THE KING OF POP
JUNE 23, 2009 LOS ANGELES
Michael Jackson lived the last hours of his life doing what he was born to do. On June 24, after eating grilled chicken and romaine lettuce, the 50-year-old hit the main stage of L.A.’s Staples Center and put himself and his backup dancers through a lengthy rehearsal for his 50-date London tour set to begin in two weeks. “He did the moonwalk—everything!” says Michael Bush, one of Jackson’s costume designers and one of only 30 concert staffers watching in the otherwise empty arena. Jackson, who at one point wore a new “Thriller” jacket with fiber-optic lights, sang “Human Nature” and classic Jackson 5 tunes, stopping only to redo a line or correct a dancer. “It was electrifying. His feet moved like liquid,” says stylist Jen Rade. Adds a witness: “If there was something wrong with him, you’d never know.” Bush said Jackson, who left for his rented Holmby Hills estate after 1 a.m., was happy: “He was like, ‘When are we going to London? I’m ready.'”
Less than 12 hours later, the singer awoke and “complained he felt weak,” says an inside source. “He was taken back to bed.” Jackson’s physician Conrad Murray (see box), who had stayed overnight at the singer’s request, entered Jackson’s bedroom late Thursday morning to find that Jackson had a weak pulse and was not breathing. Murray began to administer CPR, but when Jackson—whose children were unaware of the crisis—didn’t respond, Murray’s lawyer says the doctor ran through the mansion screaming for security to call 911, then raced back to the pop star’s side.
By the time the ambulance came, Jackson’s “face had no life,” says another source. A Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center team worked on Jackson for more than an hour while his family arrived. After he was pronounced dead at 2:26 p.m, reports swirled that a shot of Demerol—which can cause respiratory depression—may have been the culprit. (Murray’s lawyer insists the doctor never once gave Jackson the drug.)
As the family grappled with the news, so did the world. Fans gathered at the hospital, chanting “Michael! Michael!” By nightfall, there was a music-filled vigil in front of Harlem’s Apollo Theater (where a young Michael performed with his brothers on amateur night) and, as days passed, the tributes grew to include Filipino prisoners dancing to “I’ll Be There.”
While the world stopped to honor the King of Pop, his family searched for answers. A three-hour autopsy by the L.A. county coroner June 26 yielded no cause of death, and toxicology results will take three to five more weeks. (Sources say the Jacksons wanted an independent pathologist to conduct a second autopsy.) There are unconfirmed reports that Jackson was bald and had needle marks on his body. And a source says the singer actually did receive a daily injection of Demerol. Asked if Michael’s death was drug-related, dad Joe, 80, told PEOPLE, “That’s what we’re trying to find out.”
Friends and family had worried about Jackson’s addiction for decades. He began taking painkillers after a 1984 explosion on the set of a Pepsi ad left him with severe scalp burns. In 1993 Jackson went to a London rehab clinic. His dependency worsened when he was charged with child molestation in 2003. Though he was acquitted on all counts, “the stress manifested as back, neck and chest pain,” says pal Deepak Chopra. Doctors “gave him drugs instead of managing the stress. He asked me for a prescription. I screamed at him.”
Jackson’s family confronted him about his addiction in Las Vegas two years ago. “Janet was on the phone, but [siblings] Randy, Jackie and Rebbie were there,” a family insider told People in 2007. “Michael got pissed off. He said he wasn’t on drugs.” Jackson also drank and took “straight morphine, Valium, Xanax, Demerol and OxyContin,” said another insider, who worried about an overdose: “It could happen any minute.”
Whether drugs caused Jackson’s death will be known in just weeks, but untangling the web of complex legal issues regarding the state of his finances and custody of his children could take years. Since their father’s death, Prince Michael I, 12, daughter Paris, 11, and son Prince Michael II (a.k.a. “Blanket”), 7, have been staying at the Tudor-style mansion of grandparents Joe and Katherine Jackson in Encino, Calif. While the singer likely named a guardian in his will, on June 29 Katherine, 79, filed a petition for and was awarded temporary guardianship until July 6. She may have taken that preemptive measure because Debbie Rowe—Michael’s ex-wife and the mother of his two older children (he never identified Blanket’s mother)—could seek custody of Prince and Paris (see box). “Joe and Katherine think she’ll come after them,” says an insider. Another person Michael could have named as a guardian is the children’s former nanny Grace Rwaramba, a controversial figure among the Jackson clan. Some blame her for enabling Jackson. Others say she was a stabilizing force. Says pal Gotham Chopra: “She’s one of their strongest nurturing influences.”
Any potential custody battle will pale in comparison to the epic legal fights likely to surround Jackson’s chaotic financial affairs. Despite his No. 1 hits (13), albums sold (some 750 million worldwide) and partial ownership of a music catalog valued at close to $2 billion, Jackson was reportedly in debt to the tune of $500 million because of his outrageous spending sprees. Still, experts conservatively value his net worth at $250 million. His posthumous popularity (his albums filled the top 15 slots on Amazon.com) will help steady his shaky finances. And a massive potential windfall may be around the corner: Promoter AEG Live filmed 100 hours of Jackson’s recent rehearsals, meaning his estate could net hundreds of millions with a “Last Concert” DVD, CD or pay-per-view telecast.
The footage may also clear up rumors about the state of Jackson’s health during his final days. In rehearsal pictures, he doesn’t appear to be in a fragile condition. That said, the first four concert dates were rescheduled, and even his friends openly questioned his stamina. In April, Jackson pal Bryan Michael Stoller was shocked by his frailty. “I hugged him and it was like hugging bones,” he tells PEOPLE.
Regardless of whether Jackson had a comeback in him, he now joins Elvis Presley and John Lennon in the pantheon of stars of whom you ask, “Where were you when you heard the news?” Jackson was obsessed with legends “whose glory was heightened by death,” says Gotham Chopra. According to Jackson’s ex Lisa Marie Presley, he was fixated on her father’s fatal overdose. “He stated with an almost calm certainty, ‘I am afraid that I am going to end up like him,'” she blogged. But Chopra insists his fascination waned once he had kids.
In fact, as much as Jackson loved his fans and needed the money to pay off debts, what truly motivated him these last few months was the chance for his kids to see him perform live. As his pal Akon tells PEOPLE, “They weren’t alive for his main legacy. That’s why he was working so hard.” Now we all are left to imagine what could have been, and to remember how he thrilled—and often shocked—the world.