Janet Arvizo sat in Santa Maria's modest courtroom facing a barrage of criticism. Defense lawyers for Michael Jackson were testing her claims to have been kidnapped along with her family and held prisoner by the singer. The questions kept coming and coming, probing her story and that of her son, who she says Jackson sexually abused.
Arvizo's voice became more breathless inside the chamber as she tried to explain how she had never managed to raise the alarm, never managed to call the police or tell a friend. She spoke quickly and was agitated. Eventually she blurted out her explanation: "Who could possibly believe this?"
Quite. Lying was the theme of defense lawyer Thomas Mesereau's attack. He played videos of Arvizo praising Jackson and he forced her to admit she had lied under oath in a previous compensation case. She said she was a "bad actress." Mesereau shot back: "I think you're a good one." Later she got her own back. "Neverland is all about booze, pornography and sex with boys," she said.
But the only real truth to emerge from Santa Maria is that the ongoing train wreck that is the Jackson trial is simply beyond belief. For weeks Jackson has sat in the courtroom watching his carefully guarded life fall apart. If Neverland, his fantasy hideaway in the Southern California hills, was meant to be a private retreat where he could shun a mocking world, it has never been more horribly exposed in all its garish weirdness.
Prosecutor Tom Sneddon has relentlessly pursued his case that Jackson is a serial pedophile. The jury has been spared no lurid detail in the quest to show that Jackson created Neverland as "bait" to procure unsuspecting children. From a former cook to an ex-housekeeper, former Neverland employees have engaged in a brutal parade of testimony about Jackson's alleged abuse at the secluded ranch. Added to that have been the alleged victims themselves and their relatives. The picture they have built up is a consistent one. It shows Jackson targeting boys, often with absent fathers and mothers susceptible to flattery and lavish gifts. He would then pressure them into his Neverland bedroom and sexually molest them. One was even paid cash and told not to tell his mother.
And with row upon row of TV cameras camped outside like an occupying army, it is all taking place in the glare of the world's media. No wonder Jackson's lawyers are feeling the strain. Recently one of his team, Brian Oxman, was recorded by a TV crew's microphone making a furious phone call in the car park of his Santa Maria hotel. Oxman yelled as he furiously debated the possibility of someone being fired from Jackson's team. "This is going to get intolerable!" he barked.
But the picture of a doomed Jackson is far from true. The prosecution has now fired most of its big guns, and Jackson is still standing. The defense phase of the case has yet to begin and will probably last until the end of June at least. Already there are hints that the prosecution's best days could be behind it.
The defense will rely on two main tracks. First, that Jackson's accusers are after his money. Second, that all the witnesses so far are disgruntled former employees who have sold their stories to the tabloids. There is ample evidence for both.
For in the Jackson trial, there are few innocents. The prosecutor is unrelenting. The defense is unbending. Choosing who is the accuser and who is the victim depends on what you believe. Each witness has a horrific story. Yet, rather than calling the police, each appears to have sold that story to a supermarket tabloid, cashing in on the true American currency: 15 minutes of fame.
Arvizo a pink dress for her first day in court last week. She theatrically recalled sitting on a plane and watching Jackson lick her child's forehead like a cat. "Like this, over and over," she told the court as she demonstrated by licking her own arm. That awful animalistic image, of the king of pop licking the head of a young boy, was just one of many direct hits on Jackson in the past two weeks. There had already been two other mothers with devastating testimonies. June Chandler, whose son Jordie was the subject of a $20 million out-of-court settlement in 1993, has also taken the stand. As has an El Salvador-born cleaning woman, who testified that she saw Jackson take a shower with a young boy and added that her own son had also been abused.
All three mothers described a similar pattern. It is, prosecutors argue, classic evidence of a predatory pedophile. They claim that Jackson uses Neverland, with its array of free amusement rides, endless supply of sweets and his own private bedroom as a honeypot into which to lure his victims. They are young boys whose fathers are usually absent. The mothers are then showered with gifts and pressured to allow their children to share Jackson's bedroom. Eventually the boys are abused. "There's a pattern here," said Steve Cron, a legal analyst and California defense attorney.
Chandler gave classic testimony. She was in the middle of divorcing her second husband when Jackson befriended her son Jordie. Gifts were commonplace, and eventually Jackson became angry that she would not let Jordie share his bedroom. In court testimony, she described a trip to Las Vegas in 1993 where things came to a head. Jackson "was sobbing, crying, shaking and trembling," Chandler said, describing how Jackson told her: "We're a family. Why don't you allow Jordie to be with me ... Jordie is having fun. Why can't he sleep in my bed? There's nothing going on. Why don't you trust me?" Astonishingly, she gave in. In return, she was given a gold Cartier bracelet.
It seems almost to have been a conveyor belt of abuse in the faux wonderland of Jackson's home. Certainly that is the picture the prosecution is painting. It has brought forward witnesses to describe abuse against at least three young boys aside from Jackson's actual accuser. The alleged victimes include then child actor Macaulay Culkin, star of the "Home Alone" movies, and another boy, Wade Robson, who now works as a choreographer for Britney Spears. Much of the evidence comes from Jackson's former Neverland staff, including his cook, Phillip Lemarque, and security guard Ralph Chacon.
In surreal testimony Lemarque said he was once summoned to make Jackson some food at 3 a.m. with the order: "The Silver Fox wants some French fries." When he entered Jackson's bedroom he saw him and Culkin playing an arcade game with Jackson's hand down the young boy's underpants. "I was shocked. I almost dropped the French fries," Lemarque told the court. Chacon, meanwhile, said he saw Jackson performing oral sex with another boy. As he described the scene, Jackson stared at him across the courtroom and slowly shook his head.
It is damning stuff. But in this trial, resting on two specific charges of abuse against a 13-year-old cancer sufferer, the accuser's testimony itself has been no less graphic. He described Jackson plying him with wine (which the singer dubbed "Jesus juice"), showing him pornographic magazines, simulating sex with a mannequin and then finally sexually assaulting him. To back it up the jury was shown porn taken from Jackson's bedroom and subjected to protracted technical testimony that revealed both the boy's and Jackson's fingerprints were on the magazines.
But already, holes in the prosecution's case have begun to appear. Jackson's lead attorney, Thomas Mesereau, is a brutal cross-examiner and has not backed off from attacking the accuser.
His cause has been greatly helped by stuttering performances from all the prosecution's key witnesses. The accuser, dubbed John Doe, gave an at times bizarre display. He yawned repeatedly, prompting Sneddon to ask him: "I'm keeping you awake, am I?" To which the boy replied: "All I need is a pillow." John Doe was also questioned about how his initial complaints of five acts of abuse had turned into just two. His brother, known as James Doe, also gave changing testimony, describing events differently at different times.
Yet the worst performance was by the mother. At one stage, she dubbed Jackson and his entourage as "killers." She pointed at Jackson every time she mentioned his name, frequently burst into tears, yet cracked jokes just as often. Mesereau raised few objections to disturb her flow. Even prosecutor Ron Zonen betrayed his exasperation. "Anyway " was his sarcastic response to a long reply that failed to answer his question.
Mesereau was brutal in attacking her. On April 15 the judge struck so many remarks from the record (both hers and Mesereau's) that he had to suspend court to explain to the jury they should forget any such comments. She was erratic and rambling. At one stage she claimed Jackson's side had faked a receipt that showed she had had a leg, eyebrow and bikini wax at a local salon. "I'm telling you, it was only a leg wax," she said. She then turned to look at Jackson and said accusingly: "He has the ability to choreograph everything." "How about you?" Mesereau shot back. The remark was struck from the record.
But the witnesses who were not there were also crucial. Both Culkin and Robson have previously insisted they were never abused by Jackson. Jordie Chandler has also refused to testify. It is perhaps telling that he has not spoken to his mother, who was so willing to take the stand, in more than 11 years.
Finally there is the issue of money. It is this that is emerging as the dominant thread of the defense. The collision of celebrity and crime and checkbook journalism has undermined swaths of the prosecution's case. "The Achilles' heel is these low-life witnesses who sold their souls to the tabloids," said Laurie Levenson, a former prosecutor and professor at Loyola Law School.
Jackson's cook Lemarque, who says he saw him molest Culkin, had talks with a tabloid about selling his story for $100,000. He admitted to Mesereau that he had been told the story was worth more if Jackson's hands were inside Culkin's underpants, not outside. Another staff member, maid Adrian McManus, confessed that several employees had banded together to hire a "media broker" to peddle Jackson sex stories that they made up.
Chacon, the security guard, was part of a failed lawsuit to sue Jackson by ex-Neverland staff. That suit ended in disaster, and each plaintiff was forced to pay Jackson more than $1 million in legal fees. "This is a good way to get even with him, isn't it?" Mesereau bluntly asked as Chacon squirmed. Chacon has also sold his story to the tabloids to pay the legal bills.
The Salvadoran cleaner (whose name cannot be revealed) is not free of tabloid taint either. She was paid $20,000 to appear on a TV show in a deal arranged by another Jackson maid. The accuser's father has talked to British tabloids about selling his story, though no deal was ever struck. Behind it all is the possibility of a civil suit of the kind that won the Chandler family $20 million. Mesereau grilled John Doe on the prospect. "You're aware that if Mr. Jackson is convicted you could automatically win a civil suit, right?" he asked him. "No," the boy said, which prompted Mesereau to repeat: "No one's ever discussed that with you?" Again the boy said no. "We've said things like, 'Oh, we don't want his money' and stuff like that." It remains to be seen if that will convince a jury.
But tellingly, the family's civil lawyer, Will Dickerman, and attorney Larry Feldman, who first brought the boy's charges to light, have entered into a fee-sharing arrangement, so that if any future civil suit is launched they will share the reward. When Feldman was on the stand, Mesereau made sure the jury was made aware of the situation and that the accuser will have until he is 20 years old to decide if he wants to pursue compensation. That produced a testy exchange between Mesereau and Feldman. "If at the end of this trial, they decide they'd like to sue, they'd have plenty of time, wouldn't they?" Mesereau asked icily. "If they'd like to, sure," was Feldman's calm response.
It is hard to escape the notion that money could be key to the trial. At no stage did any witness or victim report Jackson to the police. Or try to stop the alleged abuse. They went to lawyers, tabloid editors and television reporters, but never to social services. "These witnesses are alleging heinous behavior and not a one of them seems to have done a damn thing about it while the acts were being committed. Who are these people?" said show business columnist Richard Roeper. Mesereau was more subtle. "Did you ever take your son and leave?" he asked Chandler. "No," she replied.
Guilty or innocent, Jackson is almost certainly finished as a pop star. "At this point the case is looking like a smear campaign. It's a legal free-for-all," said Levenson. But the trial also seems to be a "high-water" mark for celebrity trials. From Scott Peterson to Robert Blake to Kobe Bryant, America has been awash with high-profile scandals over the past year. Perhaps, at long last, it is tiring of them.
The Jackson trial is rarely front-page news. Even the most salacious testimony is on inside pages. The "reenactments" shown each night on some TV channels have failed to catch the imagination. Mesereau is not a household name. It seems America has, so far, spared itself another O.J. Simpson trial. That is the only good thing to emerge from Santa Maria so far.