From Moonwalk To Perp Walk

The young boy lay in bed in a Hollywood hospital with a tumor in his belly and a death sentence on his head. "The doctors gave him two weeks to live," says Jamie Masada, a comedy-club owner who had befriended the boy and his family when a social worker referred them to a summer camp Masada runs for underprivileged kids. Hoping to boost the boy's will to live, Masada made a deal with him: start eating and build up your strength, and I'll introduce you to any star you want. "His wish was to meet Chris Tucker, Adam Sandler and Michael Jackson," Masada says.

Getting comedians Tucker and Sandler was no problem for the club owner, but he had no idea how to reach the King of Pop. "I called everyone I know to see if anybody knew Michael," Masada says. Eventually he got the number for Neverland ranch and found a staffer. "Please, do me a favor. The kid is dying," Masada implored. He explained that the boy's story would be on the local news that night in connection with a blood drive he'd helped organize. "Can somebody watch and tell Michael about it, and if Michael wants to call him and make him feel better, I would appreciate it," Masada begged.

Three years later Masada must be wishing he'd never made the call. After surviving his fight with cancer, the boy, now 13, is facing another epic battle: this time as the alleged victim in the sexual- molestation case against Michael Jackson, several people close to the matter tell NEWSWEEK. According to the sources, the boy claims that Jackson molested him on a number of occasions during his visits to the ranch. One of the sources says Jackson served the boy wine. Jackson's friendship with the boy was first revealed last February in a British documentary in which the two appeared holding hands and talking about how the boy and his younger brother had slept in Jackson's bed. Both Jackson and the boy insisted there was nothing sexual about these visits, and in the media firestorm that followed the broadcast, the boy's mother came forward to defend the singer. But the mother now says she began pulling her family away from Jackson when, in the aftermath of the documentary, his camp offered to relocate the family to Latin America to avoid the media glare--going so far as to secure passports for her and her three children--a family friend told NEWSWEEK. "They were trying to shut them up," says the friend, who has been in contact with the mother in recent days. The authorities were brought in after the boy revealed his allegation against Jackson to a therapist, sources say. Jackson's attorney Mark Geragos, who is also representing Scott Peterson, declined to comment. After his handcuffed client was booked Thursday on multiple counts of child molestation, Geragos told the media throng that Jackson insists the boy's allegations are a "big lie."

The accusations are strikingly similar to those brought a decade ago by another 13-year-old boy, except in one significant respect: this latest accuser isn't suing the superstar for money. Though his mother, according to the family friend, had been in contact with the same lawyer who represented the plaintiff in the 1993 civil case, she and her son opted instead to cooperate with Santa Barbara County District Attorney Thomas Sneddon Jr. in pursuing criminal action. Sneddon had investigated Jackson a decade ago, after accusations that the singer had engaged in masturbation and oral sex with the first complainant. But that boy settled his civil case with the singer for a reported $20 million and declined to cooperate in the criminal probe, and the D.A. didn't file any charges against Jackson, who vehemently denied the allegations. This time Sneddon has the cooperation of a boy who is willing to take the stand, giving the D.A. the ammunition he needs to charge Jackson with multiple counts of "lewd and lascivious conduct" with a minor. Moreover, California legislation was changed in the wake of Jackson's settlement a decade ago, making it more difficult, but not impossible, for alleged child abusers to arrange big-money settlements that could short-circuit criminal prosecutions. It was with more than a bit of swagger that Sneddon, in announcing that an arrest warrant had been issued for Jackson, joked that the singer should "get over here and get checked in." Jackson was in Las Vegas at the time, shooting a music video in connection with last week's release of a new greatest-hits album. (The song, "One More Chance," was written by Jackson's friend R. Kelly, who has had his own trouble with sex and minors. Kelly has been charged with child pornography--possessing images of himself consorting with underage girls--in Illinois and Florida. He denies wrongdoing.)

While the 45-year-old Jackson has acknowledged that he allows children to sleep in his bed, he has denied having any sexual contact with minors. Asked by the documentary's maker, Martin Bashir, whether his sleeping with children was "right," the performer replied defensively, "It's very right. It's very loving. That's what the world needs now, more love." But that behavior, coupled with the latest allegations, helped prompt activist lawyer Gloria Allred on Friday to demand that child-welfare officials in Santa Barbara take custody of Jackson's own children. In similar cases, children are routinely removed from the home, says law professor Robert C. Fellmeth, director of the Children's Advocacy Institute in California, especially when the accused is "charged with multiple counts of molestation of a young child and the offense is alleged to have taken place in the home." Jackson has been married and divorced twice, first to singer Lisa Marie Presley, then to dermatology nurse Debbie Rowe, who is the mother of two of his children, son Prince Michael I, 6, and daughter Paris, 5. (The identity of the mother of Jackson's third child, Prince Michael II, is unknown.)

Jackson isn't the only one coming under attack for his parenting skills. The accuser's mother has been widely criticized for allowing her children to stay alone with Jackson at Neverland. Last week a lawyer for her ex-husband pledged to help his client regain custody of the children, claiming that the mother had endangered their safety by allowing the unsupervised sleepovers. "That alone represents reckless abandonment of your parental duties," the attorney, H. Russell Halpern, tells NEWSWEEK. Halpern further alleges that the mother has coached the children in the past to make untrue statements in legal cases, once in a slip-and-fall suit against a chain store, and later during her acrimonious divorce battle, which began in 2001. The mother, who has been in seclusion with her children, could not be reached for comment. But the father has his own credibility problems. In 2001, he pleaded no contest to a charge of wife-beating and was sentenced to attend domestic-violence counseling. The following year, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of willful cruelty to a child in an incident involving his daughter. In a court filing seeking a restraining order against him, the mother claimed that "instances of violence in our marriage were a daily occurrence." Little wonder, perhaps, that Neverland, with its carnival rides and soft-spoken, childlike proprietor, seemed like Eden.

In fact, Jackson's fantasyland had been crumbling on the inside for some time, at least financially. Even as he was playing host to the young cancer patient, Jackson was scrambling to fend off creditors who wanted to repossess his beloved carnival rides, according to a lawsuit filed against him in 2002 by an investment adviser. His net worth, once reportedly as high as $750 million, by last year had shrunk to $350 million, according to Forbes magazine. By late 2000 the singer had borrowed $200 million from Bank of America, secured by his half of a partnership with Sony that owns, among other things, publishing rights to more than 200 Beatles songs, according to court documents. There is much speculation in the music business that Jackson could lose his half of the Beatles catalog to Sony if his financial woes continue, especially as his legal bills mount. Sales of his own music certainly have not made much of a dent lately. His most recent album of new material, 2001's "Invincible," cost a reported $30 million to make and, according to Nielsen SoundScan, sold 2.1 million copies in the United States--strong for most artists, but less than a tenth of what Jackson's 1982 "Thriller" sold domestically.

As he imagines the legal ordeal that lies ahead, Masada can only wonder about the role he played in making a dying kid's wish come true. "You hate to think you may have brought him to the lion," he says ruefully. Only one thing is clear to Masada: no good deed goes unpunished.