Jackson's 'Mini Trials'

The story was graphic and lurid. Staring through a window in a bathroom area at Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch one night in late 1992 or 1993, security man Ralph Chacon said he saw the singer and a young boy "standing in the nude facing each other." Jackson and the boy had just taken a Jacuzzi and a long shower, Chacun said, explaining that he continued to watch because he thought "it wasn't right" that "a grown man was in the shower with a young boy."

Matters quickly escalated, according to Chacon's testimony Thursday in Jackson's child-molestation trial. Jackson began kissing the boy on the head, face, mouth and chest, Chacon said. Jackson's hands, Chacon claimed, roamed "all over [the boy's] body." Finally, Jackson performed oral sex on the boy, Chacon said. "Did you actually see that?" asked Santa Barbara District Attorney Thomas Sneddon. "Yes," Chacon replied.

Chacon--who said he saw the pop singer kiss and grope the same boy again weeks later while they were parked in front of a window display of Tinker Bell at Neverland--was the first adult in the case, aside from alleged victims themselves, to claim having been witness to Jackson molesting a child. But Jackson isn't charged with the molestation of the boy Chacun said he saw. That boy later won more than $15 million from Jackson in a civil settlement in 1994, according to a leaked copy of the agreement. Charges were never filed, and Jackson never admitted wrongdoing.

Even when there aren't charges, California criminal law allows evidence of alleged past molestations to be presented to build a case of similar patterns over time. Chacon is the third of nine witnesses Sneddon and his team will call to the stand to describe alleged molestation of five boys in the 1980s and '90s. Even when a defendant like Jackson was never charged with or convicted of the earlier allegations, the evidence is supposed to help jurors decide whether Jackson is guilty of the charges he now faces--molesting a 13-year-old Los Angeles boy at Neverland in February or March of 2003. Jackson lead attorney Thomas Mesereau Jr. has offered to fight them as if they were each separate "mini-trials."

He certainly fought Chacon hard. When Sneddon finished with the former $9-an-hour security man, Mesereau set to work painting him as a disgruntled former employee out for money. The man had filed a civil suit against Jackson in the 1990s in which he had sought $16 million for wrongful termination and emotional distress. At about the same time, he and two other employees sold a story to Star, the tabloid magazine, to pay his lawyer in the suit, Chacon testified. In fact, at the end of a six-month civil trial, Chacon and others who joined the suit with him had been forced to pay Jackson's legal bills, about $1.4 million. Chacon declared bankruptcy. Mesereau tried to convince jurors that Chacon was telling a trumped-up story to get revenge on Jackson. "After a six-month trial, this is a good way to get even with him, isn't it?" Mesereau charged. The judge had the question stricken from the record, but perhaps not from jurors' minds.

The allegations of past improprieties began dramatically on Monday. The son of a former Jackson maid, now a married auto-parts salesman who counsels troubled kids at church, took the stand to say the singer fondled him three times between about 1987 and 1990. In each case, Jackson started by tickling the boy at his "hideaway" home in Los Angeles while the mother cleaned in another room. The first episode, he said, occurred when he was 7 years old and he sat in Jackson's lap as they watched Woody Woodpecker cartoons on TV. He said Jackson tickled him for several minutes. "It eventually moved down to my little private region," the young man testified, saying Jackson rubbed his genitals "for several minutes" through his pants. The following year, the boy was again watching cartoons, as he and Jackson lay in a sleeping bag, according to the testimony. Jackson lay behind him and reached around to touch his genitals through his pants, the man said. After each incident, Jackson stuffed a $100 bill in the boy's pants and cautioned him not to tell his mother, the young man told jurors. (NEWSWEEK and other news organizations are withholding the names of alleged victims.)

The young man broke down while telling the story of the third alleged incident. It allegedly took place at Neverland in 1990. At age 10, the boy was on a couch playing a videogame when Jackson allegedly lay down behind him, reached inside his shorts and fondled his genitals for a few minutes. "This took a lot of counseling to get over, just so you know," the man said, before he teared up and asked the court for time to compose himself. "It's embarrassing," the man told Senior Deputy District Attorney Ron Zonen, who questioned him. "It's embarrassing now, and I'm 24 years old." The young man's lawyer later told jurors that in 1994 Jackson paid the family a settlement over the incidents, but Judge Rodney Melville barred jurors from learning how much it was ($2.4 million, according to prosecutors) and, as is standard in such cases, Jackson admitted no wrongdoing.

To undercut the young man's testimony, Mesereau suggested that he only made up the molestation allegations to please relentless sheriff's investigators. He pointed out that he had at first denied being molested, during an interview by sheriff's detectives in 1993, as part of an investigation into the case that was later dropped when Jackson paid more than $15 million to another boy. "I'll just say this flat out: I don't remember anything except the tickling," the young man told investigators at that time.

Mesereau asked if "it was only after you were pushed real hard by the sheriffs" that he told the molestation story. But the statement was stricken after Judge Melville sustained an objection. But Mesereau made the same point using the young man's own words. He read jurors a statement from the boy that at least corroborated that the sheriff's investigators subjected the boy to heavy pressure: "They made me come up with a lot more stuff," he quoted the young man as saying. "They kept pushing. I wanted to hit them in the head." The young man said Monday he didn't recall making the statement. Instead, he blamed his prevarications to the cops on adolescent pride. "What I remember is them saying, 'If he did something, tell us.' And I said, 'No, I'm not gay'," he told prosecutor Zonen. He went on to explain that as a young teen, he didn't want the word to get out. He said he lied because "I was fighting them with everything I had," he claimed. "I didn't want to be embarrassed at school."

The young man's mother came next, beginning on Tuesday. She worked for Jackson as a maid between 1986 and 1991, and she said the singer requested that she bring her boy to work, at Neverland and at a Jackson home in Los Angeles. She said she became concerned about Jackson's behavior toward her child when she saw Jackson reclining with her son in his lap, and the singer told her he was trying to get the boy to read. "I just told my son to get out" of Jackson's lap, the mother told jurors, but he didn't move and the mother had to remove him bodily. On another occasion, the woman testified that she found two $100 bills in her son's pockets. Had they been intended for his mother? ''He said: 'No, Michael said it was for me and not to tell you'," she reported her son saying.

She didn't know much about her son and Jackson, but she claimed in testimony on Tuesday to have seen Jackson with two other boys. One was actor Macaulay Culkin. She told jurors that she believed Culkin slept in Jackson's bed, though the actor has long denied any sexual activity with Jackson. Another preteen, she said, stayed with Jackson several times. Once at Neverland, she was cleaning Jackson's room when looking into the bathroom and said she saw Jackson's underwear and the boy's Spider-Man underwear lying near the shower. "I peek in and they were in [the] shower," she said. With steam obscuring the view, prosecutor Zonen asked, could she be sure who was in the shower. "Mr. Jackson and [the] little kid," she replied. Now a choreographer, the young man has, like Culkin, denied being molested by Jackson. NEWSWEEK is identifying Culkin because he has publicly said Jackson never molested him.

Mesereau lambasted the former maid's credibility. She admitted having been paid $20,000 by the tabloid-TV program "Hard Copy," though she professed to be surprised that the reporter eschewed general Neverland chitchat to talk about Jackson and young boys. Mesereau suggested she was dishonest and had been caught going through a fellow employee's purse and had once taken a watch from Jackson's home. The woman admitted to taking a watch, but said it came from a pile of $10 tchotchkes. Under questioning, the woman admitted she'd never actually seen Jackson molest anyone.

Friday and next week prosecutors will continue to present witnesses who are expected to describe more of the alleged past improprieties. The key witness is expected to be the mother of the young man whom Jackson paid a $15 million settlement. She is expected to testify that she knew her son slept with Jackson but that she didn't witness any sexual acts. During the defense phase of the trial, Jackson's attorneys say they may call the choreographer and perhaps another alleged victim to the stand to say that while they may have slept in Jackson's bed, the master of Neverland never had sex with them.