Ten years ago tomorrow a jury in Santa Maria, California acquitted mega pop star Michael Jackson of child molestation and conspiracy. Santa Barbara District Attorney Tom Sneddon charged Michael with molesting Garvin Arvizo and then kidnapping Gavin’s family– his mother, brother, and sister. Attorney Thomas Mesereau mounted a brilliant defense and Michael, after four months, was acquitted.
But the damage was done. Michael had sat through weeks and weeks of crazy testimony and accusations. His entire life was laid open– his finances, his personal peccadilloes, relationships with every single person he ever knew, descriptions of his body parts. His mother and sometimes his father, or a sibling, sat in the row behind him. They heard it all. Everything was on the record for his child one day to read.
By the time the jury reached their verdict, Jackson was destroyed. There was no jubilant celebration. He was done. He took his kids and left California. Mesereau advised him, “Leave here now.” Why? He knew, as did I, and every reasonable person who’d watched this circus since Jackson’s arrest in November 2003, that Sneddon had it in for him. Sneddon was not going to stop until he somehow put Michael Jackson in jail. If Michael stayed at Neverland, in Santa Barbara County, he would always be a target.
Sneddon’s vendetta against Jackson reached back a decade, to when Michael agreed to a financial settlement with the family of another boy, Jordan Chandler. It was the worst decision that Michael ever made. It created an aura around him of a pedophile, one that he couldn’t shake. It made him a target for more extortion. It turned him into a real drug addict who couldn’t always make other, clear decisions. Eventually, it would kill him.
What was the upside of the Chandler settlement? To the lawyers and advisers, it kept Michael out of jail and court in 1994. Sneddon couldn’t prosecute Michael without the Chandlers. Sneddon was defeated before he could make his case. Jackson, Sneddon felt, danced away. Instead of leaving it alone, Jackson mocked Sneddon publicly in song, taunted him. And Sneddon vowed revenge.
There are just a couple of things you need to know about that trial. Gavin Arvizo’s mother, proved in court to be a scammer and a schemer, was crazy. Sneddon found in her a perfect collaborator. She said and did whatever he wanted. It didn’t matter that her so called “kidnappers” had a full record of their time with her including receipts for spa treatments, movie dates, fast food restaurant meals and shopping safaris. When those guys — Frank Cascio and Vinnie Amen– came to me in 2004 with a huge metal briefcase filled with records of what had gone on, the first thing I remember saying to them was, “Are you sure the Arvizos didn’t kidnap you?”
I was joking, but that’s really what had happened. Gavin Arvizo had cancer. His mother, Janet, used the cancer as leverage to worm her way into Michael’s life. Michael Jackson was naive about one thing since his “We are the World” hit project– that he could save the world, and “save the children who are destined to die,” as Marvin Gaye once sang. Michael, after selling 100 million records, and being dubbed the “King of Pop,” saw himself as a savior. Saving Gavin was just part of his duties.
And that’s what blew him up. He allowed Martin Bashir to come to his house and make a documentary that showed Michael embracing the Arvizos. It was appalling. The worst part of Bashir’ heavily slanted film, called “Living with Michael Jackson,” was a segment in which Gavin– who Michael had brought to Neverland for the filming to show that he was a savior– talked about sleeping in Michael’s bed. When the documentary ran on ABC at the end of January 2003, this moment set off alarms. I wrote at the time that it was possible Michael would wind up in jail. The internet blew up.
Sneddon immediately sent his people to the Arvizos’ apartment in Los Angeles. They left his card under their door. And when Michael realized what had happened, he kicked the freeloading Arvizo’s out of Neverland. They had to return to their real life– no more spa treatments and gifts. And that’s when Sneddon found a conspirator in Janet Arvizo. The only thing was, he didn’t do due diligence. He was so excited to have someone who could help him realize his goal of putting Michael Jackson in jail, he never investigated Janet Arvizo’s background.
My favorite moment sitting in that Santa Maria courthouse? When Tom Mesereau got Janet Arvizo to testify she thought Michael Jackson was going to steal her children by taking them away in a hot air balloon. The courtroom howled. Judge Melville banged his gavel. It was the culmination of a devastating testimony skillfully delived by Mesereau. Everyone knew at that moment the jury was not going to buy Sneddon’s prosecution. Everyone, that is, except Sneddon.
There were good prosecutors on Sneddon’s team. Ron Zonen was and is respected. So is Gordon Auchincloss. They had some great dramatic moments in court. But they never questioned Sneddon’s motives. They followed him right off the bridge into the ocean.
The prosecutors were so out of touch with what was happening that on the eve of the verdict, they threw themselves a congratulatory party. In a public restaurant. A woman I knew stumbled upon them and called me immediately.
This is what I wrote on June 10, 2005:
The prosecutors in Michael Jackson’s child molestation and conspiracy trial apparently feel they’ve already won their case.
On Wednesday night [June 8], the whole lot of them — DA Tom Sneddon, Ron Zonen, Gordon Auchincloss, their wives and families — all celebrated at the Hitching Post restaurant in Casmalia.
The Hitching Post, cousin of the Buellton restaurant featured in the movie “Sideways,” is considered the best restaurant in the greater Santa Maria area.
Sneddon was so happy that he actually embraced celebrity crime reporter Aphrodite Jones. She told me he was in a jubilant mood, and the most outgoing of all the people on hand.
Said one observer, “This group was happy. There was definitely a celebratory mood.”
The prosecutor’s team was first spotted making merry at the bar, and then retreated to a private dining room behind the bar that has no door.
“They could be heard laughing and carrying on,” said a source.
Also present at what could only be termed a party were several of the police investigators involved in the case, including Sgts. Steve Robel and Jeff Klapakis.
By contrast, little has been seen around town of defense attorney Tom Mesereau, who’s kept a low profile since the jury began deliberations a week ago.
It was two weeks since the defense had rested. It would be five more days before the jury would come back with their stunning verdict that rebuked Sneddon’s entire case. But there they were, so full of hubris, certain that they’d prevailed.
In a way they had. Tom Sneddon essentially killed Michael Jackson. If Sneddon had really been objective and had investigated the Arvizo’s properly, the case would not have come to trial. But he turned it into a circus from day 1–staging a surprise raid of Neverland, conspiring with tabloid reporter Diane Dimond (whose entire career is built on her obsession with being Jackson’s snarling enemy)– to make it a big media splash. Nothing was done by the book. It was all done to ruin Michael Jackson and it worked.
The Arvizos– we’ve never heard from them again, not a peep (except for Diane Dimond’s report about his 2013 wedding where — unbelievably– at least one Michael Jackson was played by the deejay). Jordan Chandler? His father, after turning his son into a recluse and destroying Jackson’s reputation, committed suicide five months after Michael’s death at the hands of Dr. Conrad Murray. In 1996, a journalist named Mary Fisher wrote a seminal piece in GQ proving Evan Chandler and his ex-wife’s new husband had brainwashed Jordy into thinking he’d been molested. They got $20 million for their hard work. Thirteen years later Michael Jackson was dead.
The jury in the trial thought that once they’d acquitted Michael, the solid gold gates to Neverland would swing open and Jackson would thank each of them individually. They were so wrong. The gates snapped shut. Jackson was never seen again in the town of Los Olivos. Two weeks later he and his children were gone, kicking off four years of homelessness that would end in death. Neverland fell silent. Unlike with the prosecutors, there was no celebration of this bitter victory.