The most talked about movie at the Sundance Film Festival — which is currently underway in Park City, Utah – was a two-part, four-hour documentary detailing disturbing allegations of child sexual abuse brought against the late King of Pop, Michael Jackson. Leaving Neverland focuses on the stories of two men, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who were befriended by Jackson as kids and were among his most staunch defenders when child molestation accusations were raised in 1993 and 2003. It wasn’t until several years after Jackson’s 2009 death that each came forward with their own claims of being abused by the pop star and sued the singer’s estate.
Set to air this spring on HBO, Leaving Neverland exposes the excruciating details of the alleged abuse that Robson and Safechuck say they endured for years, corroborated by interviews with their family members and other loved ones. And the approach effective — when a Rolling Stone editor attended a screening, he described the audience as dealing with PTSD of their own. “During a 10-minute intermission, audience members appeared slightly dazed,” he wrote. “By the end of the screening, the crowd looked completely shellshocked.”
The Jackson estate denounced the documentary as “yet another lurid production in an outrageous and pathetic attempt to exploit and cash in on Michael Jackson” with “just another rehash of dated and discredited allegations.” Leaving Neverland has certainly brought renewed attention to those prior allegations of child sexual abuse which nearly derailed, and in some respects, overshadowed Jackson’s wildly successful career. Here’s a look back.
May 1992 – Jackson befriends Jordan Chandler
According to an October 1994 story in GQ, Jackson began a friendship with Jordan Chandler in May 1992 after the owner of a nearby car rental business offered him a free rental if the singer agreed to call his 13-year-old stepson, who was a fan of Jackson’s music. In February 1993, Jordan, along with his sister and his mother June, stay at Neverland — Jackson’s compound — for the first of several visits. In late March, the family begins traveling with Jackson to places like Las Vegas, Morocco and Paris. During this period, according to the Chandlers, Jordan and Jackson would often sleep in the same room.
May 25, 1993 – The National Enquirer publishes a story entitled Michael Jackson’s Secret Family
Jordan’s parents were long divorced, and his father, Evan Chandler, a well-known Los Angeles dentist, was reportedly upset that the tabloid story portrayed Jackson as a father figure. Jordan’s frequent trips to Neverland and other travels with Jackson had caused a disruption to Chandler’s visitation schedule, and he allegedly became suspicious that something untoward might be going on.
June-August 1993 – Evan Chandler builds his case against Jackson
Having become increasingly at odds with his ex-wife June over Jordan’s friendship with Jackson, Evan Chandler began talking to lawyers about either filing a restraining order against Jackson or a custody lawsuit against June. Chandler repeatedly threatened to “destroy” Jackson in secretly recorded telephone conversations that were then played for Jackson’s attorneys. Jordan was then interviewed by a private investigator hired by Jackson’s attorneys, and denied being molested by the singer.
In mid-July, as a custody battle over Jordan began to ramp up, Evan Chandler claimed Jordan disclosed to him that Jackson had molested him on several occasions. In August, Chandler and his attorney met with Jackson’s attorney and demanded $20 million in exchange for not going public or to the authorities with the abuse allegations. Meanwhile, in court documents filed in the child custody case, Chandler made no mention of Jackson.
In mid-August 1993, during an appointment set up by Chandler with psychiatrist Dr. Mathis Abrams, Jordan described being molested by Jackson, including incidents of kissing, masturbation and oral sex, which Abrams reported to the authorities.
August 18, 1993 – The Los Angeles Police Department begins investigating Jackson
The LAPD’s Sexually Exploited Child Unit launched an investigation into the allegations against Jackson after Jordan repeated the allegations in an interview with police. On August 27th, after police executed several search warrants of the singer’s various properties, the Los Angeles Times reported that videotapes has been seized, but were not incriminating. “The lack of physical evidence of alleged sexual molestation … left investigators ‘scrambling’ to get statements from other potential victims” because, according to a Times’ police source, “the search warrant didn’t result in anything that would support a criminal filing.”
As the story made headlines, Jackson went ahead with his world tour while his family and friends defended him back home. On August 25th, teenagers Brett Barnes and Wade Robson — who had become friends with Jackson several years earlier — held a press conference in which they stated that they had slept in the same bed as Jackson, but nothing sexual in nature had occurred.
September 14, 1993 – The Chandlers sue Jackson for $30 million
The lawsuit accused Jackson of sexual battery, battery, seduction, willful misconduct, intentional infliction of emotional distress, fraud and negligence.
November 4, 1993 – The son of Jackson’s former maid is interviewed by police
In their search for other potential victims, investigators interviewed Jason Francia, the 13-year-old son of Jackson’s former maid, Blanca Francia. While he initially denied being abused, he eventually told police that Jackson tickled him and touched his genitals, a story he repeated on the witness stand at Jackson’s 2005 trial.
On December 15th, in a paid interview with the tabloid news show Hard Copy, his mother, Blanca Francia, who worked for the singer from the mid-1980s to early-1990s, claimed that she witnessed improprieties between Jackson and several young boys, but didn’t come forward until after she heard about the Chandler allegations. She was subsequently interviewed by the police, who prevented her from selling her story to anyone else, and gave several depositions in the Chandler civil lawsuit.
December 20, 1993 – Michael Jackson is strip-searched by police
Jackson’s genitalia and body were photographed and videotaped by authorities so they could be compared to Jordan’s description. Two days later, on December 22nd, Jackson released a now infamous video statement in which he insisted he was innocent and described the strip search as “the most humiliating ordeal of my life.” No arrest warrant was issued.
On December 28th, Jordan gave a sworn declaration detailing the abuse allegations; the declaration was leaked online in 2003.
January 25, 1994 – Jackson settles with the Chandlers and agrees to pay them $22 million
After months of negotiations, Jackson chose to settle the molestation case out of court, with $15 million set aside for Jordan in a trust until he turned 18. June and Evan Chandler each received $1.5 million. (The remaining money went to the Chandlers’ legal team.)
February-April 1994 – Grand Juries decline to indict Jackson
Grand juries in both Santa Barbara and Los Angeles were presented with the prosecution’s case against Jackson, including testimony from both Jordan and June Chandler, but declined to indict. Authorities said the case remained open, but in July, Jordan Chandler told prosecutors he would refuse to testify at a trial. In September, Santa Barbara District Attorney Thomas Sneddon and Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti admitted their 18-month investigation had failed to produce incriminating evidence, and without Jordan’s cooperation, they could not file criminal charges against Jackson.
Jordan Chandler went on to attain legal emancipation from both of his parents. June Chandler testified at Jackson’s 2005 trial and said she had not spoken to her son in 11 years. Evan Chandler, who closed his dental practice in 1994, killed himself in 2009.
February 6, 2003 – The documentary Living with Michael Jackson airs in the United States
British journalist Martin Bashir filmed the documentary between late 2002 and early 2003, and dedicated significant airtime to Jackson’s friendship with a young cancer patient named Gavin Arvizo, who had been visiting Neverland Ranch with his family since 2000. Jackson and Arvizo held hands and discussed having sleepovers, which Jackson described as a regular activity for him and his young guests. “It’s not sexual, we’re going to sleep,” Jackson told Bashir. “I tuck them in… It’s very charming, it’s very sweet.” The documentary sparked outrage and renewed interest in the 1993 allegations. That same week, Jordan Chandler’s sworn declaration was leaked online.
June-November 2003 – The Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department and District Attorney’s Office renew their investigation into Michael Jackson
Sneddon, the Santa Barbara DA, reopened the investigation in the aftermath of Bashir’s documentary, and authorities interviewed Arvizo alongside his father David, mother Janet and brother Star in July and August 2003. Gavin would eventually claim to police in November that Jackson has molested him several times between February 21st and March 12th, 2003, when, according to Janet Arvizo, Jackson held the family captive at Neverland. Jackson denied holding the family against their will.
On November 18th, Neverland was searched by police, with Jackson arrested and released on a $3 million bond one week later.
December 18, 2003 – Jackson is formally charged with partaking in lewd and lascivious acts with a child under the age of 14
Four months later, on April 21st, 2004, a grand jury indicted Jackson on several additional charges related to the Arvizo allegations, including conspiracy involving child abduction, false imprisonment and extortion.
February 28, 2005 – Michael Jackson’s criminal trial begins.
Over the course of three months, dozens of witnesses were called to testify, including famous names like Jay Leno, comedian Chris Tucker and Macaulay Culkin, the latter calling allegations that he was molested by Jackson “absolutely ridiculous.” Several other young men Jackson befriended as kids also testified on Jackson’s behalf, including Wade Robson, who said he spent the night at Neverland more than 20 times, sleeping in Jackson’s bed, and was never molested. He also refuted maid Blanca Francia’s testimony that she had witnessed Jackson showering with Robson.
Arvizo and his younger brother both testified and claimed that Jackson showed them pornography and gave them alcohol, which he called “Jesus juice.” Both boys testified that Jackson had masturbated in front of them and molested Gavin on several occasions, but Jackson’s defense capably pointed out various inconsistencies in their stories and presented impeaching witnesses. They repeatedly introduced evidence that Janet Arvizo had committed welfare fraud and perjury, and had a history of coaching her children to lie.
June 14, 2005 – The jury delivers their verdict
After deliberating for 32 hours over seven days, the jury returned a verdict finding Michael Jackson not guilty on all charges.
June 25, 2009 – Michael Jackson dies at age 50
Following his acquittal, Jackson never returned to Neverland Ranch, saying the police raid of the property no longer made it a home. For the next four years, he lived primarily in Bahrain and Ireland before returning to Los Angeles. He died of cardiac arrest while on an array of prescription medications.
May 2013 – Wade Robson sues the Jackson estate
According to the lawsuit, Robson – a longtime friend and Jackson defender – alleged that Jackson had molested him over a seven-year period, starting when he was seven years old. Born in Australia, Robson and his family moved to Los Angeles after meeting Jackson; during his first sleepover at Neverland Ranch, Robson claimed Jackson performed oral sex on him. “He said ‘This is how we show our love,’” Robson says in the film.
Robson claimed the last sexual assault occurred when he was 14, when Jackson tried to anally penetrate him. Robson has gone on to become a well-known dancer and choreographer in his own right. He has said that for many years he thought of his relationship with Jackson as being consensual and it wasn’t until he had his own child that he saw the abuse for what it was.
“I understand why it’s so hard for [fans] to believe it,” a soft-spoken Robson said following a screening of Leaving Neverland. “We can only accept and understand something when we’re ready.”
August 2014 – James Safechuck sues the Jackson estate
Safechuck was 10 years old when he appeared in Jackson’s infamous Pepsi commercial, and in his lawsuit, he claimed Jackson sexually abused him over 100 times over a four-year period. According to court documents, Jackson “engaged in a calculated course of conduct to lure both [Safechuck] and his parents into a false sense of security and normalcy that was far from reality. And [Jackson] was successful in his efforts to the point that [Safechuck] endured repeated acts of sexual abuse of a heinous nature and was brainwashed by the decedent into believing they were acts of love and instigated by James himself rather than the decedent.”
In 2017, both Robson and Safechuck’s lawsuits were thrown out because too much time had elapsed for Jackson’s estate to be held criminally liable.