December 08, 2003 12:00 PM

The prisoner, an average Joe being led to a holding cell at the Santa Barbara jail on Nov. 20, suddenly found himself in the middle of an anything-but-routine procedure. “He walks down a corridor and sees Michael Jackson with his legs spread and his two hands up against the wall,” says the prisoner’s defense attorney, Steve Balash. “And they were patting him down.”

It wasn’t for a parking ticket. As the whole world was learning, the 45-year-old superstar had flown in from Las Vegas and surrendered after Santa Barbara County District Attorney Thomas W. Sneddon issued an arrest warrant for him tied to accusations of sexual molestation of a 12-year-old boy who had been a visitor to Jackson’s Neverland Ranch. Still, as he was being booked, Jackson appeared in oddly good spirits. On his way to be fingerprinted, the singer began waving to a group of prisoners in a nearby holding cell, who were crowded against a plexi-glass window that looked out onto the processing area. So stunned were the inmates, says Balash, “that I can’t tell you if anyone waved back.”

The formal charges, expected to be filed in mid-December, have the potential not only to land the singer in prison for more than 10 years, but also to put the final nail into his already flagging career. Even diehard fans camped outside the jail voiced long-held doubts. “We used to be supporters of Michael, but we don’t know what to think anymore,” says University of California at Santa Barbara sophomore Neil Dipaola, 19. “There have been so many allegations that it sure seems like something just isn’t right at Neverland.”

Jackson famously faced similar allegations in a 1993 civil case, involving a 13-year-old, that was eventually settled privately for a reported $15 to $20 million. The new criminal charges are almost certain to go to court, partly due to a change in California law, inspired by the earlier Jackson case, that compels alleged victims to testify. And prosecution is very much the expressed intent of Sneddon, who was involved in the criminal investigation of the 1993 case as well. Sneddon, who did not speak to PEOPLE for this story, has denied that he has a vendetta against Jackson. “You have a D.A. that says he put this to bed 10 years ago and hasn’t thought about it since,” counters a skeptical source close to the defense, who claims that Sneddon has a history of “taking personal slams” at Jackson.

The accusations against Jackson come just 10 months after the furor over the two-hour documentary about the singer made by British journalist Martin Bashir, in which Jackson said he slept with “many children. I slept in the bed with all of them,” and described the practice as “the most loving thing.” In fact, the new accuser is believed to be a boy who was interviewed in the documentary.

Reports have emerged that the young victim claimed to have been plied with wine, and that during a massive Nov. 18 raid at the ranch police confiscated computers, photographs and videotapes. According to some cable television news shows, they found romantic letters and poems written by Jackson to the boy. A source close to Jackson angrily dismisses the letters as “an urban legend,” and denies that—as has been reported—the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s office has been swamped with calls offering fresh leads. A former Neverland employee finds the new charges alarmingly familiar. “We’re all reliving the nightmare,” she says.

So is Jackson, who was in Las Vegas when the warrant was issued. On the flight back to California, he was “calm” and ate an apple, says a source. After his release on $3 million bail, he and his entourage drove back to Las Vegas, where he moved into the penthouse suite of the Regency Tower at the Las Vegas Country Club, in the same building where his sister LaToya has a 27th-floor condo. To provide cover during his movements, Jackson wore “a drag disguise that included black flowing clothes and a veil and dark hat,” says Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist Norm Clarke. Later, on his Web site, Jackson reacted to the charges by calling them “predicated on a big lie.” The singer, who will be arraigned Jan. 9, is “fighting mad,” says attorney Mark Geragos, who has taken over control of the case and has urged Jackson’s family members to stop talking to reporters. Geragos, who has been advising Jackson since this past spring, calls the charges “utterly malicious. There’s no question that this guy does not even have the remotest capacity to harm or abuse a child. That’s what so repugnant about all of this.”

A core group of loyalists second that notion. Longtime friend Elizabeth Taylor issued a statement through her publicist saying that “I believe Michael is absolutely innocent and that he will be vindicated,” and hoped that the media would “all eat crow.” Jackson’s mother, Katherine, 75, told the British magazine Hello! that “there are two sets of rules in this country, one for the white people and the other one for the black people. We are all united behind Michael.” Even former manager Frank Dileo, who had a bitter falling out with Jackson in the early 1990s over money that he. said he was owed, believes Jackson will be found innocent: “He’ll get a fair trial in court, but he’s not getting one in the press right now.”

At the heart of the case, say sources, is a cancer survivor who was brought to Neverland through the help of Jamie Masada, a Los Angeles comedy-club owner. According to a source close to the case, the boy and his mother went to attorney Larry Feldman, who had represented Jackson’s 1993 accuser. Feldman sent the boy to a therapist, who, upon hearing the allegations, was required by law to report them to authorities. Raised with his two siblings with little money and stability, the alleged accuser “was a little, skinny kid. He didn’t have any hair, no eyebrows. He was really sick-looking and pale,” says Talia Mandel, 22, who met him when she visited Neverland three years ago. “He told me that Michael was helping him get better, but I don’t know exactly what he was doing.”

H. Russell Halpern, an L.A. attorney representing the boy’s father, admits that his client isn’t exactly a model citizen. In 2001 the client was slapped with a restraining order after his wife detailed an alleged incident of physical abuse, and later he pleaded no contest to a child abuse charge. Further, a source close to the defense says that they have evidence that the mother has denied that Jackson molested her child.

The boy, now 14 and in remission, was sometimes joined by his parents and two siblings at Neverland, and spent time riding all-terrain vehicles and admiring Jackson’s boa constrictor. “We were surprised at how much it seemed like he trusted Michael, and Michael trusted them,” says Mandel.

Trust or no, many observers are wondering why, given Jackson’s past travails, any parents would allow their child to stay at Neverland (see box on page 90). The answer, say those familiar with the singer, is that Jackson’s opulent wealth and celebrity-studded lifestyle is every bit as seductive to parents as his toy-filled cornucopia is to their kids. The families who are invited to Neverland frequently come to Jackson’s attention from a host of charities for disadvantaged children.

Sometimes the introduction is less conventional. Ahmad Elatab, 17, of Clifton, N. J., first met Jackson in 1995 at the Sony studios through a friend of his father’s. When he saw Jackson again at a New York hotel after a concert, he handed the singer a picture of himself dressed as Jackson, with his name and phone number written on the back. Three months later, says Elatab, “he just called and said, ‘Hi, how are you?’ He told me I could visit him at Neverland anytime. Michael told me, ‘Come any time you want.’ ”

The boy took the invitation seriously, showing up unannounced at the gates of Jackson’s 2,700-acre Neverland estate on New Year’s Day with his family in tow. Elatab identified himself to a security guard and was buzzed in. In March, during another visit with his younger brother Jawad, he was whisked off with a group of children for a buying spree, courtesy of Jackson, at a local Toys “R” Us. At Neverland, says Elatab, young visitors are treated like kings. The evening meal, for example, “was served by [Michael’s] wonderful maid. We sat at a big table with gold silverware.” Guests also have access to Jackson’s personal library “that is like a bookstore” says one, and “his own movie-video library, which is as big as Blockbuster.” In short, Hamid Moslehi, a freelance videographer who worked for Jackson for eight years—and whose home was also raided by police in their search for evidence in the case—says, “for a kid,” a trip to Neverland “would be heaven.”

In the three years in the early ’90s that he worked for Jackson on his security staff, Robert Wegner estimates that Jackson had boys in for sleepovers at least 100 times. Some stayed in Jackson’s own bedroom, which is outfitted with a grand piano, arcade games and an 80-in. plasma screen TV. “In the security office was a chalkboard which listed the sleeping arrangements on the ranch,” says Wegner, the author of the book My Three Years Working for Michael Jackson, who says he witnessed Jackson riding in his golf cart with young boys and putting his hand on their thighs. “There were probably 12 to 14 different places we could sleep,” says Wegner, “including four guest cottages. We had to list where everybody was sleeping in case there was an emergency and we had to get everybody out. The names didn’t go up, but numbers indicated how many were in each room. There was always at least one child in his room with him.”

Over the years, charges of Jackson’s misbehavior have come out of Neverland but little has stuck. Melanie Bagnall, 41, who worked as an unarmed security guard at Neverland from 1991 to 1994, joined two other security guards, a maid and an office manager in a 1995 suit against Jackson alleging that they were wrongfully terminated because of potentially damaging information they had. In 1997 they lost a jury trial and were ordered to pay a $1 million judgment in attorney fees and court costs to Jackson. “We went to hell and back trying to do the right thing,” says Bagnall. Afterward, “we all had to file bankruptcy, but it wasn’t about money. It was about us trying to do the right thing: telling the truth about everything.”

Private investigator Paul Barresi—a former legman for the imprisoned investigator Anthony Pellicano, who in 1993 worked to discredit such allegations—says Jackson kept to a pattern when entertaining children. “Here’s [Jackson’s] modus operandi,” says Barresi. “First he wins the parents over. They become just as mesmerized as the kids. Then he puts the parents in separate buildings. He naps all day intermittently with the kids in the tepee or different places so the kids are well-rested. Then he frolics and plays with the kids all through the night while the parents are sleeping. I don’t want to embellish on anything. I’m just saying the facts as they’ve been told to me.”

Some experts in the area of child molestation point out that Jackson’s self-admitted behavior is not inconsistent with that of an abuser. “I don’t know of any other 45-year-old man on the planet who is not a child molester who likes to share his bed with children who are not his. I consider that a huge red flag,” says Claire Reeves, 63, the founder of Mothers Against Sexual Abuse.

While a number of Jackson’s associates continue to say publicly that he is guilty only of bad judgment, even his staunchest allies realize that the pop icon is now suspected of something far more serious than a case of Peter Pan complex. “I don’t know what you say other than it’s a sad situation and hopefully the truth will come out,” says producer Gary Pudney, who has known Jackson for more than 30 years. “He’s one of the world’s greatest entertainers of all time. But this time—win, lose or draw—he’s going to get more attention than he’s ever had in his life.”

Susan Schindehette and Tom Gliatto.

Ron Arias, Lorenzo Benet, Alexis Chiu, Champ Clark, Johnny Dodd, Michael Fleeman, John Hannah, Kwala Mandel and Lyndon Stambler in Los Angeles, Kathy Ehrich and Rebecca Paley in New York City and Karen Nickel Anhalt in Berlin

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