I still say my first trip to Neverland Ranch was the best vacation I’d ever taken until my honeymoon to Puerto Rico years later with my dear wife.
The late Michael Jackson obviously had a flair like no other performer — or celebrity — in history. Each time he ascended onto a stage, he was accompanied by pyrotechnics, awesome lighting and other outstanding special effects. Every thump of the bass during songs like “Billie Jean” and “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” whipped fans into a frenzy.
When the music ended, when the light bulbs stopped flashing and the last of the sounds of screaming women — and men — finally stopped, Neverland was the place Jackson went home.
And that itself was a show.
The long and winding road led up to the iron and golden gates that beared his name and signature crest. I’ll never forget the tense moments of arriving at the gates each time I visited. A security guard with a pen and pad waited. (Confidentiality agreements were a must to enter the sacred grounds.)
Once inside the gates, the road seemed even longer to arrive at the main house. The trip led past statues, benches and mannequins. Numerous small buildings were on the 2,700-acre ranch — each filled with candy, ice cream and many other alluring treats.
Guest houses were to one side while a two-story game room sat on another near a Disney-inspired train station, tennis courts, and swimming pool.
A state-of-the-art movie theater (where I first saw Michael Jackson’s “Ghosts,” his 1997 short film) was adjacent to an amusement park and zoo; and one area contained tee-pees where one could sometimes sleep in.
It was either paradise as some described, or, as others concluded, the quintessential and most expensive lure for an unsuspecting child and his family.
It’s exactly why many reviewers describe the new documentary, “Leaving Neverland,” about Jackson’s relationship with children, as both “revealing” and “devastating.”
The four-hour documentary, scheduled to air in two parts on HBO on Sunday, March 3 and Monday, March 4, focuses on two men, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, both who claim Jackson abused them as children.
Jackson’s estate has vehemently denied the claims, saying it’s a belated attempt to exploit money from the late singer who died in 2009.
Robson and Safechuck say they were ages 7 and 10, respectively, when they met Jackson. Now in their 30s, they claim they were repeatedly sexually abused by the singer, who had always denied the allegations lodged against him when he was alive.
Robson said he was “repeatedly raped,” and Safechuck details a “wedding ceremony” that took place between him and Jackson when Safechuck was 10.
Both go into specific and graphic details and surprisingly they reveal what reviewers who screened the film in January at the Sundance Film Festival said was convincing evidence, including recordings and photos, that prove Jackson’s abuse.
The singer was arrested in 2003, and charged with molesting a 13-year-old cancer patient.
While Safechuck declined to testify in the 2005 case that followed Jackson’s arrest, Robson gave testimony on his idol’s behalf, saying the “Thriller” singer had never touched him.
However, Robson’s testimony did elicit plenty of doubt from experts who pointed out what they thought were incriminating statements.
Robson testified that he’d shared a bed with Jackson as a boy “many times,” while Robson’s mother, Joy, testified that Jackson “would cry” if she didn’t allow her son to spend the night with him.
Another eye-opening admission from Joy Robson was that when Jackson was under investigation more than a decade earlier in 1993, he sought comfort from Wade, who was just a child.
Jackson had been abroad on his “Dangerous” tour in 1993 when allegations first surfaced that he’d molested a young boy. Facing relentless media coverage and a criminal investigation, Jackson refused to return to the U.S. until he received assurances that he wouldn’t be arrested upon arrival.
During the 2005 trial, Joy Robson testified that on the night Jackson finally flew from overseas back to Neverland, he implored her to bring Wade for a sleepover despite the short notice and very late request — it was nearing midnight in Los Angeles where the Robsons lived, more than two hours away from Neverland.
“Michael said, ‘I’ve got to be with him tonight,’” she testified.
Still, Robson denied being abused by Jackson until after the singer died.
It wasn’t until later when Robson became a father and suffered two nervous breakdowns before he mustered up the courage to reveal to a therapist that Jackson had repeatedly raped him as a boy.
“It was just pain and disgust and anger, the idea something like that could happen to my son,” Robson said.
In 2013 Robson filed a lawsuit against Jackson’s estate but a judge ruled he’d waited too long to seek legal action.
Jackson’s family and fans have countered that Robson and Safechuck, who also sued the estate, only want money.
The filmmakers of “Leaving Neverland” said neither were paid for their appearance. But Jackson’s camp has long maintained that greed is behind the allegations.
Attorney Tom Mesereau successfully defended Jackson in the 2005 trial by claiming the accusations were all about money. Nevertheless, Jackson reportedly paid out at least $200 million to alleged victims, lawyers, private investigators and others in efforts to silence claims of sex abuse.
The accuser in the 2005 trial, however, proved different.
During pretrial hearings, the young boy’s mother said she’d never sue Jackson because she “didn’t want the devil’s money.”
Despite struggling financially through college, his bout with cancer, and even temporary homelessness, the accuser in the 2005 case never sued Jackson and, after Jackson’s death, he never filed any claims against the singer’s estate.
He had kept his mother’s words that they didn’t want Jackson’s money.
“He wanted justice,” Santa Barbara County Assistant District Attorney Ron Zonen once told me.
“The kid was a victim,” Steve Robel, the lead investigator in the 2005 Jackson case also told me.
Jackson’s family denies he abused anyone. However, over the last 25 years of his life, his family knew very little of him. Except for his mother, Katherine, Jackson and his family were almost complete strangers, their interaction was not more than a token visit on “Family Day” once a year.
Like just about anyone else, the Jacksons could never say with certainty what Michael was and wasn’t capable of.
Now, as the #MeToo movement has led folks to cry, “Believe the victims,” it’ll be interesting to see whether Robson and Safechuck are afforded those same hearing ears.
Reporter Adam B. Vary watched the trailer and posted afterward:
“A deeply emotional Wade Robson and James Safechuck receive a standing ovation after the screening of Leaving Neverland. There will be a lot to say later, but I can say this: This is a thorough, devastating, deeply credible piece of filmmaking.”
And US Weekly film critic Mara Reinstein said: “Shaking. Wow. We were all wrong when we cheered for Michael Jackson.”
As for me, I still sing along to Jackson’s music. But even more so, I applaud the brave men like Robson and Safechuck and others who might be victims of abuse.
The views expressed are not necessarily those of The Washington Informer. Stacy M. Brown a senior writer for The Informer and author of the forthcoming biography “Aftermath: Michael Jackson’s Dysfunctional Family and the Legacy of the King of Pop.” He also co-authored “Michael Jackson: The Man Behind the Mask, An Insiders Account of the King of Pop.”