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Michael Jackson: A Quarter-Century Of Sexual Abuse Allegations

Michael Jackson, leaving the Santa Barbara County courthouse during his 2005 criminal trial.
Carlo Allegri
Getty Images
Michael Jackson, leaving the Santa Barbara County courthouse during his 2005 criminal trial.

Updated on March 15 at 1 p.m. ET

The two-part documentary Leaving Neverland, which began airing on HBO on Sunday night, tells the story of two men, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who accuse Michael Jackson of having sexually abused them for years, beginning when they were respectively about seven and 10 years old.

Michael Jackson's estate continues to deny all allegations, as the entertainer did in his lifetime. His estate has sued HBO for distributing the Dan Reed-directed documentary, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January; in its filings, the estate called Leaving Neverlanda "posthumous character assassination."

It's no secret that, before and even after his death in 2009, Jackson was the subject of multiple sexual abuse accusations and police investigations as well as civil and criminal lawsuits. This timeline lays out key dates, known allegations and the main accusations the artist and his estate have faced, going back more than a quarter century.

December 1986: James Safechuck meets Michael Jackson on a Pepsi ad set

A 10-year-old California boy, James (Jimmy) Safechuck, is hired to appear in a Pepsi commercial alongside Michael Jackson. In Leaving Neverland, Safechuck says that Jackson befriended him and his family after the ad began airing, that the singer was immediately generous to him and allegedly began lavishing him with gifts — including, Safechuck says, his jacket from the "Thriller" video. Safechuck and his family also say that Jackson began flying them for visits and on vacations.

On one such trip to Hawaii, Safechuck alleges, Michael Jackson first asked the boy to sleep with him in his bed.

August 1993: Los Angeles police begin investigating Jackson

The Los Angeles Times reports that the LAPD has begun investigating Jackson based on allegations that he possibly molested four children, including a 13-year-old boy. (The boy is mentioned by name and in photos in Leaving Neverland.)

The police find no incriminating evidence at Jackson's Neverland ranch, nor at his Los Angeles condominium.

In a lengthy report published the following January, Vanity Fair — calling the boy "Jamie" — publishes the 13-year-old and his family's allegations. The boy's lawyer tells the magazine, "Michael was in love with the boy."

The family says that Jackson argued with Jamie's mother about sleeping in the same bed with him, saying, according to Vanity Fair, "Why don't you trust me? If we're a family, you've got to think of me as a brother. Why make me feel so bad? This is a bond. It's not about sex. This is something special." From that point onwards, the family claims, Jamie slept with Jackson nearly every night for the next several months.

September 1993: One family files suit against Jackson

In the filing, a family — whose child is ostensibly the 13-year-old boy referred to as "Jamie" by Vanity Fair — alleges that Jackson had "repeatedly committed sexual battery" on their son.

Jackson's team maintains that the suit is part of an attempt to extort the star for $20 million. More than a decade later, however, Court TV reveals in a 2004 report that Jackson settled the suit for even more than that. As part of the settlement, the singer denied any "wrongful acts."

In September 1994, prosecutors announce that they are not filing criminal charges against Jackson involving three boys — because the "primary alleged victim" declined to testify.

In the course of the investigation and ensuing civil case, Jackson and his team put various young boys on the witness stand and in front of cameras.

One is 10-year-old Wade Robson, an Australian boy who first met the megastar five years earlier, when he won a Michael Jackson dance contest in Brisbane. Within a few years, Robson had moved with his mother to Los Angeles with Jackson's encouragement.

In 1993, Robson's mother talked to CNN about her child's "slumber parties" with the singer.

"They play so hard, they fall asleep, they're exhausted," she tells the interviewer. "There's nothing more to it than that."

In Leaving Neverland, Robson says: "I was excited by the idea of being able to defend him. And being able to save him."

December 1993: La Toya Jackson says that abuse allegations are true

On Dec. 8, at a press conference held while on tour in Tel Aviv, Jackson's estranged sister La Toya alleges that the abuse accusations against Michael are true.

"This is very difficult for me," she says. "Michael is my brother. ... But I cannot, and I will not, be a silent collaborator of his crimes against small, innocent children." She claims that their mother, Katherine Jackson, has shown her checks that Michael allegedly made out to the families of some very young boys, at least one allegedly as young as nine years old. She says that the amounts paid out were substantial, though she doesn't specify any sums.

LaToya Jackson also repeats her claim that she and her siblings were abused, including sexually abused, by their parents. It's an assertion she first made at least two years earlier in her 1991 autobiography La Toya: Growing Up in the Jackson Family.

Other members of the family, including Katherine Jackson, rally to Michael's defense. The Washington Post quotes Katherine as saying, "La Toya is lying and I'll tell her to her face she's lying," adding that her daughter was "trying to make money off of [Michael's] downfall."

In a follow-up interview with the Today show's Katie Couric, La Toya Jackson claims that their mother had shown her such checks as early as "around '84." However, she tells Couric she can't prove that the alleged checks were meant as hush money, nor has she ever seen him in bed with a boy herself.

In 2011, in a second autobiography called Starting Over, La Toya Jackson retracted her allegations against both her brother Michael and her father Joe, saying that she was forced to make them by her husband at the time, whom she accused of being abusive.

"My family and Michael knew that wasn't really me talking," the Daily Beast quotes her as saying in an interview. "I never believed for a minute my brother was guilty of anything like that."

February 2003: Living with Michael Jackson documentary airs in the U.K. and U.S.

The documentary, reported by journalist Martin Bashir, includes footage of Jackson holding hands with and cradling a young teenager, then identified as a cancer survivor, and says that they share a bed. Both Jackson and the boy deny that anything untoward is going on. "My greatest inspiration comes from kids," Jackson says to Bashir indignantly, while holding onto the child. "It's all inspired from that level of innocence, that consciousness of purity."

After the documentary airs, Jackson issues a statement denying any wrongdoing, and says that he is "devastated" by Bashir's portrayal of him. Nevertheless, Living with Michael Jackson sparks a criminal investigation.

November 20, 2003: Police book Jackson on child molestation charges

The Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office provided this mug shot after he was booked on multiple counts of child molestation in November 2003.
Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office / Getty Images
Getty Images
The Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office provided this mug shot after he was booked on multiple counts of child molestation in November 2003.

Two days after raiding Neverland, Jackson's famous ranch in Santa Barbara County, Calif., the sheriff's office arrests Jackson on charges of child molestation, but does not immediately disclose details of the charges or identify the victim.

Jackson's lawyer, Mark Geragos, calls the charges "a big lie." After posting $3 million in bail the same day and surrendering his passport, Jackson is allowed to go free as he awaits trial.

Jackson is eventually indicted on 10 criminal counts, including child molestation, abduction, false imprisonment and extortion.

February 28, 2005: Jackson's criminal case goes to trial

After being charged in late 2003 and then given additional charges the following April, Jackson is put on trial. The victim is identified as Gavin Arvizo, the young man who appeared in the Bashir documentary; he is among those who testify at the trial.

Among those testifying in Jackson's defense are actor Macaulay Culkin and Wade Robson. (By 2005, Robson is a noted choreographer and songwriter, who has created dance routines for the likes of Britney Spears and 'NSYNC, and who has already had his own show on MTV.)

They are described as "special friends" of Jackson who have slept with the singer in his bed. The men deny that Jackson has touched them or otherwise acted inappropriately. According to The Washington Post, Robson's mother, Joy, says of the singer: "Unless you know him, it's hard to understand him. ... He's not the boy next door."

Gavin Arvizo is now aged 14, and says on the stand that Jackson masturbated him; Gavin's brother corroborates his claim, and says that Jackson gave them alcohol and showed them pornography. Gavin's mother, Janet Arvizo, also appears as a witness; the BBC describes her testimony as " combative and rambling." A former member of Jackson's household staff, Blanca Francia, testifies that she saw the singer taking a shower with Robson. Francia's son also alleges that Jackson has molested him.

Years later, Robson claims he lied at the 2005 trial. According to a 2014 Daily Beast article, prosecutors wanted to name Safechuck — who had provided a witness statement defending Jackson in the 1993 suit — as one of the singer's alleged victims. However, Safechuck declined to participate in the 2005 trial, and the prosecution excluded him as a potential victim. Safechuck claims later that he had lied in the statement he gave to prosecutors in the 1993 investigation.

June 13, 2005: Jackson is acquitted of all criminal charges

After a trial that had a circus-like atmosphere and whose proceedings seemed to sometimes be upstaged by Jackson's antics (including showing up late in pajamas on one occasion), the singer is acquitted of all charges. At least some of the jurors seem to place the onus on the alleged victim's mother, Janet Arvizo. according to NPR. Allowing a child to sleep with any non-family member, one of the female jurors asks, according to NPR, "What mother in her right mind would allow that to happen?"

Within months, prosecutors charge Janet Arvizo with fraud and perjury related to statements made at the Jackson trial; she accepts a plea agreement the following year.

June 25, 2009: Michael Jackson dies, age 50

The singer is found unresponsive at his home in Holmby Hills, Calif. At the time of his death, his family releases a statement saying that it is believed that he died of cardiac arrest.

On Nov. 11, 2011, a doctor, Conrad Murray, is found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in Jackson's death for having administered a deadly dose of the anesthetic propofol.

During the trial, the New York Times reports that Murray, who had been hired as Jackson's personal physician, "had stayed with Jackson at least six nights a week and was regularly asked — and sometimes begged — by the insomniac singer to give him drugs powerful enough to put him to sleep."

2013-2014: Wade Robson and James Safechuck file suits against the Jackson estate and his companies

The Daily Beast reports in 2013 that after very publicly and repeatedly defending Jackson, Robson now says that Jackson sexually molested him for seven years.

Two years later, in May 2015, a judge in Los Angeles County Superior Court, Mitchell L. Beckloff, dismisses Robson's suit against the estate, saying that he waited too long to file his claim. In December 2017, the same judge dismisses the rest of Robson's suit, filed against Jackson's two companies, MJJ Productions and MJJ Ventures, because the two corporations could not be found liable for Jackson's alleged behavior. Notably, neither of these judgments address the credibility of Robson's accusations.

James Safechuck files a similar suit against MJJ Productions and MJJ Ventures in 2014, alleging that Jackson abused him on "hundreds" of occasions between 1988 and 1992. Beckloff, who is also the presiding judge in this suit, rejects Safechuck's suit in June 2017 on the same grounds he gave Robson.

March 3, 2019: Leaving Neverland begins airing on HBO

After debuting at Sundance in late January, the two-part, four-hour documentary begins airing. Jackson's estate has already filed suit against the network, claiming that damages could exceed $100 million. Its petition begins: "Michael Jackson is innocent. Period."

The estate also argues that HBO has violated a non-disparagement agreement that it made with the singer in order to air a concert special, Live in Bucharest: The Dangerous Tour, back in 1992. (That program was a megahit when it aired, scoring HBO its highest-rated special ever at that time.) In a bid for positive counter-programming, Jackson's estate releases the 1992 film on YouTube at the same time as Leaving Neverland's broadcast premiere.

"In producing this fictional work," the suit continues, "HBO ignored its contractual obligations to Michael and his companies by disparaging both him and the Dangerous World Tour that HBO had previously profited from immensely." The estate also calls Robson and Safechuck "two admitted perjurers," and accuses them of "practicing their stories and rehearsing their lines ... for years now."

In an interview on All Things Considered, filmmaker Dan Reed says that two different threads drew him to telling the two men's stories.

"It's the complexity that drew me into wanting to really tell the story," Reed says, "which is that in an abusive pedophile relationship there is both love, affection, mentoring, friendship, caring — and there is sexual abuse. Those two things coexist."

March 14, 2019: Louis Vuitton backs off its Michael Jackson-inspired designs

Less than two weeks after Leaving Neverland airs on HBO, the luxury fashion house Louis Vuitton seeks distance from the late pop icon, whose signature looks had helped inspire much of its fall 2019 menswear collection.

The company had showcased the collection at a show on Jan. 17, or just over a week before the documentary was screened publicly for the first time at the Sundance Film Festival. In a statement shared exclusively with WWD, the company's top executives said they were unaware of the documentary — and its "deeply troubling and disturbing" allegations — at the time of their own show.

"I am aware that in light of this documentary the show has caused emotional reactions," Virgil Abloh, the artistic director of menswear at the company, said in the statement. "I strictly condemn any form of child abuse, violence or infringement against any human rights."

The company also told WWD that it would not produce anything that "directly features Michael Jackson elements," and that its final collection will "purely reflect the true values of the brand and of our artistic director."

Additional reporting by NPR's Elizabeth Blair and Colin Dwyer.

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Corrected: March 7, 2019 at 11:00 PM CST
This article originally misidentified James Safechuck as one of those who testified in Michael Jackson's defense during his 2005 trial — he did not. We have also clarified that Safechuck claims to have lied in a statement given in the 1993 investigation, while Wade Robson claims to have lied during his testimony in the 2005 trial.
Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.