James Safechuck vividly remembers the many secrets he shared with his superstar best friend, Michael Jackson.
There was the sham marriage ceremony they performed complete with a wedding ring and fake certificate setting out their vows. The codewords they had for obscene acts. And the way Jackson would surreptitiously scratch the inside of James’s small hand when he wanted sex.
The pre-teen son of a California rubbish collector and the 30-something King of Pop would often retire to a secret closet in his bedroom.
Occasionally, Jackson would first make him drink ‘pink wine’ and watch pornography.
Such were the shocking claims of a civil complaint first filed by Safechuck in a California court in 2014.
A separate lawsuit, filed around the same time by Wade Robson — another child friend of Jackson’s who has since grown up — was equally disturbing. He detailed how Jackson started to abuse him when he was seven and stopped only when he was 14, molesting him in a bedroom with a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign and an alarm system that rang if anyone approached.
Appalling as they were, the two men’s accounts attracted only limited attention when they were first made because a judge dismissed their lawsuits on technicalities. Besides, accusations of paedophilia were ‘old news’ — for a sensational 2005 trial had already cleared the singer of earlier accusations.
Many believed that Wacko Jacko’s open enthusiasm for sharing his time — and bed — with young boys was proof only of a pitiful need to connect with a childhood he’d never had. Now, however, a new documentary film examining Robson and Safechuck’s allegations threatens to destroy Jackson’s legacy once and for all, ensuring the megastar will be remembered not with reverence, but revulsion.
"Leaving Neverland" — a four-hour, two-part film — was screened for the first time on Friday at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah with the two men in the audience. Co-produced by Channel 4 and U.S. TV channel HBO, even before it aired it met such fury from Jackson’s family and hardcore fans that Utah police prepared for violent protests and even bomb threats.
Yet at the end of a film that proved so harrowing some viewers had to leave, Safechuck and Robson were given a minute-long standing ovation. Reviewers were appalled by their ordeal, one describing the audience as ‘completely shellshocked’ and another saying: ‘One’s inevitable response is to recoil in horror at Michael Jackson’s predatory sickness.’
The film, due for broadcast on Channel 4 in March, comes at a sensitive time — with the tenth anniversary of Jackson’s death in June, and his estate gearing up for new and lucrative opportunities. It was made by the respected British director Dan Reed and features ‘gut-wrenching interviews with the now-adult men and their families’, billing itself as a ‘portrait of sustained exploitation and deception, documenting the power of celebrity that allowed a revered figure to infiltrate the lives of starstruck children and their parents’.
The film-makers are said to have gone to considerable lengths to verify the two accusers’ claims with others once in the Jackson camp. Reed, who won a Bafta for a film about online paedophile hunters, believes there’s a new #MeToo mood abroad that will favour the accusers. ‘It took great courage for these two men to tell their stories, and I have no question about their validity,’ he said.
Without even seeing the film, the Jackson clan condemned it as ‘yet another lurid production in an outrageous and pathetic attempt to exploit and cash in on Michael Jackson’ and pointed out that both accusers have previously sworn under oath that Jackson never sexually interfered with them and that their lawsuits had been ‘dismissed’.
However, California lawyer Vince Finaldi — who represents both men — says that is misleading. A judge certainly ruled each case inadmissible but only because the allegations were too old under the statute of limitations, he said. No judge or jury has ever ruled on the credibility of their claims, he added.
Since then, the world had heard powerful testimony from dozens of women who say they put up for years with repeated sexual abuse by Harvey Weinstein before denouncing him. ‘The public is much more educated nowadays on the dynamics of sexual abuse,’ the lawyer told me.
‘Ten or 15 years ago, people would have said: “Why didn’t you come forward earlier?” Now they understand they were groomed for years and years. They were scared, humiliated, embarrassed.’
Mr Finaldi, a sexual abuse legal specialist, compares Jackson’s alleged behaviour — especially the ease with which he manipulated children and adults — to that of the DJ Jimmy Savile.
While his clients are both claiming substantial if unspecified damages, he insisted their ‘ultimate goal is to protect kids and keep them safe’, adding that neither of them had been paid for appearing in the film.
Both men are married with young children. Robson, 36, is a dancer and choreographer based in Hawaii, while Safechuck, 40, is a computer programmer who lives in California.
Safechuck says he’s suffered depression, panic and anxiety attacks. Robson said his ordeal led to ‘complete psychological collapse’ in 2012.
The film also addresses the puzzling question of why the boys’ parents allowed Jackson such access to them, even knowing their sons were sharing a bed with a grown man. Safechuck’s mother, Stephanie, admits it’s hard for others to understand how manipulative Jackson was and how skilled at separating parents from their child. ‘I f***** up,’ she admits now.
Joy Robson, Wade’s mother, believes that Jackson was suffering from a sickness and blames those around him for not getting him treatment. Her husband committed suicide (as did the father of another alleged Jackson victim, Jordan Chandler) when Wade was 20, in large part, the family believe, because he suspected Jackson had abused his son.
Both Robson and Safechuck came from ordinary families swept away by the attentions and generosity of a pop superstar. Both boys had showbusiness dreams, which might help explain their parents’ readiness to accede to all Jackson’s requests.
Safechuck was a nine-year-old child actor chosen by Jackson to appear in a glossy Pepsi commercial in 1987. Jackson started visiting the boy’s California home, sometimes staying the night, then invited him and his family to his own home in Encino, California.
This was the beginning of many visits, either alone or with his parents, during which Jackson plied him with presents including cash. Sometimes he would spend the night, sharing Jackson’s bedroom or camping with him in a tent in his living room. His parents knew, but allowed it.
He flew the Safechuck family on first-class, luxury hotel trips to Hawaii, New York and London to accompany him on business trips. Jackson piled on the flattery — in an audio recording played in the film, Safechuck asked him what was the best thing about Hawaii. ‘Being with you,’ Jackson simpered.
Jackson started teaching Safechuck how to dance and encouraged him to wear the same clothes and have the same hair dye. When Jackson went on his Bad world tour in 1988, Safechuck joined him for six months with his mother. He appeared on stage with the singer, mimicking his dance moves.
He claims the sexual abuse started when they reached Paris, by which time he was ten and Jackson 29. They were sharing Jackson’s room at the Hotel de Crillon when they engaged in the first of ‘hundreds’ of sex acts which ‘gradually escalated’ over the next seven years — on tour, at Safechuck’s home, and at Jackson’s homes, including the Neverland ranch in California, a fabulous child’s playground that had its own zoo, carnival and cinema.
The sex became a ‘normal’ part of their relationship, says Safechuck, and Jackson would call these sordid encounters ‘showing love’ or ‘selling me some’, rewarding the boy with gifts of jewellery. Jackson warned Safechuck they would both go to prison if they were found out, according to court papers.
Jackson’s bedroom included a secret closet — requiring a passcode to open — where he’d often abuse his victim. They would jointly mess up a guest bed to make it look as if the boy had slept there.
Jackson installed chimes outside his bedroom to warn if anyone approached and he would regularly instruct the boy how to dress quickly and run away quietly.
‘He brainwashed and drilled into me that what he was doing to me was “love” and that I should deny that anything he had done to me ever happened,’ Safechuck said in court papers. ‘I was a child — I believed and worshipped him.’ When Safechuck entered puberty at 12, Jackson switched his sexual attentions to younger boys. They would sleep in his room ‘and I would sleep on the sofa,’ he says.
One was Wade Robson, his second accuser in Leaving Neverland. An Australian child dance prodigy who danced with Jackson during the Australian leg of his Bad tour, he revered the star as ‘his god, his idol and his father figure’.
He claims the abuse started on his family’s first visit to Neverland in 1990 when he slept in Jackson’s bed. When Jackson offered to mentor him, his family moved to California. He danced in several Jackson videos.
All the while, he claimed, Jackson molested him, showing him pornography. He said in 2013: ‘Every time we were together, it happened. It started with him fondling, then it moved to him kissing me, like a French kiss, then it moved to oral sex.’
Like Safechuck, he claims Jackson insisted he kept their relationship a secret as no one else would understand. His court complaint named several Jackson staff who allegedly saw the singer behave inappropriately with him.
Again, Jackson’s interest waned as soon as Robson hit puberty. Robson says he spent years in denial about the abuse and only came to terms with it when he went into therapy in 2012.
Jackson was first publicly accused of child molestation — of Neverland regular Jordan Chandler, 13 — in 1993. Both James Safechuck and Wade Robson provided witness statements insisting Jackson had never laid a hand on them, though they subsequently claimed he’d coached them what to say. The case was settled out of court in 1994 for a reported $22 million.
In 2003, Jackson admitted sharing his bed with children in an ITV documentary. It sparked a criminal investigation, a police raid on Neverland and Jackson being charged with sexually molesting 13-year-old Gavin Arvizo.
At the trial in 2005, Robson — then 22 and a successful choreographer who had worked with stars such as Britney Spears — again denied Jackson had ever laid a hand on him. Robson says he lied because he worried it would taint his career and because he feared Jackson would be killed if he was jailed. Jackson was cleared.
It wasn’t until May 2013 — nearly four years after Jackson died of a drug overdose — that Robson stated he had been molested and started legal action. Safechuck filed a similar claim against the Jackson estate in 2014. Both are appealing against the courts’ decisions to dismiss their cases.
Vince Finaldi says his clients understand ‘better than anyone’ how Jackson’s fans feel having been ‘brainwashed’ themselves by the Jacko mystique.
‘Some can’t separate the music and Jackson’s showbusiness persona from the real person,’ he said. ‘They never spent a day with him … or a night in a room with him.’
Many wonder if the outcry against the new film is being driven by the Jackson family because so many of them live very comfortably off the superstar’s estate. In 2017, it earned $75 million.
Meanwhile, Jackson’s daughter, Paris, has allegedly checked into rehab, distraught at the new film.
What’s certain is that the furore is unlikely to pass. A new accuser, Michael Jacobshagen, has now come forward to say he was another of Jacko’s victims. The star called the baby-faced boy his ‘rubba rubba friend’ because of what they did in bed, he said. Other stars who have faced far less serious accusations have recently seen their careers implode and their artistic work quietly removed from the public.
Robson rebuffed the idea he was trying to destroy Jackson’s legacy, saying: ‘Michael is not really my concern any more. It’s about other people.’
Still, it’s worth asking how many will be singing Billie Jean or dancing the Moonwalk this time next year.
The #MeToo era may be about to witness the biggest fall from grace in showbusiness history.