updated 09/06/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/06/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN A MOMENT OF triumph for Michael Jackson. On Aug. 24, five days before his 35th birthday, the self-proclaimed King of Pop kicked off his "Dangerous" world tour before a sellout crowd of 46,000 in Bangkok's National Stadium. Yet even as Thai fans cheered ecstatically, halfway around the world Jackson's reputation and career were suddenly placed in jeopardy. From Los Angeles came word that the L.A. police were investigating child abuse allegations against him.

At first, Jackson remained aloof to the charges, issuing a prepared statement through his attorney. "I am confident the department will conduct a fair and thorough investigation," he said, "and its results will demonstrate that there was no wrongdoing on my part." Then, while vowing to continue his lour, he canceled his second night's concert, claiming "acute dehydration" from the heat.

At the center of the startling questions about Jackson, according to Associated Press sources, is a 13-year-old boy who is also the subject of a custody fight. The youngster is the son of a Beverly Hills dentist, who moonlights as a screenwriter, and his ex-wife. According to reports the boy recently told his therapist that he had been sexually fondled by-Jackson; the therapist, as required by law, reported the allegations to authorities. In custody papers filed by the boy's father following conversations with his son, the father requested that the child be permitted no further contact with Jackson. While the police remain close-mouthed as to the precise nature of the investigation—"We do not want to feed any wild speculation on this matter," says Commander David Gascon—the department's special Sexually Exploited Child Unit was granted warrants to search both Jackson's Santa Ynez Valley ranch and his Century City condo on Aug. 21. They reportedly confiscated videotapes and photographs.

Jackson's friendship with the boy reportedly began late last fall when the singer met him, his mother and her 5-year-old daughter at an L.A. office of the Rent-A-Wreck car-rental company, which the mother's current husband founded. In short order, Jackson was entertaining the mother and children at his Neverland ranch and at Disney World, buying the boy $1,500 worth of presents at Toys 'R' Us and taking them all to Las Vegas. Last May he escorted them to Monaco for the World Music Awards. One press account said he introduced his companions to the royal Grimaldi family "as though they were his wife and children." Back home, he would reportedly phone the house four times a day and watch TV and eat pizza with the kids on their mother's bed. The mother has refused to comment directly on the abuse charges, but her attorney, Michael Freeman, said, "She learned of this through the investigation by the police department, and she is as shocked by what has occurred as anybody else."

What has occurred, insisted the-Jackson camp's security consultant, Anthony Pellicano, is not child abuse but a case of "an extortion gone awry. Michael is appalled by this thing." Pellicano says the accusations against his client followed an unsuccessful attempt to extract $20 million from Jackson.

Equally skeptical is celebrity biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli, author of Michael Jackson: The Magic and the Madness, a tough, well-researched book. "These charges are just bogus," he says. "My personal belief is that Michael Jackson is not capable of this. I researched his life for 10 years. He would never hurt a child."

Still, no one would deny that Michael is an odd and sometimes contradictory bird. On one hand, the star's stage and video performances have been marked by sexually explicit crotch-grabbing gestures. On the other, his public persona is decidedly otherworldly. He likens himself to the perpetual innocent Peter Pan, and his 2,700-acre ranch, pointedly called Neverland, includes a children's zoo and amusement park. Jackson is also a humanitarian who has set up a million-dollar Heal the World Foundation to help needy children.

Over the years, Jackson has cultivated a playgroundful of kiddie pals. In 1983 he was inseparable from Webster's Emmanuel Lewis, then 12; in 1988 he took 10-year-old Jimmy Safechuck, whom he had befriended while making a Pepsi commercial, on his "Bad" world tour, and reportedly bought the boy's family a Rolls-Royce. And Home Alone's Macaulay Culkin, who made a 1991 video with him, was a frequent guest at Neverland.

Yet in Jackson's moment of need, neither Culkin nor other celebrity chums appeared to be rallying to his defense. Brooke Shields, Emmanuel Lewis and Culkin all refused comment, as did his great pal Liz Taylor, who is on vacation.

In a gesture of rare unity, however, the usually fractious Jackson family—including Michael's dad, Joseph, who has been accused of sexual abuse by daughter LaToya and physical abuse by Michael—are standing behind their boy. "We wish to state our unequivocal belief that Michael has been made the victim of a cruel and obvious attempt to take advantage of his success," read a statement released in their names.

Despite the charges that have been leveled, Jackson's faithful fans see no reason to worry. "Michael is not the little wimpy guy you think he is," says Taraborrelli. "He is a very strong and determined person who has the potential to become extremely angry. He's not going to cower. He will certainly fight."

TODD GOLD, LYNDON STAMBLER, and Los Angeles bureau reports

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