The imagery has added fuel to the firestorm and raised questions
As Leaving Neverland viewers question whether Wade Robson burns an authentic Michael Jackson jacket in the documentary, Robson exclusively tells PEOPLE it is not the same jacket featured in the “Thriller” music video — but rather a replica from his childhood.
“I sold some Jackson items at auction in 2011 to raise money for therapy following a nervous breakdown,” Robson, 36, tells PEOPLE. “After disclosing my abuse to my therapist in 2012 I burned some more items as part of my recovery. The Thriller jacket that I burned in the photos was my custom childhood Thriller jacket that I used to perform in. Those are the images portrayed in Leaving Neverland.”
When the credits roll in the final moments of the documentary, Robson is pictured burning Jackson memorabilia. Crouching on a beach, he looks on as flames billow. The following tight shots show fire engulfing iconic items like a sequin white glove. Later, one image of a different firepit shows what appears to be a red “Thriller” jacket going up in flames.
The imagery has added fuel to the firestorm surrounding Leaving Neverland, the two-part, four-hour-long documentary from director Dan Reed that premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival last month before making its TV debut on HBO Sunday night. In it, Robson and 41-year-old James Safechuck claim that Jackson sexually molested them at different points when they were children.
Among the many questions the documentary has raised: What exactly was the memorabilia in the closing credits?
Reed told Vice in February, “I wasn’t there when Wade burned those items, but the photographic evidence suggests those were the real deal, yeah.”
Interviewer Josiah Hesse replied, “Seems like those would be profoundly valuable items, which is particularly interesting since the Jackson estate is claiming Robson is telling his story for the money.”
“Sure, but I don’t think [the burning of memorabilia], in itself, validates his position,” Reed told Vice. “I think you have to look at the wider picture, which is that he and James weren’t paid and have no financial interest in the documentary, for a start.”
Leaving Neverland includes intimate and graphic interviews with Robson, Safechuck, both of their mothers, their wives and Robson’s siblings as the men allege how the megastar grew close to the then-boys before molesting them at separate times in the late ’80s and early ’90s, showering them with praise and gifts. The Blast reported in late February that Robson sold some Jackson memorabilia from that period of his life through Julien’s Auctions.
When Jackson fans inquired about the items on Twitter, Julien’s Auctions replied, “Wade consigned his collection to us directly. He was the person who we paid when we sold his collection. He needed the money.”
Julien’s Auctions continued in a second tweet: “Wade asked to remain anonymous and said that he did not want anyone to know that it was him selling it the items in 2011. But we did not agree to that and listed it as the Wade Robson collection. He consigned multiple items and wanted us to sell all items of his that had value.”
RELATED VIDEO: Michael Jackson’s Family Speaks Out Against Sexual Abuse Allegations in New Documentary
Darren Julien of Julien’s Auctions tells PEOPLE that Robson provided the auction house with three items: A “Smooth Criminal” fedora ($49,920); Bad-era gloves ($31,250); and a Motown 25 shirt ($63,750).
“[Robson] had no other authentic Michael Jackson career-used memorabilia other than these three items,” says Julien, recalling when Robson presented various memorabilia — including limited-editions coins — to him in 2011.
“This is yet another lurid production in an outrageous and pathetic attempt to exploit and cash in on Michael Jackson,” the statement read. “Wade Robson and James Safechuck have both testified under oath that Michael never did anything inappropriate toward them. Safechuck and Robson, the latter a self-proclaimed ‘master of deception’, filed lawsuits against Michael’s Estate, asking for millions of dollars. Both lawsuits were dismissed.”
During an interview with Oprah Winfrey airing on HBO and OWN Monday night, Reed rebuked the Jackson estate’s statement and said that Robson and Safechuck “have no financial interest” in coming forward.
“They make that clear straight away in my documentary,” Reed said. “They’re not being remunerated in any way and neither are their family. So this is a hypothetical financial interest.”
To begin the interview, Winfrey questioned Robson about why he testified when he was 11 years old in Jackson’s 2005 trial on child-molestation charges, saying that Jackson had never acted inappropriately towards him. Jackson was ultimately acquitted in the 2005 trial on all charges.
“I had no understanding that what Michael did to me sexually was abuse,” Robson explained. “I had no concept of it being that. From night one of the abuse, of the sexual stuff that Michael did to me, he told me that it was love. He told me that he loved me and that God brought us together. I was this little boy from the other side of the world in Australia. Michael was God to me … anything Michael was going to say to me was gospel to me.”
Robson previously sued Jackson’s estate in 2013, claiming that Jackson abused him for nearly a decade, but the suit was dismissed by a judge in 2017.
“I could have, I guess, just gone on some TV shows and [done] some interviews and more than likely it would have been sensationalized and over in a couple of weeks,” Robson explained about his decision to sue. “So for me, that’s where it began. That’s one of the platforms that we have, the legal system.”
Reed — who also participated in Winfrey’s interview special — explained that the documentary highlights the complicated relationship between the abused and their perpetrators.
“The opening minutes of the film are these two guys saying what a wonderful, warm, kind, loving, generous person Michael was and he sexually abused them for seven years,” he said. “Those two truths are both present in this story, and it’s a complicated truth. But I think once people understand that an abuser can be both your best friend, your mentor, and your idol and your lover, and that can happen while you’re a child, and you never really disentangle those two things. That’s a painful thing to have to confront.”
Speaking of Robson’s decision to open up now about the alleged sexual abuse he suffered as a child, Reed told Today that Robson was inspired after becoming a father.
“I think a big moment for Wade — and Wade kind of led the way — was having his own son,” the director shared. “So when his son came into the world and he saw this child and he realized what it is to have a child in your care … he began to imagine Michael doing the things to his little boy that he’d done to 7-year-old Wade, and these images were revolting and disgusting.”
Ahead of the documentary airing Jackson’s brother Jackie, 67, told Gayle King, “I don’t care to see it. No, because I know my brother. I don’t have to see that documentary. I know Michael. I’m the oldest brother. I know my brother. I know what he stood for. What he was all about. Bringing the world together. Making kids happy. That’s the kind of person he was.”
Taj Jackson, 45, added, “It’s always been about money. I hate to say it. When it’s my uncle, it’s almost like they see a blank check.”
The King of Pop’s estate has filed a $100 million lawsuit against HBO over its broadcast of the documentary, alleging it violates a non-disparagement clause from a 1992 contract.
In a statement obtained by PEOPLE, HBO said, “Despite the desperate lengths taken to undermine the film, our plans remain unchanged. HBO will move forward with the airing of Leaving Neverland, the two-part documentary, on March 3 and 4. This will allow everyone the opportunity to assess the film and the claims in it for themselves.”
Jackson died in 2009 at age 50, leaving behind three children: Prince Michael, 22, Paris, 20, and “Blanket,” 17, who now goes by Bigi.
Oprah Winfrey Presents: After Neverland will debut simultaneously on HBO and OWN following the end of Leaving Neverland’s two-night HBO premiere on March 4.