Yesterday, Today, & FOREVER The King of Pop

At Neverland, they believe

Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch

By Cesar G. Soriano, USA TODAY

LOS OLIVOS, Calif. — Huddled outside a stone wall covered with orange ivy, Maria Calzada and Candace Browne have spent two shivering hours peering through the bars of the gate for any sign of the property’s famous occupant.

"Is Michael Jackson in there?" Calzada, 18, yells into the intercom. "Will you please tell him that we are true, dedicated fans out here and we love him a lot?"

"OK, we’ll pass that along," a male voice replies.

"Is Michael in there? We drove four hours to get here. Hello?"


Tonight, this is as far as the teens will get. Beyond the gate is arguably the most famous celebrity home in the world: Neverland Ranch.

It’s the stuff of dreams. But, police say, it’s on this estate that Jackson molested a boy whose age has variously been reported as either 12 or 13.

On Thursday, Jackson was booked on multiple counts of child molestation, two days after Neverland was raided. The new allegations come a decade after Jackson was accused of molesting a 13-year-old boy, also at Neverland.

Since posting a $3 million bond, Jackson has been keeping a low profile in Las Vegas, where he had been filming a music video. His home has become a campground for TV news crews.

If Jackson is the King of Pop, Neverland is his kingdom. It’s a mini-Disneyland complete with amusement park rides, movie theater, arcade, zoo and its own railroad system.

Neverland is located in the Santa Ynez Valley, about 100 miles north of Los Angeles, an area of bucolic beauty surrounded by rolling green hills and cattle ranches.

Five miles down Figueroa Mountain Road is the nearest town, Los Olivos. Population: 1,000. Barely three square blocks, the former stagecoach town is now an artists’ community filled with galleries, antique stores and wine shops. Many of the locals are working cattle ranchers. At Mattei’s Tavern, a dozen Ford pickup trucks share a parking lot with BMWs and a Lamborghini Diablo.

Besides Jackson, famous neighbors include Bo Derek, Kelly LeBrock, David Crosby, Cheryl Ladd and Davy Crockett star Fess Parker, who owns the local inn.

Residents are fiercely protective of their VIP neighbors. Support for Jackson in the rest of the world comes in a few celebrity sound bites and sparsely attended fan rallies, but residents here speak glowingly of the pop star.

"People outside of Los Olivos don’t know Michael like we do. They don’t know the love," says Felicia Cody, whose family runs the Cody Gallery. She has met Jackson and has been to Neverland for business and social functions.

"There’s no way the charges can be true. A person could not survive in a small town if that was true, and this is a small town," says Cody. "His love is so big, so serene, so sincere. He’s a wonderful patron of this town."

She rattles off a laundry list of good deeds Jackson has anonymously carried out, like the time he helped finance a new gym for Los Olivos Elementary School, or the time he bought baby strollers for a local day care center, or the countless locals Jackson employs on his estate.

"He’s a nice guy, probably the nicest guy you’ll ever meet," says son Flynt Cody, 20. "He’s very neighborly." He says Jackson’s personal fire-and-rescue squad often responds to local car wrecks and brush fires outside Neverland.

Felicia Cody says Jackson is not a recluse, and he’s definitely not eccentric, even though he may occasionally come to town dressed as Spider-Man.

"Everybody thinks he’s weird. That’s a foregone conclusion," says Bob Senn, owner of Los Olivos Wine & Spirits Emporium. "But people respect him. He’s a good neighbor."

So are people in Los Olivos living in, well, Neverland?

"This is a compassionate community," says real estate agent William Etling. "People here are not in a rush to judge."

Jackson became a local in 1988 when he bought 5225 Figueroa Mountain Road from golf course magnate William Bone and promptly turned it into a Peter Pan fantasy world.

Neverland is made up of about 22 buildings spread over more than 2,500 acres, including a main residence, guesthouses, ranch-hand apartments, stables, a movie theater and the theme park. The property was assessed at $12.5 million this year, Santa Barbara County tax records show. Its true value is estimated at nearly $30 million.

From the road, Neverland is completely isolated from view. The complex is surrounded by a simple wooden fence with "No trespassing" signs posted every few yards. A small herd of cattle lazily grazes near the security guard booth. Just beyond the entrance is the only clue of what lies beyond the gate, a small yellow sign that reads: "Caution: Children at Play."

"Just about every kid in this town has gone to Neverland," says Jeff Feeley, who runs the Stratford Coffee Shop in Los Olivos. His two children went to Neverland on school trips. "They take them up there and set them loose."

Through the years, busloads of chaperoned schoolchildren have been entertained at Neverland, all at Jackson’s expense, residents say. Two private schools, the Family School and the Midland School, border Jackson’s property.

But Neverland is rarely open to the public or the media. In 1991, Elizabeth Taylor and Larry Fortensky exchanged vows there.

Among the famous visitors to Neverland is Nicole Richie, daughter of singer Lionel Richie and co-star of the upcoming Fox reality show The Simple Life.

"I haven’t been up there since I was 13. But when I was young, I would go up there all the time. I would just go for the weekend and go hang out," says Richie, now 22. "It’s really big, really gorgeous. It’s like a big amusement park."

Richie says her father, who co-wrote We Are the World with Jackson, would never have let her stay if rumors are true. "My dad and him … are really good friends. No parent wants to put their children in any kind of danger. If they thought anything was suspicious, they would not have let me go up there. When I was there, I went with people whose parents were friends of his. It was a group of us who grew up together. I never saw random kids there."

Richie recalls Neverland as a happy place filled with children who are pampered by staff in uniforms.

In September, Jackson held a $5,000-a-couple benefit, raising $40,000 for the local Make-A-Wish Foundation.

"When we went into Neverland, I thought I had died and gone to paradise," says Farah Pajuheshfar, 45, a Las Vegas mother and hairdresser. She won tickets to the September bash after she entered a Michael Jackson portrait-painting contest.

"The whole day we were there, from 9 a.m. until 3 a.m., we had drinks, popcorn, candy, ice cream." There was even an open bar. The zoo was filled with elephants, giraffes, llamas, chimps, crocodiles, snakes, parrots and a black bear. "It was an adventure I will never forget. If I die now, it would be OK," says Pajuheshfar. She runs the King of Pop Empire fan club, whose members call themselves Michael Jackson’s Soldiers of Love. "I had no reservations about taking my daughter."

"It was a lot of fun," says her daughter, Julie, 12. "We went on the Ferris wheel and the roller coaster and the arcade. All the people working at Neverland were smiling all the time. I came home smiling at everybody in school." Jackson has "tons of CDs," she adds.

Neverland "smells like cinnamon rolls, vanilla and candy and sounds like children laughing," says Sheree Wilkins, 32, a preschool teacher from Inglewood, Calif. Wilkins has been inside Neverland five times, making her something of a celebrity among Jackson fans. Most of her visits came about through her association with Jackson fan clubs. She also has brought her Girl Scout troops to Neverland on field trips.

"It’s like heaven. You never want to leave," says Wilkins. Her last visit was Aug. 29, Jackson’s 45th birthday. Wilkins says she and a group of fans had gathered at the gate to sing birthday wishes to Jackson. After several hours, Jackson showed up in a golf cart and waved them in.

Everyone who has been in Neverland confirms they were required to sign a confidentiality agreement before entering that, among other items, bans cameras and recording devices.

Security at Neverland could rival the White House. Guests are patted down. Unarmed security guards wearing uniforms occasionally emerge from the gates to threaten loitering reporters and fans with arrest. At night, a rescue squad vehicle can be seen patroling the perimeter, shining a spotlight along the simple wood fence that surrounds the property.

At the September bash, two Canadian sisters were kicked out for violating the no-photography policy.

"Everyone signs it with a big smile on their face. I didn’t even read it," says Gayaneh Davoodians, 24, who visited the estate in 1996. "Neverland is so peaceful, so serene. When I visited, Michael was not even there. It’s not like he’s standing at the gate, saying, ‘Come in, let me molest you.’ "

The children involved in both molestation accusations, in fact, were not casual visitors to Neverland. They were among the few who made it into Jackson’s inner circle, apparently with parental approval.

David Finkelhor, professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire and director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, is not surprised that parents let their children get close to Jackson, even after the 1993 claims. He says parents may feel they can make their own judgments about an adult. And if the element of celebrity is added, parents may see someone "who can perhaps help a child," Finkelhor says. "If I had a child with a close relationship with a good baseball coach, I might want to encourage that."

America is a "celebrity-conscious country," says Lawrence Shapiro, a child psychologist and author of The Secret Language of Children. "If a celebrity invites someone to stay at his house, we might do things which we would not do under most circumstances. It is easy to influence people when you have authority and power." That does not excuse parents, Shapiro says, "but it is human nature."

In the days since Jackson’s home was searched, fans from as far as Japan have made pilgrimages to Neverland, leaving messages of support on the front lawn.

Jenny Mendel, 11, posted a sign that reads: "Michael is the victim. (District attorney Tom) Sneddon is a disgrace to Santa Barbara." Another placard, decorated with photos of boys posing with Jackson, reads, "Jackson you are in our prayers. We support you 100%."

Outside the Neverland gate Saturday, a dozen female fans of all ages gathered. Davoodians led them in a candlelight vigil. "We pray for his safety. We pray he stays positive. Most of all, we pray that the truth comes out and Michael Jackson will be victorious," Davoodians said.

USA Today

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