In the hours following Michael Jackson’s death last week, West Coast Sound spoke to the late King of Pop’s longtime attorney Bob Sanger. Sanger represented Jackson for 16 years, and sat at the table with the star throughout the high-profile 2005 People vs. Michael Jackson case, in which the family of Gavin Arviso accused Jackson of child sexual abuse.
West Coast Sound: What have you been thinking about since you heard the news?
Bob Sanger: First of all, he was a great musician and performer, and his impact on music goes on today. I saw something on television today, I forgot who it was, but I looked at it, a current star doing a music video, and thought, “That’s Michael Jackson.”
When you represent him, you do get very close to a person, and I sat next to him for four months in the criminal case. It took a full four months, and he was there every day. But what I did learn in the years that I represented him — particularly in that last case — is that he is a very kind person. Truly from his heart. And his whole family is like that. His mother, Katherine, and his sisters LaToya and Janet — they have their own personalities onstage and everything, but they are the kindest, sweetest people you’ll ever want to meet. And his brothers are very nice; they offer to do what they can for you.
And Michael was the same way. He believed that one of the things he could do in life in addition to entertainment was that he could really help children. And I know that’s going to immediately get some kind of sarcastic response, but it’s absolutely true.
I was there at his ranch when he wasn’t even there, on at least two occasions when he had a giant group of kids come up. One, a bunch of kids who were from hospitals down in L.A. — children’s wards — came up with their families, and another time it was disadvantaged kids with their families. He would bring people up, and it was like they were at Disneyland. His staff was there, and at one point he had a hundred-something people on staff. They would be offering everybody candy, and something to drink, and to play in the game room, and to go to the movie theater. And it was just remarkable to see these kids and their eyes so wide and being treated this way.
Did the attorney in you ever become concerned with that? Here are hundreds of strangers coming into this multimillionaire’s home, and any one of them could have ulterior motives.
Well, you know what? Yeah, the attorney in me, I look at what clients do and I always wonder. But, I’ve got to tell you: Until we saw what this last family tried to do to him, which was so completely bizarre and off the wall, unfounded, manipulative — the D.A. was so committed to get back at Michael Jackson that they just looked with blinders at these people, and ignored the fact that they had scammed other people, and so on. When you saw that family and looked at that, you had to say, “Oh, my God, how vulnerable.” But for a family like this to be able to get the attention of a district attorney and law enforcement was just remarkable. And it just shows you how vulnerable people can be.
And [another] thing was that Michael was extremely well-read. In trial, the judge was doing jury selection, and it was time for break. He said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I want you to know that jury service is very, very important.” He’s trying to convince people not to have stupid excuses to get out of jury service. All judges do this. He says, “The jury system is a very time-honored system. It’s been around for 200 years. We’re going to take a break and come back in 15 minutes.”
We stand up and the judge leaves, and Michael turns to me and says, “Bob, the jury system is much older than 200 years, isn’t it?” I said, “Well, yeah, it goes back to the Greeks.” He says, “Oh, yeah, Socrates had a jury trial, didn’t he?” I said, “Yeah, well, you know how it turned out for him.” Michael says, “Yeah, he had to drink the hemlock.” That’s just one little tidbit. We talked about psychology, Freud and Jung, Hawthorne, sociology, black history and sociology dealing with race issues. But he was very well-read in the classics of psychology and history and literature.
He had over 10,000 books at his house. I hate to keep referring to the case, because the case should not define him, but the D.A. went through his entire library and found, for instance, a German art book from 1930-something. And it turned out that the guy who was the artist behind the book had been prosecuted by the Nazis. Nobody knew that, but then the cops get up there and say, “We found this book with pictures of nude people in it.” But it was art, with a lot of text. And they found some other things, a briefcase that didn’t belong to him that had some Playboys in it or something. But they went through the guy’s entire house, 10,000 books. And it caused us to do the same thing, and look at it.
And there were places that he liked to sit, and you could see the books with his bookmarks in it, with notes and everything in it, where he liked to sit and read. And I can tell you from talking to him that — especially for someone who was self-taught, as it were, and had his own reading list — he was very well-read. And I don’t want to say that I’m well-read, but I’ve certainly read a lot, let’s put it that way, and I enjoy philosophy and history and everything myself, and it was very nice to talk to him, because he was very intellectual, and he liked to talk about those things. But he didn’t flaunt it, and it was very seldom that he would initiate the conversation like that, but if you got into a conversation like that with him, he was there.
When was the last time you saw him, or spoke to him?
The last time I talked to him was right after the trial, and then he moved out of the country. I had not seen him in person — I talked to him on the phone — since then. Of course, I talked to people around him, because we still took care of matters for him. I don’t want to oversell my significance in his world, but I want to convey this side of him that people didn’t see. Every time I hear Jay Leno or somebody take a cheap shot — and Jay Leno I think is a very funny man — I think, that really isn’t fair, because that’s not who he is. And few people had an opportunity to really experience the kindness of him and his family. And few people really had the opportunity to have these intellectual discussions about great thinkers and writers. Freud and Jung — go down the street and try and find five people who can talk about Freud and Jung.
What’s the status of Neverland Ranch?
I always hesitate to comment on this because I don’t know exactly. It was taken over by an investor. I don’t know that it was sold outright. But Michael — after having it raided three times by the cops to no avail for them, it shook him. He was living there up until the trial, and continued to live there during the trial. But just before the trial, they got a search warrant and went back out, allegedly because they wanted to find as-built plans for the house. And they could have asked us and we would have given them to them. They could have made a motion in court. They could have gone down to the archives and got them. But it was just an excuse to go out and raid it one more time. They roused him early in the morning, and his kids were there, and after that he said, “I don’t think I can live here anymore.” And it was a shame. He had his tree. He would go up in this tree, and he wrote some of his songs there. It’s kind of like a historic place, but for him it was a very personal place.