The news landed like a grenade while the Jacksons were touring overseas. An upcoming documentary was said to include new allegations that their late brother, pop icon Michael Jackson, had sexually abused two young boys. The reaction from eldest brother Jackie was simple: “Here we go again.”
The family is dismissing these new allegations made by the two-part, four-hour documentary, Leaving Neverland, though none of his brothers have yet seen it. The film focuses exclusively on the lives of two young boys — Wade Robson and James Safechuck, now grown up — who say they were molested during overnight stays at Jackson’s Neverland Ranch in rural Santa Barbara County, California, in the 1980s and 1990s.
The documentary, airing Sunday and Monday on HBO, comes amid memories of two earlier court cases where Jackson, who died in 2009, was accused of sexual abuse by two other boys who had become close to the singer. A 1993 civil case was settled out of court, and a criminal investigation was dropped. A 2005 criminal trial ended in acquittal.
The Jackson family refuses to accept the allegations and suggest that the two men at the center of Leaving Neverland are motivated by a desire for money and fame. Both have filed lawsuits seeking damages that a lawyer for the estate estimates would amount to hundreds of millions of dollars. They missed the California deadline for suing the estate of a dead person, and the cases were dismissed. Both are on appeal.
If it goes to trial, says Jonathan P. Steinsapir, an attorney for the estate, “We feel pretty good that we can win that trial.”
This week, in a private room at a hotel restaurant in Beverly Hills, four members of the Jackson family gathered for a day of interviews to defend Michael and attack the documentary. Among them were three original members of the Jackson 5: Jackie, 67; Marlon, 61; and Tito, 65, who wore his signature bowler hat.
“You think if Michael was here they would be doing this? No way,” insists Jackie. “My brother’s not here. So it’s an easy target.”
None of Jackson’s brothers are direct financial beneficiaries of the Michael Jackson estate, which controls the singer’s assets and has experienced boom times in recent years. The estate earned $2.1 billion in profits (adjusted for inflation) since his death, according to Forbes. The Cirque du Soleil show Michael Jackson: One is in its sixth year in Las Vegas, and the stage musical Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough is planned to open on Broadway in 2020. The estate has also filed a $100 million lawsuit against HBO.
But the documentary, first seen last month at the Sundance Film Festival, could damage that momentum and tarnish Jackson’s legacy. The family noted that Robson, a successful choreographer, filed his first lawsuit in 2013, after he wasn’t hired for the One show in Vegas. Both Robson and Safechuck had also testified that they had never been abused by Jackson.
Among the most forceful defenders of the pop superstar is his nephew, Taj Jackson, 45, son of Tito and himself a survivor of childhood sexual abuse (by an uncle on his mother’s side), who joined his uncles in this interview with Rolling Stone.
As a child of the same generation of these accusers, Taj enjoyed many sleepovers at Neverland, and says he knew Robson well. Like his uncles in the Jacksons, he says it’s not possible for him to believe the allegations. And with Michael gone, it’s up to the family to protect his name and reputation. “We’re a unit, you know?” he says. “And when lies happen like that, we all defend because we know the truth.”
Why are you speaking out on this documentary?
Marlon: If your brother was deceased and someone wanted to slander his name, you’d be supporting him. That’s not him. That’s not his character. We definitely know our brother and this documentary is very one-sided and there are no facts whatsoever to corroborate what this documentary is all about.
Have any of you actually seen the documentary?
Marlon: I’m not interested in seeing the documentary. It’s something that has no validity to it.
Taj: I’ve read the transcripts. I want to see it. I wanted to see it before — they won’t let me see it. I know what it’s about, so I feel very free speaking about it. That’s my generation. Wade Robson is someone that I know very well.
Were you aware that this documentary was being produced?
Jackie: I heard about it in Australia two or three weeks ago. Me and the brothers were touring and my managers came up to us and told us, “This story is coming out on your brother. I don’t think it’s going to be a good one.” And I said, “Here we go again.” That’s when we got worried about the whole documentary. That’s why we’re here to help our brother.
Were you at Neverland a lot?
Taj: I was a lot. Probably over 200 times.
Did the rest of you also spend much time there?
Marlon: We’re grown men. We have kids. We’ve got our own thing to do. We don’t follow Michael around.
Jackie: We’ve been there many times.
Marlon: I mean, we’ve been to Neverland but we didn’t hang out at Neverland.
This isn’t the first time these kinds of accusation have come up. People will look at this documentary with that in the back of their minds, which is going to affect how they interpret it.
Marlon: I beg to differ because, if they check the facts, then they won’t. The facts tell a totally different story than what this documentary is representing.
Taj: Our family in the past has been so quiet about it because we’ve been taught to turn the other cheek. So there’s a lot of lies that have lasted for 20 years that have become part of the public consciousness, which aren’t true. A lot of people don’t know that the 1993 allegations were not about sexual abuses — it was about negligence. And nothing stopped that kid from testifying in a criminal case. He wanted his money — his father wanted the money. Once they got the money, they were not concerned about the case at all. And a criminal case could have still happened if the DA in California had any evidence. And a 10-year investigation by the FBI produced nothing.
[Editor’s Note: The 1993 civil suit accused Jackson of sexual battery, seduction, willful misconduct, intentional infliction of emotional distress, fraud and negligence. The case settled out of court, only addressing the claims of negligence.]
I was at Neverland plenty of times when my uncle feared that Neverland was bugged. So with 10 years of being surveyed and surveillance — as much as Michael Jackson was throughout his life — and there’s no evidence.
What did he do about it?
Jackie: He was pretty upset. Neverland was raided and you would see all the cop cars at his ranch. He was out of town touring when they would do this.
Taj: They took his computers, they took everything and they didn’t find one scrap of evidence. Now we all know that when there’s a child molester, you take their computer … you’re going to find something. Seventy sheriffs [deputies] raided that place. It looked like a drug bust. We watched on TV. They didn’t find one scrap of evidence that he was a child molester.
Marlon: So here you have a documentary that [Dan Reed] sold to HBO. He trusted Wade and he trusted Safechuck that they were telling the truth — which is nothing wrong with trusting them. But you must verify. HBO, huge company — don’t you think they would do their due diligence and make sure that what they’re disseminating out to the public is fact? There’s no facts at all to corroborate what they’re saying. And he only interviewed Wade Robson and a few of his family members, and Safechuck and his family. He didn’t call the Jackson family. He didn’t call some of the other kids –
Jackie: Or Michael’s friends or people who knew Michael, who loved Michael. They didn’t talk to any of those friends.
Marlon: There was no interest in talking to them. He didn’t want to compromise the product that he was putting together because he wanted to be one-sided, one way. And I’m not making this up. It’s about the money.
Money for who?
Marlon: Hold on, what do you mean money for who?
For the network? For the two guys –?
Taj: It’s definitely all the above. We live in a world where currency is popularity — through followers, through social media — the more popular they are, the more money you’re gonna make. That’s just a fact. And it’s not a coincidence that both Wade and James have appeals going right now against the estate for hundreds of millions of dollars. So they have an interest in saying Michael Jackson’s a molester. Dan Reed has an interest because there’s plenty of journalists that have made their career off of Michael Jackson. The director even said he was looking for a high-profile case to hang his hat on. You can’t get more clear than that.
There are other things that are at stake for the family, right?
Marlon: I don’t think so because there’s no facts. They have not produced any evidence that will corroborate this documentary. So there aren’t any facts on their side. And what we’re telling you, you can go look it up: it’s on the record; it’s in magazines, in articles. Mr. Wade, constantly on video telling: “Michael was my mentor. He got me started in this business. If it wasn’t for Michael, I wouldn’t be doing this. He’s an amazing guy.”
Even when he was living, there were jokes that Michael liked to hang around little kids and have them sleep over. On 60 Minutes, he was asked about this. Ed Bradley said, “Do you still think it’s acceptable to share your bed with children?”
Jackie: He was sitting there with his own children. My kids were there; his nieces and nephews were there, and people just sleeping around in their pajamas watching movies and films.
Taj: You can’t live your life for what other people think. I grew up in that atmosphere. I grew up with pie fights and water balloon fights and stink bombs, and people would say the same thing. What is a grown man doing throwing water balloons or pie fights? But my uncle was a kid at heart and that was the thing that I don’t think people understood — and people didn’t understand him. Everyone that knew him understood that — from Elizabeth Taylor to Diana Ross, everyone that’s been around him has understood that and has been very constant in saying that. But I think you had to live that to understand it because society always wants to think the worst.
The documentary states that there were occasions when it wasn’t Michael and a bunch of kids, but sometimes him and one kid alone. Is that true?
Taj: Yeah. But there’s other stuff in the documentary that states certain things that are easily proven false that they’re not touching upon. Like they never mentioned in the documentary that Wade Robson dated my uncle Jackie’s daughter for over seven years because it doesn’t fit their timeline. They want you to believe that at the same time that he’s supposedly in love with Michael Jackson, he’s dating my cousin Brandi … from seven years old to 14 years old. But that doesn’t fit the narrative. So they conveniently hide that.
After the trouble he had with the civil case in 1993, and then the more serious criminal case, should he have done more to protect himself?
Marlon: If you’re doing nothing wrong, why should you do more to protect yourself?
Because he almost went to prison?
Marlon: Well, here’s the problem: We as people are too quick to judge. We’re supposed to love one another. Judging should be done by the Lord. We should be coming together. Yeah, he went to court. They didn’t find any evidence. Not only that, Mr. Robson and Safechuck testified — and Wade Robson twice, once as an adult. And they said that Michael never did anything inappropriate to them. The story changes all the time. They’re still in a lawsuit with the Michael Jackson estate right now — it gets thrown out, they appeal it. It’s all about the money.
Taj: When you’re a target for over 20 years, you get numb to it. It’s not like all of a sudden my uncle got attacked for something. He’s been a target his whole life — as soon as he hit a certain status. There were rumors about him about this or rumors about him about that. He trusted people, he believed in people, he thought people will see the truth.
Jackie: Or about his nose job, people just picked on him all the time no matter what. He was the biggest star in the world. So it’s tabloid, to make money.
At some point one of his lawyers must have said, “Michael, maybe you shouldn’t be doing this,” because it’s going to lead to that kind of trouble.
Marlon: He told me this, “I love kids and one of the things I like about kids is they don’t want anything from me and I’m here to help. But when I talk to some adults, I feel like they’re trying to get something from me.”
Taj: Me being around at the time as a kid, you view life differently. When you’re doing nothing wrong, you don’t want to change anything — especially if you feel you were put on this earth to help people. You feel like, well why am I here then? And it’s like a parent telling a kid, you can’t be that. And I think that’s what society was trying to do. They took the one thing that inspired him, that his creativity and they turned it and they made it negative and they knew they were doing it.
Marlon: We’ve been in this business all our life, and it was difficult. I remember Michael and I were going to junior high school; the kids were outside the classroom just staring at us. This is back in ’71, ’72. It lasted for two weeks because it was just crazy at school for us. We couldn’t do anything. And that’s how it was that a lot of times wherever we would go, and what that does to you. You really don’t have that connection with the outside world of what people are really about. And when I got married and became an adult, I trusted everybody. I found out that you can’t trust everybody.
These two guys had — at least off and on — contact with Neverland and Michael over a long period of time. How do you explain them saying this stuff now?
Taj: Wade praised my uncle all the way up to MJ One, where he didn’t get the job as head choreographer/director. Right then and there he started shopping a book deal. This is not something that we’re saying, this is something that’s fact. He started shopping a book deal about sexual abuse. No publisher would pick it up. So then, a year later, he decides to sue the estate. This is the timeline that this is all happening. James Safechuck sees Wade on Matt Lauer and says, “Oh my God, that happened to me, too.” So it’s like all these memories are happening because there’s an opportunity. Don’t forget, they’re hearing about the estate making billions of dollars at this point from Forbes and all this other stuff. And Wade has honestly lived his whole life using Michael Jackson’s name and using that legacy.
Isn’t it possible that something could be going on that you weren’t aware of?
Taj: Michael Jackson was probably the most-scrutinized, under-a-microscope person that the world has seen for a long time.
Jackie: I know my brother. He’s not like that.
Tito: This went to trial as well; I think it was 12 counts. Michael was basically — I always use the word “unusual” — because his heart was pure. I used to feel bad because when I was 20, 21, 22, I was able to go to the local bar and get a beer and sit down with a friend and hang and maybe shoot a few games of pool and talk to a girl. He never had anything like that. Not even as a child. He never played baseball. We would have family day at the Hayvenhurst house where the family lived. We’d want to grab Michael and have a business meeting to talk about what we’re going to do for our future. He was busy playing with my sons, Jackie’s kids, running around. We want to go in the studio and talk about business. But it was fun to him. He didn’t have that.
Can you imagine not being a kid when you are a kid? You got to go do some work for Motown or do a Rolling Stone interview or Ed Sullivan Show or Carol Burnett? We did that every day. His life was, we went to school; right after school, a driver would pick us up, take us right to Motown studio. And this went on for three or four years. We would record a song a day every day.
Marlon: And he took a jump to another level that a lot of entertainers don’t reach. He couldn’t go down the street. To try to feel what others feel out in the street, he would put on disguises. He was in Warehouse Records in Encino. I just happened to go to Warehouse with my two little kids and I’m looking for stuff and I see this man with a stack of records. He had an afro, protruding teeth, and he’s walking around. He went up to pay and I walked up behind him, and I said, “Michael, what are you doing in here?” He said, “Marl, how did you know it was me?” “You’re my brother! You don’t think I know how you walk?”
This documentary is going to come out and there’s a chance it will inspire others to come out with these kinds of accusations.
Taj: They’ve had 20 years to do that. The DA in 1993 was looking for anyone to do this. They actively put all their resources into it. So this is not something new for us. How many people can withstand a 20-year investigation, a 10-year FBI investigation, 300 pages of FBI notes — and nothing.
Marlon: Keep in mind, the director, Wade Robson, Mr. Safechuck — no evidence whatsoever to corroborate with what this documentary is all about. Zero. They spent zero time and they could have talked to me. They could’ve talked to family or talk to people who knew Michael.
In some of these cases, you weren’t there when this other person was.
Taj: But I was. I saw the interaction between Wade and my uncle. I was there the day he testified. I saw Wade introduce his fiancé to my uncle. But not only that, as me being someone that has been sexually abused in the past, you’re aware of that. It was by my uncle on my mom’s side of the family, my uncle Chuck. I was under 10 years old. And it wasn’t only me, it was my brother as well. So you’re very aware of everything, just like a battered wife would be very aware of other battered wives. Even if they deny it, you are aware of it. You sense it. I watched my uncle and Wade interact. I hooked up the VCR for Wade to play his short film at the time. He was so proud to show it to my uncle. Just like he was proud to introduce his wife, Amanda, to my uncle. That’s the thing that not only don’t make sense, they’re not getting scrutinized. There’s the Wade when my uncle was alive who was benefiting from the magic and then there’s the Wade that now has a kid and is financially in trouble and needs to make money.
What do you expect the impact of this documentary will be? A lot of people are going to see it.
Marlon: The people that love Michael Jackson, that know Michael Jackson, like we do as a family, they’re not going to believe that story. It’s a quick money grab. That’s all it is.