Rover, and gazed into a Peter Pan display window in the breezeway behind the pop star's home.

With Jackson's arms draped over the boy's shoulders, the two watched raptly as an electronic Tinkerbell darted through a scene from the classic tale, according to the testimony of a former security guard who said he had observed them.

As the former guard watched, Jackson slipped his hand down the boy's pants, kissed him and led him into the 25-room Tudor mansion. The defense immediately challenged the man's testimony in Santa Barbara County Superior Court, pointing out that he had lost a wrongful-termination suit against Jackson, a possible motive for lying about his former boss.

Even so, the former guard's account raises a question that has reverberated throughout Jackson's child-molestation trial: In escorting his young friends around Neverland, was Jackson sharing his enthusiasm for the paradise he had created? Or was the pop star using his $50-million playground to lure boys into his bed?

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 04, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Neverland ranch -- A May 23 article in the California section about Michael Jackson's Neverland ranch incorrectly identified the painter of "The Last Supper" as Michelangelo. It was painted by Leonardo da Vinci.

Whether the four-square-mile ranch is a shrine to innocence or a shortcut to depravity depends on where one sits in the courtroom. Defense lawyers have described the opulent refuge as a blend of pilgrimage destination Lourdes, France, and Chuck E. Cheese's, the family-friendly restaurant chain "where a kid can be a kid."

Santa Barbara County prosecutors, however, view the ranch as a trap lavishly baited by a serial pedophile with candy, carnival rides, toys, pornography and booze.

Neverland has been "used for beautiful causes," Dist. Atty. Tom Sneddon said in his opening remarks to jurors in February. "But like so many things in life, something very good can end up being ... something very bad."

Jackson, 46, is accused of molesting a 13-year-old boy at Neverland in 2003. He is also charged with attempted molestation, giving minors alcohol to aid in the commission of a felony, and conspiring to keep the accuser and his family from leaving the ranch. If convicted of all charges, he could face more than 20 years in prison.

As they grapple with the case, jurors are bound to agree on one thing: Neverland is a remarkably accurate reflection of its owner -- in some ways spectacular and, in others, very, very strange.

It's a place, according to testimony, where Jackson would throw stones at the lion in his private zoo to make the beast roar.

It's a place where neighbors could hear the long, moaning whistle of a steam engine as Jackson, alone and sleepless, chugged through the night on its 1 1/2 -mile track. The engine is named Katherine, after the pop star's mother.

It's a heavily guarded retreat where even the FedEx driver has to sign a lengthy pledge to never disclose whatever he might see. But it's also a place where thousands of underprivileged children have been welcomed to see the animals, hop aboard the rides in Jackson's private amusement park, and enjoy all the burgers and fries and cotton candy they can eat.

Set five miles down a narrow country road, about an hour's drive from Santa Barbara, Neverland is, more than anything else, Jackson's home.

Neverland is where he wakes up at 4:30 a.m. each day that he's free on $3-million bail. Above his bed hangs a rendering of Michelangelo's "Last Supper," with Jackson's face imposed on that of Jesus.

On many mornings, Jackson has a telephone pep talk with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, according to the pop star's publicist, Raymone Bain. A wardrobe advisor lays out the day's choice of outfits. And a makeup artist frequently visits to help Jackson cover blotches characteristic of the skin disease vitiligo.

A little after 3 p.m., Jackson returns to Neverland from the courthouse in nearby Santa Maria, sometimes rolling down the tinted window of his SUV to greet waiting fans. His dark-suited security crew drives him up the winding road to his oak-paneled, 13,000-square-foot residence, where he plays with his three children, ages 3 to 8, sits down to a family dinner, and, by phone, confers with his attorneys about the next day in court.

It may sound like a country retreat for a hardworking chief executive, but, for Jackson, Neverland is a place to experience the childhood that he says show business stole from him.

"It gave me a chance to do what I couldn't do when I was little," he told Geraldo Rivera of Fox News in February. "Other men have their Ferraris and their airplanes or helicopters or wherever they find their bliss. My bliss is in giving and sharing and having innocent fun."

During the trial, defense attorneys have described hordes of sick children from the Make-a-Wish Foundation swamping Jackson with hugs.

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