By By Tracy Wilson and Steve Chawkins and Richard Winton
Los Angeles Times|
Nov 20, 2003 | 3:00 AM
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - Authorities said yesterday that they intend to arrest music star Michael Jackson, the self-described King of Pop, on suspicion of felony child molestation and urged the 45-year-old entertainer to surrender during a boisterous news conference here that was broadcast live around the world.
Jackson, whose recordings over the past four decades include the best-selling album of all time, was prepared to turn himself in after finishing a music video in Las Vegas, according to his spokesman.
Jackson, who has denied any wrongdoing, is wanted on $3 million bail and has been asked to turn over his passport.
"Get over here and get checked in," Santa Barbara County District Attorney Thomas W. Sneddon Jr. called out to Jackson during the midmorning news conference. He and County Sheriff Jim Anderson declined to give any details of the case.
"Within a short period of time there will be charges filed against Mr. Jackson - multiple counts," Sneddon said.
Sneddon, who intends to be part of the prosecution team, said unlike a similar Jackson investigation by his agency a decade ago, law enforcement officials have a "cooperative victim" and are prepared to go forward with their case.
Under state law, child molestation is punishable by up to eight years in prison.
The call for Jackson's arrest followed a daylong search of his 2,600-acre Neverland Ranch, which includes a zoo, amusement rides and his mansion.
For nearly 15 hours Tuesday, scores of sheriff's deputies and investigators from the Santa Barbara County district attorney's office combed the grounds for evidence and shot videotape. Authorities said two other search warrants were executed simultaneously in Southern California in connection to the case but declined to elaborate.
A lawyer for the Jackson family has said the search stems from molestation claims by a 12-year-old boy during visits to the Neverland Ranch. According to two sources, including a close friend of the boy's family, the investigation centers on claims by the boy that Jackson served him wine before molesting him on several occasions last winter.
Investigators intended to execute the search warrants weeks ago, Sneddon said, but were delayed by the flood of visitors over the Halloween weekend.
In a prepared statement, Stuart Backerman, a Jackson spokesman, denounced the allegations as "scurrilous and totally unfounded."
He said Jackson was working with attorney Mark Geragos, currently representing Scott Peterson, who is accused of killing his wife, to arrange for his return to Santa Barbara to confront the charges against him.
"The outrageous allegations against Michael Jackson are false," Backerman said. "Michael would never harm a child in any way. ... When the evidence is presented and the allegations proven to be malicious and wholly unfounded, Michael will be able to put this nightmare behind him."
Late yesterday, it appeared Jackson was poised to return to California on a private jet. A security guard at the executive terminal of Las Vegas' McCarran International Airport said the entertainer was escorted by Santa Barbara County sheriff's deputies to his own jet during the late afternoon. The guard said Jackson was flown out of a nearby private terminal.
Youngest of Five
Jackson grew up in a family of performers, the youngest member of the Jackson Five. He saw his career peak in 1982 with the release of Thriller, regarded as the world's best-selling album.
Although his popularity and record sales have waned in recent years, Jackson has remained a closely scrutinized public figure, drawing attention for his brief marriage to Lisa Marie Presley, surgical reconstruction of his face and bizarre behavior, including dangling his 9-month old son from a hotel balcony in Berlin.
Jackson's troubled appeared to be mounting yesterday. Citing concerns over the pending criminal charges, CBS said it had has postponed plans to air a program about the pop singer next week that would have highlighted his career and promoted his just-released greatest hits album.
"Given the gravity of the charges against Mr. Jackson, we believe it would be inappropriate at this time to broadcast an entertainment special," the network said in a statement.
"However, we are very mindful that Mr. Jackson is innocent until proven guilty. We will consider broadcasting the special after the due process of the legal system runs its course."
Similar case in 1993
Sneddon said this case was significantly different in several ways from the 1993 investigation of Jackson that stemmed from accusations that he molested a 13-year-old boy. No charges were filed in that case and the criminal probe was eventually dropped after the boy decided not to testify.
The main difference this time, Sneddon said, was that prosecutors have a witness who will cooperate with them. The arrest warrant accuses Jackson of violating Section 288(a) of the California Penal Code - which prohibits lewd or lascivious acts with a child under the age of 14.
Questions about Jackson's relations with young boys resurfaced after a television documentary aired on ABC in February, when Jackson said he shared his bedroom with children, but said it was innocent fun.
"Why can't you share your bed? The most loving thing to so is to share your bed with someone," Jackson said in the film. "It's a beautiful thing. It's very right; it's very loving."
In British correspondent Martin Bashir's film, a 12-year-old boy discusses sleepovers on camera as he and Jackson hold hands.
At yesterday's news conference, reporters specifically asked the district attorney and the sheriff whether the victim in the current criminal case was the same boy shown in the Bashir film.
Sneddon and Anderson declined to comment.
After the search of Jackson's Neverland Ranch on Tuesday, the singer issued a statement suggesting that the timing was meant to coincide with the release of his new compact disc the same day. Yesterday, authorities denied this, and Sneddon quipped, "Like the sheriff and I are into that type of music."
Such comments angered Jackson, who said in a brief statement that he was troubled by the conduct of authorities and reporters at the news conference. At its start, a grinning Sneddon told reporters, "I hope that you all stay long and spend lots of money because we need your sales tax to support our offices." At another point, a reporter jokingly asked Sneddon whether a free lunch would be served.
"We are disturbed by the levity of the environment surrounding the announcement of these very serious charges," Jackson and his representatives said in the statement.
The international pop star has been dogged by allegations of sexual impropriety with children for years.
It began Aug. 17, 1993, when a 13-year-old companion of the entertainer told a therapist that a friendship had progressed over a series of months to cuddling, masturbation and oral sex. The allegations launched a criminal investigation and avalanche of worldwide media coverage.
Jackson, who was out of the country at the time the allegations surfaced, later canceled his "Dangerous" world tour and announced he had become addicted to painkillers because of the stress created by the criminal probe.
In December, he issued a public statement from his ranch asserting his innocence.
"I am not guilty of these allegations, but if I am guilty of anything, it is of giving all that I have to give to help children all over the world," he said. "I am hoping for a speedy end to this horrifying, horrifying experience to which I have been subjected."
Jackson's supporters suggested early on that the allegations were part of an effort to squeeze money from a singer whose enormous wealth and fame made him a target for false claims and extortion.
But in January 1994, Jackson's advisers backed away from the extortion claims and announced the singer had settled a civil lawsuit brought by the alleged victim, reportedly for between $15 million and $24 million.
Eight months later, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara county prosecutors announced that, despite locating two more possible victims, they had closed their child molestation investigations after the boy who made the initial complaint decided not to cooperate.
In November 2002, Jackson found himself at the center of controversy again after dangling his infant son from a fourth-floor hotel window in Berlin. "I made a terrible mistake," Jackson said later. "I got caught up in the excitement of the moment. I would never intentionally endanger the lives of my children."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.