Trouble in Neverland

updated 12/01/2003 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/01/2003 01:00AM

When the black and white choppers began hovering over Michael Jackson's 2,700-acre Neverland compound at around 8:30 the morning of Nov. 18, the horses at nearby cattle ranches in Los Olivos, Calif., were the first to react. "I had been out catching horses, and these helicopters began scaring them," says Robert Barnes, who shoes horses on a neighboring ranch. "We knew it was at Michael's ranch, so we knew it was trouble."

Trouble, this time, was an invasion of more than 60 Santa Barbara County sheriff's deputies and investigators armed with a search warrant—and, according to Court TV, an arrest warrant for Jackson, 45. With the singer not at home, investigators proceeded to comb the property for evidence to support a 12-year-old boy's allegations of sexual abuse, according to Court TV and CNN. The events "unfolded by surprise, very much so," Jackson spokesman Stuart Backerman told PEOPLE. In a statement, he added, "We do not yet know what this is about...[but] Michael will, as always, cooperate fully with authorities in any investigation."

The raid, described by the Santa Barbara County District Attorney's office simply as part of an "ongoing criminal investigation," was led by D.A. Tom Sneddon. Accompanied by helicopters overhead, deputies pulled up in marked and unmarked cars, followed by a forensic van, locksmith truck, paddy wagon and ambulance. The installation of a portable toilet—and then at 5:30 p.m., a generator and floodlights—suggested that authorities were not planning on leaving anytime soon. "This was a large-scale logistical operation," says a sheriff's department spokesman.

With a formal announcement by Sneddon scheduled for the next day, many Jackson critics were quick to applaud the investigation. This wasn't, of course, the first time the singer had been hit by such accusations. In 1993 a 13-year-old boy settled a molestation suit after Jackson agreed to pay a settlement worth $15 to $20 million. Last February, after Jackson blithely told British journalist Martin Bashir, in a TV interview, "I have slept in a bed with many children," the D.A.'s office received pressure from several sources, among them attorney Gloria Aired, to reactivate its criminal investigation of Jackson. "This investigation is long over-due," says Aired, who briefly represented the boy in the '93 case. "The apparent scope of this investigation seems to be very serious." A local government sex crimes specialist adds, "Most assuredly a judge has carefully reviewed the matter and determined there was probable cause to search."

During the Nov. 18 raid, Jackson was in Las Vegas with his three children—Prince Michael I, 6, Paris Michael, 5, and 22-month-old Prince Michael II, whom Jackson likes to call "Blanket." On that day, the release date of his new greatest-hits collection, Number Ones, he was shooting a video for a single ironically titled "One More Chance." Film director Bryan Michael Stoller, a close friend, says that recently Jackson has been "crazy busy" working on the video and a TV special. (As yet, CBS has not altered plans for the Nov. 26 star-studded Jackson tribute.) Stoller, who often visits Neverland, maintains that Jackson's friendships with youngsters are innocent. "He's a big kid himself," says Stoller. "And he's an excellent father. He feels he's a father to all kids."

While the new allegations remain murky, details of Jackson's alleged '93 doings circulated widely after the boy's court declaration appeared on the Smoking Gun Web site. In the posted statement, the 13-year-old boy said, "Michael Jackson had sexual contact with me on many occasions," then described activity that escalated from hugging to oral sex. Jackson has not been linked sexually to other minors, but his friendships with such young stars as Macaulay and Kieran Culkin, Emmanuel Lewis and MTV dance personality Wade Robson have raised eyebrows. On the day of the raid, Robson's mother, Joy, came to Jackson's defense, saying, "People are always trying to get something out of him." Unfortunately for Jackson, this week that applied to cops who, at press time, were still searching his home for evidence that could put the Gloved One in cuffs.

JILL SMOLOWE
John Hannah in Los Olivos and Lorenzo Benet, Vicki Sheff-Cahan, Alexis Chiu, Champ Clark and Frank Swertlow in Los Angeles

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