The Neverland Valley Ranch
Backstory and Context
At the height of his popularity, Michael purchased the 2,698 acres property from a golf course entrepreneur William Bone in 1988 at an estimated cost of 17-20 million dollars. Located in Santa Barbara County, California, the agreeably remote property is about 5 miles north from Los Olivos and 8 miles north from Santa Ynez. Originally known as the Sycamore Valley Ranch, Michael renamed it Neverland which was inspired by Peter Pan’s youth and innocence –the boy who never grew up. As a child star who began performing at the early age of four, Neverland was built to resemble the fantasy island in the tale. In an attempt to recapture his dream of an ideal childhood, Michael created a Peter Pan centered theme park known as the Neverland Ranch where he would invite kids to come and play. During his residency at Neverland, groups of children, usually underprivileged, handicapped and terminally ill, and their families were brought to the park as day visitors. Within the last 15 years of Michael’s life, he hosted sleepovers with children, a practice that came under scrutiny when he was accused of sexual misconduct with minors at the Neverland first in 1993 and again in 2003.
The man known forever as the King of Pop was also immensely recognized for his humanitarian aid. In 1992, he founded the charity Heal the World Foundation which was dedicated to help and alleviate children around the world escape from poverty. Michael dreamed of building his own private amusement park for the children of the world and regularly donated millions of dollars to charitable causes. Michael’s annual earnings from his music career in 1989 were reported to be at 125 million for that year alone. Due to his success, Neverland became one of the most extraordinary celebrity homes ever created. The property features a main residence with 5 bedrooms and eight bathrooms, two guest houses, a 4-acre lake, a 50-seat movie theatre, a tennis court, a 14-foot lagoon-style pool, a dance studio, and separate staff facilities. Straight out of the imagination of a child, Michael installed two railroads, a Ferris-wheel, a carousel, a petting zoo, and a lot of other fairground rides and attractions on the ranch. The estimated annual cost of maintenance for Neverland was 5 million dollars and in 2003, the ranch was approximately valued at 100 million. Neverland was a place where enjoyment and a real-life fantasy experience was provided to thousands of children at no cost. (Sim, 2015)
In 1993, Michael was accused of molesting a 13-year-old boy named Jordan Chandler at his own Neverland Ranch. Things went on to court over a period of time, arguments were shared which one involves an investigation on allegations of extortion against Michael by the victim’s family. Neverland Ranch was raided by police for the first time in August 1993. Based on court documents, books and photographs of young boys with little to no clothing was found. But in conclusion, no charges were filed and the case remained inconclusive. In 1994, Michael settled the lawsuit out of court by paying the Chandlers with 22 million dollars. But 10 years later, the same incident happened again at Neverland. In June 2003, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office started an investigation after sexual abuse allegations were made against the late-popstar by a 13-year old cancer patient, Gavin Arvizo. Michael’s accuser Gavin was introduced to Michael by the owner of the comedy club Laugh Factory in 2000. At the time, Gavin was undergoing chemotherapy treatments. Being the humanitarian he was, Michael reached out to the Arvizo family regarding Gavin’s recovery from cancer. Ever since Gavin expressed his wish to meet Michael, the family had made multiple visits to Neverland. (World Heritage, 2019)
In November 2003, a search warrant was issued and Neverland was extensively raided for the second time by a team of more than 70 police officers and Michael was arrested for “lewd or lascivious acts” with a child younger than 14. Everything at Neverland was scrutinized and photographed by the Santa Barbara Police Department. Adult magazines and pornographic videos were found and used as evidence of pedophilia. Michael was charged with committing 7 counts of child molestation, including counts intoxicating a minor in order to molest and conspiring to hold the boy and his family captive. Michael pleaded not guilty to all allegations and alleged that the charges were made by the Arvizo’s were an attempt to extort celebrities. The People v. Jackson trial began on January 31, 2005. During court sessions, a series of public vigils were held by fans to proclaim his innocence. On June 13th, the jury found Michael not guilty and acquitted him of all charges. Despite being acquitted of all charges, Michael stated that he would not return to Neverland due to him feeling “violated” by the searches. As much as he loved Neverland, he claimed to “no longer consider the ranch home”. Upon his acquittal, Michael left Neverland, abandoned all of its contents, and never returned. In following, the case moved from court to the court of public opinion which lead questions to his controversial lifestyle. (World Heritage, 2019)
His legal innocence was a far stretch from public exoneration and Neverland fell into financial ruin. The fate of Michael’s estate was undeniably linked to his lawsuit battles and settlements over the past years. Along with his lavish spending, he was allegedly millions of dollars in debt. Prosecution records revealed that from 1999 to 2001, Michael was spending up to 35 million a year. After the 2005 trial, Michael continued to own and pay for the ranch even though he had not been back since. The scandal caused a devastating impact on Michael’s career which caused his wealth to decline. The facilities at Neverland were closed down and more than 100 workers were dismissed. Unlike its glory days, Neverland was left a rundown. Two years after Michael had left, reports of foreclosure proceedings alleged to have commenced against Neverland Ranch. In February 2008, Michael received word from the Financial Title Company that a public auction would go forward of the land, buildings, including all the other items on the property unless he paid off $24,525,906.61 by March. In an attempt to save ownership of the ranch, Michael stopped the foreclosure and transferred Neverland’s title over to Sycamore Valley Ranch Company, LLC. On March 13th, he defaulted on a loan and entered his home into an ownership agreement with a private investment Colony Capital for 23 million. Although Michael was faced with severe financial hardships, his joint venture with Colony Capital allowed him to remain as the majority stakeholder of the ranch. (World Heritage, 2019)
On June 25, 2009, Michael passed away in his rented Los Angeles mansion due to a cardiac arrest caused by acute propofol intoxication. On behalf of Michael’s will, he gave the entire estate to a family trust and the 2,698 acres property is co-owned by Colony Capital and the Jackson estate. After Jackson’s death in 2009, Neverland was back to its original name Sycamore Valley Ranch. The idea of running the ranch as a state park was introduced for debate as it would attract thousands of fans and bring in revenue for the state. But the idea was rejected due to lack of funding and the zoning laws within the area. In the following years, Colony Capital spent millions making extensive restorations to the property. By 2015, the Sycamore Valley Ranch was put on the market with an initial price of 100 million –a decision that caused many disagreements and protests. While being put up for 100 million, the ranch had trouble selling and eventually, the price was reduced to 67 million in 2017. Reports claimed that the reason as to why the ranch remains unsold deals with the expensive upkeep –as its annual cost of maintenance averages at 5 million. Potential buyers who have the intention of turning the famed estate into a memorial site for the late-popstar were also ruled out. But because of the stigmas associated with child molestation at Neverland, it’s not much of a surprise that the ranch is still on the market. (World Heritage, 2019)
The accusations of child sexual abuse against Michael from 1993 and 2003 tarnished his legacy and turned the stories at Neverland into a public tragedy. But death restored his reputation as an artist. Michael is regarded as one of the most significant cultural icons of the 20th century and the most influential artist of all time. Globally known as the King of Pop, he’s recognized to have revolutionized the art of music videos and paved way for modern pop music. His contributions as an artist made him a global figure in popular culture for many decades. However, his great power and glory also made him an iconic figure in the celebrity scandal-and-downfall narratives. Throughout Michael’s career, his image was often distorted for the public’s eye and was portrayed as a “damaged” man. Michael has a long history of being publically humiliated by the media; narratives about him were used to stir pity and terror. Rather than his humanity, Michael was famed for facing a life of controversy. (Jefferson, 2019) In 2019, legal battles and controversy continue. On January 25th, 2019, HBO released a two-part four-hour-long documentary called Leaving Neverland. The film features stories of two grown men who allege of being sexually abused by Michael at his ranch. Leaving Neverland consisted of a one-sided testimony where sexually graphic and disturbing descriptions were presented to the public, accusing Michael Jackson of pedophilia.
Although it’s been 10 years since Michael’s death, the controversy lives on through the media. Leaving Neverland stars: Wade Robson and James Safechuck were former child stars that Michael had discovered back in 1987. Both were under the age of ten when the alleged sexual abuse happened. Now in their 30s, Wade and James tell their stories of how Michael sexually abused them for many years at Neverland Ranch. First, the men described their very first encounter with Michael and went on to explain how their relationships progressed into sleeping in Michael’s bed alone in his bedroom. In their statements, they went into details of the sexual activities that had occurred at Neverland; both claimed to have not known what sexual abuse was at the time. Although the alleged sexual abuse took place in multiple areas at Neverland, a secret closet in Michael’s bedroom was where all the majority abuse allegedly happened. According to Safechuck, Michael would buy him expensive jewelry in exchange for sexual favors; he also came up with code words to express their love when they’re in public (Reed, 2019). Both men claimed that Michael used his money and fame to manipulate them into engaging in the alleged sexual activities. They were allegedly tricked into believing that it was a normal way of showing their “love”. Claiming that this special relationship they had with Michael was thought to be love, they kept it a secret because they were scared to be taken away from Michael. According to their statements, the reason that they had lied about the abuse for so long is that they were too young to understand the concept of child molestation at the time. Both men along with their families claimed to have not been able to recognize any of Michael’s pedophilic behaviors until now. (Reed, 2019)
The narrative of Leaving Neverland focuses on the powerful figure who gets away with sexually abusing and exploiting the far less powerful (Jefferson, 2019). But Wade’s and James’ abruptly changed stories about Michael at Neverland had stirred up debates on their motivations. Whether the documentary is motivated by financial gain or for public justice, many are fast to say that it’s a public lynching. Although Michael is no longer here to defend himself, his estate had filed a lawsuit against HBO in retaliation of the docuseries. The accusations made against Michael in Leaving Neverland produced controversial debates as his fans and the public becomes emotionally conflicted. It is important to note that for two decades, Wade Robson and James Safechuck had repeatedly denied any wrongdoings done by Michael. Michael was also found not guilty of all charges that were brought against him. From 1993 to 2011, Wade denied ever being molested and testified in both cases that his relationship with Michael was non-sexual. In the 1993 trial, James was Michael’s first defense witness in court. Therefore, in their statements with HBO, both men admitted to deliberately lied under oath. Overall, HBO’s documentary contains little credibility but the testimonies of the victim’s families. Because these men remained silenced for so long, many believe that they have financial ulterior motives to change their stories. Especially, after both victims had filed a lawsuit against Michael’s estate seeking damages from the alleged abuse. Although Michael was found innocent in court, Neverland will always remain infamously known for its history.
According to reports, Michael’s children made a visit to Neverland in 2010 and had intentions of turning the property back to its glory days, in honor of their father. In support, many celebrities had expressed their interest in helping his children acquire the ranch by investing their money in commemoration of Michael. As of 2019, the King of Pop’s former home is now on the market for $31 million, after many price reductions over the past years. Today, under its original name of Sycamore Valley Ranch, it remains unsold. The property is currently co-owned by Michael’s Estate along with Colony Capital, LLC. Ever since his death, the private investment company spent millions in restoring the property and turning into a saleable asset. Because they continued paying for the ranch’s upkeep and his estate did not, Colony Capital leverage grew and became the majority owner. In 2015, the ranch was put up for sale for the first time and many people including fans protested and disagreed with the decision. It was demanded that the estate step in and help turn Neverland into a place of commemoration but they have no legal say in the decision as they no longer have a say in regards to the property. Today, all physical references to Michael Jackson at the ranch are removed and his amusement park has been entirely wiped clean but its history tied to Neverland lingers. (World Heritage, 2019).
Jefferson, M. (2019). On Michael Jackson. Book. First Vintage Books Edition. Penguin House LLC.
Reed, D. (Director). (2019). Leaving Neverland Part 1 [Documentary]. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/Leaving-Neverland-Part-Michael-Jackson/dp/B07PBLK6VB/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2K7V79KDIYZG6&keywords=leaving+neverland&qid=1571760689&sprefix=leaving%2Caps%2C160&sr=8-1
Reed, D. (Director). (2019). Leaving Neverland Part 2 [Documentary]. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/Leaving-Neverland-Part-Dan-Reed/dp/B07P78NBJ7/ref=sr_1_2?crid=2K7V79KDIYZG6&keywords=leaving+neverland&qid=1571760689&sprefix=leaving%2Caps%2C160&sr=8-2
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