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The night before he had to face it all again, John Travolta was so tense he couldn't sleep. At dawn he put on a black suit, crisp white shirt and silver tie, then flew with his wife, Kelly Preston, from their home near Ocala, Fla., to the Bahamas—a place "they said they would never go back to because it was too painful," says a friend. Once there they drove in silence to Nassau, where Travolta stood before a crowded courtroom and, in a soft, clear voice, talked about the terrible day his son Jett died. "On the stand he was just someone's father," says film producer Lou Maggio, a friend of a Travolta attorney, who drove with Travolta that morning. "A father who did everything he could to save his son."

Travolta's brief, stark remarks on Sept. 23—in the trial of two Bahamians accused of trying to extort him for $25 million—were his first public comments about Jett's tragic death Jan. 2. Recounting his desperate attempts to revive his 16-year-old son after caretakers found him nonresponsive on a bathroom floor of the family's Bahamas home, Travolta also acknowledged for the first time that Jett was autistic. Travolta's testimony, friends tell PEOPLE, showed how deeply wounded he remains by the loss of a son he adored and how he and Preston are slowly, haltingly coming to terms with what happened. Testifying "was awful, but it needed to be done," says one family friend. "I know it was hard; how could it not be? But John dug deep and he did it. He's been reliving that day every day since it happened. The only difference this time was that he said it out loud."

As painful as his first day in court might have been, Travolta's ordeal is hardly over. At press time he was due to retake the stand to be cross-examined by defense lawyers for Bahamian paramedic Tarino Lightbourn and his attorney Pleasant Bridgewater. Both are accused of demanding $25 million to hand over a release form Travolta signed on Jan. 2. The form—signed after paramedics and Travolta himself were unable to revive Jett—would have allowed the actor to fly his son to a hospital in Florida rather than have him taken to a local ER. Travolta told police he was advised by people at the scene that flying might be quicker, but he ultimately opted to take an ambulance to the ER, where Jett was pronounced dead. Why the alleged blackmailers felt the form was, as one witness put it, "incriminating" for Travolta is not clear. But friends say the case has made Travolta and Preston feel as if they're being attacked for how they cared for their son. "The idea that they wouldn't give him the best medical care was the most painful thing," says the family friend. "John and Kelly would do anything for their family."

Whether the trial will provide a sense of closure for Travolta, 55, Preston, 46, and their daughter Ella Bleu, 9, remains to be seen, but it's clear the months leading up to it have been heartbreaking. This summer Travolta took several trips without Preston, flying his plane to Fiji and Puerto Rico and checking into hotels alone. His travels sparked rumors that their marriage was fraying, but a source close to Travolta says, "John and Kelly are absolutely together and extremely devoted to each other." Travolta's solo travels "are just part of how he is grieving and trying to heal. Everyone has their own process."

Jett's death, however, has not led Travolta to question his belief in Scientology, says the source: "There has been no change in John's commitment to Scientology. Never was." Scientology spokesman Tommy Davis says the church, which opposes psychiatry, has no position on autism and doesn't stand in the way of medical treatment. Travolta may not have mentioned autism publicly before the trial, but friends say he was more open about Jett's condition in private (see box)—and that it was just part of their daily lives. "Every five to 10 days [Jett] would have a seizure lasting 45 seconds to one minute and sleep for 12 hours," Travolta revealed in court. (Seizure disorders affect about 25 percent of autistic people and are their leading cause of death, according to a 2008 study by Danish researchers.)

Preston went back to work this summer, filming The Last Song with Miley Cyrus on Georgia's Tybee Island. But she too has had dark moments. One day on-set, says a source, "she started crying and had to be taken to her trailer. She was still mourning the loss of her son, and all shooting for the day was halted." Later Travolta flew in for a visit. "They walked along the water late at night," says a set source. "They were just walking along the sand, saying nothing, taking in the ocean. It was bittersweet."

Travolta and Preston have been careful to shield Ella from details about the trial, leaving her with a close pal when they traveled to the Bahamas. But for the couple, getting through the trial "is just one more thing that is helping them move forward," says their friend. "Every day is a turning point for John and Kelly. They get one day behind them, and then they get on with the new normal of their lives."

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  • Contributors:
  • Siobhan Morrissey/Nassau,
  • Steve Helling/Nassau,
  • Elizabeth Leonard/Los Angeles,
  • Linda Marx/Tybee Island,
  • Mary Green/New York City,
  • Michelle Tan/New York City.