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Never Say Neverland

Photos by Ted SoquiThey had come to Santa Maria from all over the world with that mixture of wonder and entitlement that is the birthright of children everywhere. Instinctively distrustful of rules and authority, the outsiders nevertheless had to mind their step if they wanted to remain anywhere near Michael Jackson, the pop star whose trial had drawn them to this Central California town. But as the June days wore on, they grew bored and restless. Why are we here? some began to ask. I’m speaking, of course, about the 2,200 media members who covered the Jackson trial for 14 weeks. The 100 or so fans of the singer who maintained their daily vigil outside the courthouse never had doubts about their cause’s righteousness, right up to the moment Monday when Jackson was declared not guilty on all 10 counts of child molestation. Describing the Jackson spectacle as a circus is like calling a Dali landscape asymmetrical. It’s also disingenuous. Journalists spent months prowling the courthouse’s grassy Miller Street perimeter, poking through the crowd of Jackson fans for promising specimens — Who will say something wacky? Who’ll likely turn his back? Whenever I approached a fan, no matter how quiet or unremarkable he or she looked, several other newspeople would immediately gather around my subject, like prospectors who thought they might have overlooked something shiny in the streambed. “I’m not talking to the L.A. Weekly a chubby young man shouted at me last Wednesday, when the lack of a verdict began to ratchet up tensions. “The Weekly misquoted me the last time!” B.J. Hickman, holding a Michael Jackson–portrait banner, was the very first person I approached for a comment. Moments later he was leading a pack of fans that pressed up against the cyclone fence separating them from the sprawling tent city of reporters and, beyond these, the courthouse. They had spotted Court TV’s Diane Dimond and began heckling her. “Diane Dimond is a snake! Court TV sucks!” he bellowed, the words picked up by his friends. This escalated to “Diane Dimond is a bitch!” and, finally, “Sneeze, whore, sneeze!” Other fans were happy to discuss their feelings about Jackson. The grandmotherly Evalina Popp said she once worked with legendary film costumer Edith Head after emigrating from Germany 40 years ago. Today, she lists her occupation as “nudist and doll maker,” and her residence as Venice, California — “but only because my RV has broken down there. I feel my energy is needed here.” Popp, with her red parasol, whimsical summer hat and floral skirts, sat with a Michael Jackson marionette doll on her lap. She also paints small stones with his likeness, as well as those of cats and seals. Jackson’s jurors punched out at 2:30 p.m., leaving supporters like Popp with lots of downtime. At night, Popp said, she and her doll retired to a local homeless shelter. “I had to hide him because he is too well-known!” Popp confided about her wooden companion. Still, there are times when both were able to stay — openly, together — in the homes of locals. “I’ve never met such kind, quality people in [all] the years I’ve been in America,” she said. Fifty feet away, at one of the blocked gates to the courthouse, half a dozen young women from Tokyo kept a quiet watch. “Every people here are nice,” Rami told me in faltering English. “And kind — and pretty!” There was also Tina Wiig-Sorenson, an Oslo high school student draped in a Norwegian flag, who repeated the circular argument for Jackson’s innocence heard from his supporters throughout the trial: “I think he’s innocent because he’s a kind person and helps other people. You can see that by the kind of person he is.” “It’s a joke — laugh!” commanded the angriest man I’d met this year. The 60-something Norwalk resident, who described himself as “Paul Mitchell” and a former subject in hair-growing research, had just removed his baseball cap to reveal a bald head. He seemed annoyed that I hadn’t caught on to his gag quickly enough, but, then, he was also struggling against the wind with a 10-foot sign that read, “America: Execute All Homosexuals and Pedophiles Right Now!” “What I’m doing here,” he said, “is putting on the table the cultural slide taking place in this country — a slide that says it’s all right for men to screw other men up the asshole.” Another holy man who haunted the trial was an “outdoor preacher” from Palm Springs named Bobby Bible. “I show up at the Academy Awards,” he began telling me, “the Emmys, gay parades —” Then, spotting a camera crew, he turned away to address it: “All of you media get off George Bush’s back!” He then left but returned in the afternoon, waving a King James Bible and a pornographically large crucifix. Bobby Bible didn’t take long to attract an angry crowd. “Why do all the homosexuals stick up for Michael Jackson?” he asked, foolishly expecting his rhetorical question to go unanswered. “King of Pop! King of Pop!” screamed the Jacksonians. “Child molestation is an abomination!” Bobby Bible sputtered back. “Kids lie, bitch!” snarled the irrepressible B.J., still clutching his Jackson flag. The crowd picked up on B.J.’s line and drowned out the Palm Springs prophet. “Kids lie! Kids lie! Kids lie!” they chanted. The Jackson fans were in the grip of an evangelical fever every bit as hot as Bible’s. Their god might not have been God — it might not even have been Michael Jackson. Struck by the lightning bolt of celebrity, they were now consumed by the rapture of American idolatry. And they were not merely followers — in each beat the heart of a would-be star who, if called upon by destiny, could replace the archangel Michael. B.J. had, over the weeks, become one such anointed character; the day after my enounter with him, Diane Dimond would obtain a court restraining order against B.J. By Friday morning, Los Angeles TV stations were announcing that B.J. was about to hold a “news conference” and that they would go live to it when the time came. After court recesses, many Jackson supporters would drive to the star’s Neverland Ranch, 34 miles away, where they lingered and re-energized outside the gates and sometimes talked to the staff. Far from Santa Maria’s suburban sprawl, the ranch is concealed from the road by the undulating hillscape of a rustic, serene California that only realtors and wine labels dare promise today. I had assumed that a high security fence with razor wire would separate the estate from the road. Instead, only a low, weathered rail fence marked off the property, a fence strung with the heart-shaped cards of Jackson well-wishers from around the world. It was easy to see why the enraptured would end their day here. The ranch’s stillness was broken only occasionally by a fan’s car stereo, the approach of a satellite TV truck, or the ambiguous songs of magpies that gathered beneath the stooped oaks. Tina, the girl who covered herself in a Norwegian flag, had told me she once took a taxi all the way from Santa Maria to be here. “It’s so lovely up there,” she said of Neverland. “A fantasy world — and that’s just the outside.” On Monday, Jackson glided away from the courthouse after hearing the verdict. There was no speech from the top of an SUV, no wild gestures of thanks to his adoring fans. Instead, the King of Pop was driven to his sanctuary in the country, to savor his freedom and contemplate what’s left of his future.


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