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Untouchable: The Strange Life And Tragic Death of Michael Jackson by Randall Sullivan


How Michael Jackson’s family preyed on his wealth and took it by the vanload after his death.

In the late summer of 2001, Michael Jackson’s family were after him again. It was two days before his scheduled departure for New York, where his 30th Anniversary concerts were to be staged at Madison Square Garden.

Performers would include Destiny’s Child, Ray Charles and Whitney Houston, and friends Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando had been recruited to deliver televised speeches.

Michael Jackson wanted his family in New York as well; his brothers to perform a medley of hits from their days as the Jackson 5, while his parents sat in special box seats. The Jacksons insisted that they should receive appearance fees and it was agreed that family members would get honorariums of $250,000, even those who would just be there to watch the show.

Just days before the first concert, though, Jermaine Jackson read an article that said his brother would be making as much as $10 million from the two shows and convinced his parents that Michael should pay the three of them another $500,000 apiece.

Jermaine Jackson and his father Joe drew up a contract and, with mother Katherine in tow, chased Michael around California to try to get him to sign.

Michael Jackson took refuge for several days at the house of his friend Marc Schaffel, co-producer of the event, then made a dash north to Neverland Ranch. He and his two young children, 4-year-old Prince and 3-year-old Paris, had barely set foot inside the house when Joe, Katherine and Jermaine Jackson appeared at the gate.

Michael told the security guards to tell his family he wasn’t there. Joe Jackson, though, refused to budge.

“I’m his father,” Joe Jackson told the guards.

“I need to use the bathroom. His mother needs to use the bathroom. Let us in.”

Frantic, Michael Jackson phoned Marc Schaffel. If they got through the gate, his family would hound him to sign this contract, he explained. But he couldn’t keep his mother locked outside when she was pleading just to use the bathroom.

He told Marc Schaffel he would instruct the guards to tell his family again that Michael Jackson was not on the premises, but to admit them so that they could use the facilities.

But as soon as Joe and Jermaine Jackson were through the gate, they drove to the main house and pushed their way inside.

“They literally ransacked the place,” Marc Schaffel remembered.

Michael Jackson retreated with Prince and Paris to a hiding place concealed behind a secret door at the back of his bedroom closet and phoned Marc Schaffel from there. He was in tears, literally whimpering into the phone.

“You see what they do to me? Do you understand now why I don’t want anything to do with my brothers, why I hide from them and refuse to answer their phone calls?

“I’ve supported my brothers, supported them all,” Michael Jackson cried.

“I’ve put their kids through school. But they still come after me, still wanting more. It never ends. And my father’s worse than they are.”

Michael Jackson choked up, Marc Schaffel recalled, and then sobbed: “The worst part, the part that kills me, is that I have to lie to my own mother. Do you understand, Marc?” he asked.

“Do you understand now why I am the way I am? How else could I be?”

For someone who so often professed his loneliness, Michael Jackson spent a remarkable amount of time avoiding people. He wore disguises, broke off relationships, and changed telephone numbers, but still paparazzi, delusional women, and desperate men pursued him. The saddest part, though, was that the people Michael took the greatest pains to elude were the members of his own family.

Until the time he found a way to live off his sons’ talent, his father Joe had worked the four-to-midnight shift as a crane operator amid the blast-furnace heat of the Inland Steel Mill, in Gary, Indiana. He earned barely enough to sustain the family home – a tiny aluminum-sided cube in which 11 people shared a bathroom.

Michael Jackson’s memories of early rehearsals all centred on the father/manager who bellowed at them constantly, smacking his sons or throwing them into walls if they made a mistake.

When the band signed to Motown, Michael Jackson was quickly singled out as the star. Jackie and Tito possessed only modest musical talent and Marlon had none at all. Jermaine had an adequate singing voice.

Such was Michael Jackson’s talent that just one year after signing with the label, the group delivered a debut record, I Want You Back, that shot to the top of the Billboard Hot 100.

In February 1970, the Jackson 5 released their second single, ABC. And with The Love You Save and I’ll Be There, they became the first group ever to send their first four releases to the top of the charts.

Between tours, Joe Jackson and his sons returned home to a five-bedroom, six-bathroom mansion in the Los Angeles enclave of Encino. There was an Olympic-size swimming pool, sports facilities, luxury cars and servants’ quarters.

By the mid-Seventies, the Jackson 5 were in professional decline – in sharp contrast with Michael, the true star of the group.

His brothers had wanted to work on the Off The Wall album with him, but Michael refused, even when his mother attempted to convince him that he owed them. Released in 1979, it sold nearly seven million copies worldwide.

Then came the release of Thriller in December 1982, which turned him into, as Rolling Stone put it, “quite simply, the biggest star in the pop music universe”. Off The Wall had already made him wealthier than the rest of his family put together, now he would earn more than $200 million from sales of the Thriller album.

No longer his manager, his father was as calculating as ever. He knew that playing the boys against one another was a winning strategy. What a great idea it would be, he suggested to Jackie, Tito, Marlon, and Randy, to capitalize on the success of Thriller by including Michael Jackson in a “reunion tour”.

Michael Jackson resisted. He was tired of touring, he said, tired of all the attention, tired of travel and hotel rooms. Tired of his family, period.

The brothers first tried using guilt to sway him. Marlon was going through a divorce and couldn’t even make his mortgage payments. Maybe he should sell up and buy a smaller house, Michael suggested. The brothers then called a meeting at which they showed up with a life-size poster of Michael and told him they were going to put it onstage in his place. Michael wouldn’t relent. It was time to play their ace in the hole.

During a private meeting Katherine requested with Michael, she implored him to join his brothers on the tour. They needed the money, she told her son. Finally, when all else failed, she pulled out the big gun: “For me, Michael, please?”

It was a choice between the only two things Michael Jackson had, his mother’s love and his career. He chose his mother’s love, of course.

At the first stop in Kansas City, Jermaine told a reporter: “Even though Michael is very talented, a lot of his success has been due to timing and a little bit of luck. It could have been him, or it could just as easily have been me.”

Michael Jackson distanced himself from his brothers as the tour progressed, refusing to stay on the same hotel floor with them. He insisted his attorneys be present at the business meetings that, within the first few dates, became the only conversations he had with his siblings. The other Jacksons insisted upon collecting their payments immediately after each show.

No one in his family, though, was prepared for the shout-out Michael Jackson gave on December 9, 1984: “This is our last and final show. It’s been a long 20 years and we love you all.”

Michael Jackson looked at the shocked expressions on his brothers’ faces and couldn’t suppress his smile.

Now established as one of the most famous families on the planet, life among the Jacksons was becoming a soap opera, and a sordid one at that. Michael Jackson was determined to distance himself.

The public humiliations seemed endless. In 1983, Jackie’s affair with Los Angeles Lakers cheerleader and future television talent-show judge Paula Abdul blew up his marriage. In March 1987, Jermaine showed up for Marlon’s birthday party carrying his three-month-old son by a woman named Margaret Maldonado, while his wife looked on with an expression of bewilderment.

During their divorce, Jermaine’s wife Hazel would allege that her husband had attempted to rape her.

Untouchable The Strange Life And Tragic Death of Michael Jackson by Randall Sullivan

Untouchable The Strange Life And Tragic Death of Michael Jackson by Randall Sullivan

By 1990, Michael Jackson had moved to Neverland, his personal amusement park in Santa Barbara County, California.

He made no comment when newspapers reported that Randy’s wife Eliza was accusing her husband of beating her throughout her pregnancy. The Jackson brothers were all just like Joe, Eliza told a reporter, except for Michael.

Though they depended on his money, usually dispensed through their mother Katherine, his siblings weren’t averse to criticizing their brother in public.

Michael’s relationship with his sister La Toya was shattered in December 1993, when she responded to the Jordan Chandler scandal by holding a press conference in Tel Aviv, at which she declared her belief that the accusations against her brother were true.

“I can’t remain silent,” she squeaked into a bank of microphones.

“I will not be a silent collaborator in his crimes against small, innocent children.”

[Jordan was a 13-year-old boy whom Michael Jackson has been accused of sexually molesting. The claims, which Jackson always denied, resulted in a payment of more than $18 million to the boy’s family. He would later describe the decision to make a deal with the Chandlers, his lawyer said, as “the worst mistake of his life”.]

In 2003, when Michael Jackson’s world was collapsing all around him, amid his arrest on further child molestation charges, of which he would be acquitted two years later, Jermaine had gone to New York publishers with a “tell-all” book proposal.

The Jacksons viewed youngest brother Randy as the most conniving among them. He was a chip off the old block, far more like Joe than any of his brothers, visitors said – and that wasn’t intended as a compliment.

Joe Jackson had been hiding from creditors since 1987. He was living mostly on hand-outs from Katherine (who divvied up the $25,000 cheque Michael sent to her each month among needy family members) and was incessantly looking for opportunities to draw his most famous son into business deals.

“They all looked to Michael as an ATM machine,” observed the Los Angeles attorney and radio host Leo Terrell.

Within hours of Michael Jackson’s death on June 25, 2009, the battle over the estate began. The King of Pop was going to be worth a billion dollars, maybe two billion, maybe more. The women of the clan initiated what became a week-long occupation and search of the Carolwood Drive chateau in Los Angeles where he died.

The first night, La Toya Jackson and her boyfriend Jeffre Phillips demanded to be admitted to the house. Three hours later, Katherine went inside after them.

It was mid-morning in London when Michael Jackson’s children’s former nanny Grace Rwaramba received a call from Katherine.

According to Grace Rwaramba, Katherine began the conversation: “Grace, the children are crying. They are asking about you. They can’t believe that their father died. Grace, you remember Michael used to hide cash at the house? I’m here. Where can it be?”

But security guards said it was La Toya, along with her boyfriend, who loaded black rubbish bags filled with cash into duffel bags and placed them in the garage. La Toya would later insist that nearly all of Michael Jackson’s money was gone by the time she arrived at the house.

It did not become obvious that the Jacksons intended to remove whatever valuables were inside the house until the next morning, when Janet Jackson arrived at the front gate and demanded that it be opened to admit the moving van behind her.

A couple of hours later the van left with La Toya’s boyfriend Phillips at the wheel.

Katherine and her daughters made it clear they wouldn’t be leaving any time soon.

“They camped out for most of a week,” the head of the security firm recalled, coming and going “whenever they felt like it”.

Michael Jackson’s will came to light about a week after his death; its executors were to be a lawyer, an accountant and a former record company executive named by Michael Jackson. It stipulated that 40% of his estate was to be held in trust for Prince, Paris, and his third child Blanket. Another 20% would be assigned to various charities; the remaining 40% would be used to support Katherine, who would be guardian of Michael Jackson’s children. After Katherine’s death, her share would revert to the children.

In the meantime, the executors had “absolute discretion” to decide how the money from the Katherine Jackson Trust would be distributed. There was no provision for Michael Jackson’s father or siblings.

Over the next two years, the clamor among Katherine’s children to collect their mother’s share of the estate grew ever more threatening. For some time, almost nothing was left over for Katherine’s children; according to the executors, Michael Jackson had made it clear that he did not intend to provide for his siblings.

Even when Katherine’s monthly stipend was increased to $8,000, several of her children demanded that she challenge the estate’s administration.

The opening act of the craziest Jackson family drama since Michael’s death began on July 14, when Katherine, 82, was flown to a spa resort in Tucson, Arizona, without the knowledge of her grandchildren, but accompanied by a group of her children.

Within a few days, the media were reporting on a letter that had been signed by five of Michael Jackson’s siblings – Randy, Janet, Jermaine, Rebbie, and Tito – demanding that the executors of Michael’s will resign and stating that the will itself was “fake, flawed, and fraudulent”.

[The American courts have upheld the will. Yet the allegations, dismissed by the executors as wrong and defamatory, surfaced again last month when David Gest, a longtime friend of Michael, spoke out in support of the siblings’ claim.]

The adults responsible for Michael Jackson’s children, including his nephew TJ Jackson, became convinced that Michael’s brothers and sisters intended to gain a conservatorship [a legal form of control in America] over Katherine, possibly by demonstrating her incompetence to serve as the guardian of the children. The money, as everyone knew, would follow those three children.

Still more outlandish, though, were the events of Monday, July 23. Shortly after 1:00 p.m., Prince and Paris were in an SUV returning home to the Calabasas estate through the double gates when another SUV, loaded with passengers, pulled right up to its bumper.

Randy Jackson was at the wheel of the tailing vehicle, which made it to the inner gate just as the barrier was coming down.

“He just drove through and broke the arm off,” recalled Sandra Ribera, an associate of Katherine’s lawyer, who was watching from the pool house.

“All of a sudden the doors open and there’s this swarm of people pointing cameras all around.”

Sandra Ribera said the people in the driveway were Randy Jackson, Janet Jackson, Jermaine Jackson, and several of Prince, Paris, and Blanket’s cousins. It was friendly at first, with hugs all round.

But Katherine’s security team, who were guarding the house, quickly realized that the other Jacksons were there to take Michael’s children. Janet went for her niece Paris, while Randy approached Prince and Jermaine engaged the guards, all three of them still using their cell phones as video cameras. When Janet and Randy told Paris and Prince they were coming with them, both teenagers flatly refused to go.

Prince turned his back on Randy, but Jermaine pulled the boy aside and told him this was something that had been in the planning for three years and that it was important for him to join in with the rest of the family.

Prince shrugged off Jermaine and continued walking toward the house. Paris, meanwhile, made it clear to Janet that she wouldn’t be leaving.

The TMZ entertainment website would initially report, based on anonymous sources, that Janet Jackson told Paris she was a “spoiled little bitch” and that Paris answered: “This is our house, not the Jackson family house. Get the f*** out!”

When security guards blocked his way, Randy, who had been smiling up until then, began to snarl warnings about not interfering in a family matter.

One of the guards suggested perhaps he should leave the property and Randy became enraged, cursing in the man’s face, which was when Trent Jackson, a cousin and a member of the security team, grabbed him. The two grappled, then the bull-strong Trent put Randy in a headlock.

The scuffle ended when Trent withdrew with Prince and Paris into the house. Those who were staying at Calabasas would say later that the saddest thing about the entire scene was the way Jermaine had used his sons.

“Jermaine is cursing as bad as you can curse in front of these kids and fighting and doing all this stuff, and he’s telling his kids to videotape it,” Ribera recalled.

“And Jermajesty [Jermaine’s son] . . . is just sobbing. His face is covered in tears. He’s taping, but he’s sobbing.”

A sheriff’s car answering an emergency call arrived at the front gate and everyone froze. The sheriff’s deputies persuaded Randy, Janet, and Jermaine and their group to leave.

“Gotta love fam,” Paris tweeted to her followers shortly after they were gone.

On July 26, Katherine was finally brought home. That series of clumsily plotted scenes left her brood more divided than ever. But it was a comfort to her to know that, in the end, they would all be together again.

Katherine’s deal with Forest Lawn Cemetery to acquire Michael’s crypt in the Sanctuary of Ascension had included the purchase of 11 other burial spots. In death, Michael Jackson would be surrounded by the family he had tried to keep at a distance for most of his life.