Michael Jackson’s legacy is being viewed in a new light by many after HBO’s Leaving Neverland docuseries. The Dan Reed-directed, four-hour docuseries features Wade Robson and James Safechuck recounting graphic allegations of molestation during their childhood and adolescent years at the hands of Jackson. The series has resulted in Jackson’s music being banned from certain radio stations, taking a plunge on the charts, and even his classic Simpsons episode being pulled from the air.
Robson and Safechuck have been accusing Jackson of abuse for several years, after previously defending the singer against other boys’ accusations. The men contend throughout the docuseries that they weren’t ready to face the reality of what had allegedly been done to them.
Though the FBI investigated Michael Jackson for over a decade and closed their file without seeking charges, and he was acquitted of sexual molestation in 2005, there are many people who feel like the singer’s friendships with kids weren’t about his “Peter Pan syndrome,” but predation. Here is a full timeline of allegations and legal proceedings against Michael Jackson:
September 1993: First allegations against Jackson surface
Evan Chandler filed a civil suit against Michael Jackson in late 1993, alleging that the singer molested his son Jordan Chandler, who met the singer through his parents while Jackson was renting a car. In August of 1993, Jordan told a psychiatrist that Jackson had molested him. The psychiatrist was legally bound to tell police in California, who launched an investigation. He was never charged for the accusations, though they marred his reputation and brought his relationship with children into question.
Several of Jackson’s underage friends, including Wade Robson and James Safechuck, denied that he had ever abused them and said they had never seen or heard anything inappropriate. Evan Chandler’s suit, which claimed “sexual battery” against Jordan, was settled for over $20 million dollars in January of 1994.
December 1993: Jackson denies allegations
Chandler’s allegations got Jackson thoroughly investigated by the LAPD and the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department. In December of 1993, a visibly shaken-yet-defiant Jackson took to the airwaves via live satellite to deny the “disgusting” accusations and recounted the “dehumanizing” circumstance of the police photographing him nude while fulfilling a search warrant. Jackson stated that his love for children was purely wholesome, and implored listeners and the media to not “treat me like a criminal, because I am innocent.”
February 2003: Living With Michael Jackson premieres
Jackson had faced no more legal or civil action after the Chandler case by 2003, but he was an extremely polarizing figure. While his fans and some onlookers chalked up his adult friendships with children as a result of never having his own childhood as the star of the Jackson Five, skeptics thought that he had a more nefarious reason for the relationships.
Martin Bashir’s 2003 Living With Michael Jackson documentary put more fuel on the fire for many. Bashir spent over eight months with Jackson, who continued to have boys at his Neverland Ranch for sleepovers. Bashir documented the then-44-year-old Jackson’s “disturbing” relationship with then 12-year-old Gavin Arvizo, who he held hands with and admitted sharing a bedroom with calling it “a beautiful thing.” Jackson also admitted that he has “slept in the bed with many children,” including child actor Macauley Culkin and his siblings.
There was widespread outrage to Jackson’s comments.
Winter 2003: Jackson is charged with molestation
It was Arviso, from the Bashir documentary, who anonymously accused Jackson of molestation in 2005. His claims led to Jackson being charged with seven counts of child molestation and two counts of administering an intoxicating agent for the purpose of a committing a felony. Jackson’s Neverland Ranch was raided.
Arviso testified that Jackson showed he and his brother “several pornographic websites depicting naked women and girls, some of them about 15 years old.” Arvizo and his brother also accused Jackson of committing sexual acts on and in front of Arvizo. They also said that Jackson tried to give the underage boys wine, which he allegedly called “Jesus juice” and “Jesus blood.”
Jackson, who was visibly gaunt throughout the proceedings, turned the court dates into a spectacle, dancing on top of a car and even coming to the courthouse in his pajamas. He had several friends who he met at a young age testify in defense of his character, including Wade Robson, who testified that he had never been touched or been in an inappropriate situation with Jackson.
Jackson’s legal team aimed to depict the Arvisos as liars out to get a piece of Jackson’s fortune. In June of 2005, Jackson was acquitted of all charges, with one juror surmising that the Arviso’s mother “had taught her children to lie to gain money or favors from celebrities.”
June 2009: Michael Jackson dies
In June of 2009, Michael Jackson died of cardiac arrest at 50, allegedly related to the use of propofol. While Jackson was a contentious figure, and his relationship with young boys was in question after several allegations, the predominant reaction to his death was one of grief and reverence. Jackson’s memorial service was held at LA’s Staples Center, which reflects the huge fanbase he had at the time of his death.
2009: FBI releases file on Michael Jackson
In 2009, the FBI released files of their decade-plus long investigation of Jackson’s interactions with children. The file, which reflects the initiation of an FBI investigation around the time of the Chandler accusations, is heavily redacted. There is information about allegations of witnessed sexual misconduct from two former Neverland employees living in the Philippines, and a woman who claimed that while traveling on a Grand Canyon-bound train with Jackson in 1992, the singer “was very possessive” of an adolescent boy that “was ID’ed” as his cousin. The woman also claimed that she heard “questionable noises” coming from one of Jackson’s four train compartments at night.
The file also made a reference to a 1995 videotape labeled in part “Michael Jackson’s Neverland Favorites An All Boy Anthology,” but there was no further information about what was on the tape. Ultimately, their investigation didn’t render enough evidence for the bureau to go forward on federal charges, and the file was “administratively closed” in 2005.
2013/2014: Wade Robson and James Safechuck allege sexual abuse, file claim against Jackson estate
In 2013, dance choreographer Wade Robson, who had defended Jackson from abuse allegations in the past, alleged that Jackson had molested him from the age of seven years old when Robson won a dance competition. In 2013, he filed a claim against Michael Jackson’s estate, and sued MJJ Productions and MJJ ventures, alleging that the singer’s companies were “specifically designed to locate, attract, lure and seduce child sexual abuse victims.”
The claim was thrown out in 2015, with the judge contending that too much time had passed since the alleged abuses, and the lawsuit was thrown out in 2017 after a judge ruled that the companies weren’t liable for he and Jackson’s interactions.
James Safechuck met Jackson on the set of a 1987 Pepsi commercial and befriended him. In May of 2014, he also filed a claim against Jackson’s estate, claiming “hundreds” of sexual encounters with Jackson as an underage boy. He also attached his name to Robson’s 2013 lawsuit against MJJ Productions and MJJ ventures. Safechuck claimed that during the 1993 Chandler trial, Jackson’s legal team “rehearsed questions and testimony” with him. He also said that Jackson “threatened him” to testify in his defense during his 2005 trial, but the then-adult Safechuck refused to. His claim against Jackson’s estate was denied in 2017.
February 2019: Leaving Neverland premieres on HBO
Robson and Safechuck divulged allegations of Michael Jackson’s abuse in graphic detail during the four-hour Leaving Neverland docuseries, which presents a narrative of Jackson befriending them and their families, before grooming and abusing them. The men allege that Jackson had prolonged sexual relationships with them and had code words for sexual terms with them. They claimed that his home was rigged with alarms to make sure he was alerted if anyone came near his bedroom, and that they were trained on how to put their clothes back on quickly if someone unexpectedly came to their room.
Both men and their families told a story of Jackson’s alleged misdeeds and the traumatic toll it took on both men into adulthood. The Dan Reed-directed docuseries was watched by over 2.1 million people and undoubtedly damaged many people’s perception of Jackson.
Reactions and fallout from Leaving Neverland
There have already been numerous substantial consequences from the HBO docuseries. Oprah Winfrey interviewed Jackson’s accusers in an After Neverland interview. She also suggested that everyone watch the docu-series and resolve to stop listening to Jackson. Radio stations in numerous countries have banned his music, and his famed episode of The Simpsons was pulled from the air. Simpson’s showrunner Al Jean went as far as to recently surmise that Jackson used the Simpsons episode “as a tool” to “groom boys.”
Corey Feldman, a child abuse advocate who was friends with Jackson as a child and has long defended him, has said that he can “no longer defend” Jackson, and that the documentary was “not the guy” he knew.”
On the flipside, many people have come out to accuse Robson and Safechuck of lying about their abuse. Jackson’s family, including Robson’s ex Brandi Jackson, have framed Robson as a liar who had a gripe with the Jackson family after not being chosen to choreograph the Michael Jackson: ONE Cirque De Soleil show. Aaron Carter also recently said that he wants to “punch” Wade Robson in the face over Robson’s claims. Some of Carter’s anger may have come from a tweet from a fake Wade Robson account which claimed that Jackson had abused Carter as well.
The Jackson estate has sued HBO for $100 million because they claim “HBO breached its agreement not to disparage Michael Jackson by producing and selling to the public a one-sided marathon of unvetted propaganda to shamelessly exploit an innocent man no longer here to defend himself.”
A man named Brett Barnes is also suing HBO for the way he was depicted in the documentary, claiming that he never had an inappropriate relationship with Jackson and Safechuck’s assertion that Barnes had “replaced” him as a victim of Jackson is a “despicable allegation.”
Others have also criticized the one-sidedness of the documentary, which didn’t interview any Neverland employees, and omitted reference to Robson and Safechuck’s lawsuit and claims against Jackson’s estate.
Jackson was able to largely get past the previous public allegations against him, but in today’s climate of affirming abuse survivors, and believing their stories, his legacy is likely irreparably tarnished. Jackson was perhaps the biggest figure of American pop culture iconography of the past 50 years, but after Leaving Neverland there’s a collective movement to move Jackson’s legacy to the shadows based on Robson and Safechuck’s allegations.