Michael Jackson Wrongful Death Suit: Groupies Deify His Mom and Handicap the Trial
ILLUSTRATION BY NOAH PATRICK PFARR
A hush falls over the lobby of the Stanley Mosk Courthouse, and Gisele Batlle, 34, and Gema Rico, 39, stiffen suddenly in their baggy Michael Jackson T-shirts, their mouths agape.
The two mothers from Barcelona left their children behind for a pilgrimage to L.A. on the fourth anniversary of Michael Jackson's death. They came to watch the civil trial his mother and children have brought against concert promoter AEG, which the family accuses of ruthlessly driving the pop superstar into an early grave in the name of profit.
Batlle and Rico are thousands of miles from home and frozen in a moment of reverential awe: Barely five feet away is Jackson's elderly mother, Katherine Jackson, slowly ambling toward an elevator with a small entourage. She raises her gaze to meet theirs, and Batlle and Rico timidly raise their hands to their chests and wave to her — low, slow, dreamlike.
Katherine Jackson, who brought Michael into this world, smiles and waves back as she steps into the elevator and the doors close. Rico bursts into tears and collapses into Batlle's arms in a moment of spiritual ecstasy. They hold each other for a while.
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What's the matter?
"She waved," Rico says in heavily accented English.
How did that make you feel?
"Love," Rico says, clutching her hands to her bosom and shaking her head earnestly. Tears are still streaming down her face. "Love."
The two Spaniards are among several people who've journeyed from Spain, China, Germany and elsewhere to witness the Jackson–AEG Live trial. During breaks in the proceedings, they sit by the fountain in downtown's new Grand Park and muse about the nature of the late being known as Michael Jackson. The consensus seems to be that God sent him to this planet to be a prophet of peace and love.
"We think he was anointed," says Julia Thomas, 40, of San Bernardino. "He was blessed to touch people in so many ways."
Some circles of devotees transcend mere fandom and become quasi-religious. They ascribe spiritual meaning to Jackson's life, his words and his death, elevating him to semi-divine, saintlike status. They restlessly roam the downtown courthouse during all Jackson-related trials.
They cause occasional scenes — some can't help but react audibly to comments made by witnesses or attorneys. A bailiff took one outside after he caught her using a phone in court, and shot stern glares at several others who made noise.
They're easy to pick out, in their T-shirts bearing Jackson's iconic pale face. Others wear altered military-style jackets with a dash of garish bling. They all bear almost perpetually broad smiles and wide-eyed excitement, which is especially unusual in the drab courthouse.
One big group is organized around TeamMichaelJackson.com — a website started by British transplant and Orange County resident Taaj Malik.
Malik looks like a spiritual guru, with her noble composure and airy white tunic and trousers, and if Michael Jackson's teachings were a faith, she would be just that. She has an impressive and dedicated audience. More than 35,000 people follow her on Twitter (@TeamMichael777), and her website visitors have contributed more than $12,000 toward the cost of buying transcripts for every single day of the trial.
Malik's website tirelessly chronicles every development, dustup and drama. It staunchly defends him, pointing out what Malik and her colleagues see as conspiracies to defame the late pop icon.
Contributors to the website dutifully rewrite hundreds of pages of transcripts every night, since Malik is prohibited from immediately posting the actual, raw documents online, and she rapidly tweets the day's developments to her hungry followers.
Malik cheers on Jackson family attorney Brian Panish and attacks opponents.
Some typical tweets:
"OMG HURRICANE PANISH #PANISH4PRESIDENT #FOLLOW"
"AEG Live attorneys O'Melveny Myers have shown numerous times a complete disregard 4 Justice system as their bosses AEG Live did 4 MJs LIFE!!"
Malik puts in more than 40 hours weekly working on her nonprofit website. She is living off of a settlement from a severe car accident, she says, and takes three buses to get to the courthouse from Orange County. It's an hours-long round-trip.
She has a surgery coming up and is trying to delay it.
"I don't want to do it until after the trial is done," she says. "I've got lots of people relying on me."
Many fans describe Jackson in Christ-like terms: He's a martyr, a pure soul of peace and love who suffered for humanity, only to be slandered for crimes he didn't commit, and who died trying to please those he loved.
An older woman walks the halls outside the courtroom, showing off a portrait she's just sketched of Michael Jackson, serene among lush greenery.
For nearly 30 years, Jackson was a force of raw star power and goodwill, a boy prodigy who became the single most famous entertainer in the world. All the while, he seemed almost unbelievably gentle and benevolent, with awe-inspiring displays of philanthropy and songs such as "We Are the World" and "Heal the World."
But in 1993, the father of a 13-year-old boy accused Jackson of child molestation.
What followed were more hits, increasingly vicious tabloid articles and more child-molestation allegations that led to his arrest, trial and eventual 2005 acquittal.
The public seemed to convict him. Jackson died in 2009 of a drug overdose as he prepared for an AEG-produced series of 50 London concerts dubbed "This Is It."
Malik and her comrades believe the public still persecutes Jackson in death. "Justice for Michael is my life," she says. "He was the greatest, you know? He was the greatest the world has known. The children of the world were all his children. To us, he's like Martin Luther King or Gandhi."
Batlle strikes a similar note. "The media don't say a lot of the things that Michael did — humanitarian things, things with children," she says. "We think that he was martyred. This is an injustice."
At the Grand Park fountain, Malik reflects on religions she has explored and rejected. She was born in Pakistan to Muslim parents and moved to the U.K. when she was 3. Islam wasn't for her. Christianity didn't appeal to her, nor did Judaism or other faiths, all beautiful but flawed, she says.
Experts in new religion say Jackson was transformed by the media into a saintlike figure at the dawn of the digital age.
Professor Phillip C. Lucas at Stetson University says devotees "might be in the nascent stages" of morphing into a more organized cult or religion.
"You could have the Church of Michael Jackson," he says. "It wouldn't be beyond the pale. Especially out where you live."
Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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