Day in Court: A story behind the stories of the Michael Jackson trial
Originally published in Geist 61
In Santa Maria, California, the Best Value Inn on East Main was run by a woman with pink hair named Michelle and her boyfriend, whose name I forget, who always wore a Jack Daniels T-shirt and a baseball cap turned backwards. A cat named Dusty lived in the lobby and often sat on the counter next to the shrivelled apples offered to guests for breakfast. The room smelled like stale smoke.
That is where I lived in 2005, during the summer I almost met Michael Jackson. Every single hotel room in the city was booked by the time the jurors began their deliberations on whether Jackson was a child molester, and I lost the room I’d had during the trial, but Michelle at the Best Value took me in. This was a controversial decision because I am a journalist and Michelle is a Michael Jackson fan, and many of the fans who had quit their jobs and moved to Santa Maria from Germany and Tennessee to support “Michael” during the trial were staying at the Best Value Inn. The fans hated journalists.
Michelle charged reporters $US 59 a night. Michael Jackson fans, I later found out, paid $US 37 a night and lived four to a room, and even then, she sometimes let their payments slide. After I moved in, she told me that a man calling himself Majestik Magnificent, who claimed he was at one time Michael Jackson’s personal magician, was staying down the hall. The man in the room next to mine was a writer for Rolling Stone. He smoked outside my window every night. I never saw him talk to anyone.
The televisions in the small rooms were only a few inches from the ends of the beds, which was ideal. This way, fans who did not win the daily 6 a.m. “lottery” for courtroom seats could go back to bed and watch television reports about the trial taking place four blocks away. This way, they did not have to sit against the chain-link fence that separated the public from the court all day. Majestik Magnificent, however, spent every day standing around the parking lot in a tailored black suit and talked to any member of the media who made eye contact. Magnificent was a stocky black man who described himself as an “activist for truth.” When he was not at the courthouse, he hung out on the balcony outside his room talking on a cellphone.
One morning, before the jurors arrived at the courthouse to continue deliberating on whether Michael Jackson was a child molester, Majestik Magnificent knocked on my door at the Best Value Inn. He helped me move my suitcase so we could pull two padded chairs out from the small table where I wrote newspaper stories on my laptop. We sat with our knees touching as he told me about the time long ago when he was friends with Michael Jackson, because Jackson loved magic and wanted to learn tricks. He said he had known Jackson for twenty-two years. Magnificent had driven to Santa Maria from Las Vegas, where he said he had a new career running a limousine service. At one point during our conversation, he sang “Billie Jean” a cappella and told me that Jackson had done the same for him when he was writing the song. Magnificent said that Jackson told him it was going to be a song about a woman who claimed a man was the father of her child, but that the man was not her lover. He said he told Jackson the song would not fly. Remembering this, Magnificent laughed and laughed.
The smell of Majestik Magnificent’s cologne filled the motel room, which was hot because it was summer and California. Magnificent insisted that the Michael Jackson he knew was not a child molester. I asked him if he could make his friend’s troubles disappear. I know his exact answer because I recorded it with a tape machine. “I do magic,” he said. “Only my heavenly father performs miracles.” He winked.
I could never confirm with Michael Jackson that Majestik Magnificent knew him, because I never met Michael Jackson. The judge had forbidden everyone allowed inside the courthouse to speak to Jackson in the courtoom or in the corridors, and those who tried anyway were permanently banned from the building. Once I sat on a bench five feet from Jackson and watched him empty his pockets and walk through a metal detector and enter the courtroom. When court was in session, he never fidgeted. He hardly moved.
The fans staying at the other end of the Best Value Inn held a barbecue once a week and Michelle invited me, but I never went. One night, while I was watching a two-hour special on Paris Hilton, Majestik Magnificent banged on my window. The drapes were open because the room did not have air conditioning, and it was summer and California and Magnificent could probably see the entire room. He held his phone up to one ear with one hand and pointed down the hall with the other. He was mouthing a word but I could not make out what it was. The next day he told me that Randy Jackson, Michael Jackson’s brother, had arrived unexpectedly at the fan barbecue. I had heard a scuffle during the night, and it turned out Michelle had got Randy Jackson and two women kicked out of the parking lot because they were too loud.
The jury deliberated for seven days. On these days it was important to stay near the courthouse in case the jury announced a verdict and reporters had to line up for courtroom seats. I got on the final list by waking up at 4 a.m. three days in a row. Even though it was summer and California, it was cold in the middle of the night, so I napped on the curb wrapped in a towel from the Best Value Inn. Michelle and her boyfriend loaned me a folding chair, which I set up in the parking lot on a patch where there had once been grass and balanced my laptop computer on my knees as I waited for the jury. When reporters were led across the yard to the courtroom for the verdicts, fans shook the fence and screamed Liars! Liars! This happened almost every day of the trial. I remember the sound of Judge Rodney S. Melville tearing open the sealed envelopes containing the verdicts, which acquitted Michael Jackson on all charges, and which he held close to his microphone as he tore them.
In the rush to get back to the Best Value Inn to write my story, I forgot the folding chair in the parking lot. I drove over a flower bed at the motel, and when I got to my room on the second floor, the swipe card to enter would not work. Michelle let me in. She told me Michael Jackson’s motorcade had passed the Best Value Inn as he drove back to the Neverland Ranch to celebrate. She had waved. She said Jackson stuck his little hand out the window and waved back. The fans sang Michael Jackson songs in the parking lot as I wrote—old ones, not the newer ones. They decorated their rental cars with white foamy letters that said “I ♥ MJ” and “MJ is innocent.”
When I checked out, Michelle asked me to sign her coil-bound Michael Jackson guest book, even though I was not considered a fan. I cannot remember what I wrote, but later I saw a picture of the guest book on the Internet, posted on someone’s blog. The book was open to the page signed by the writer from Rolling Stone, who had written: “This is the lowest moment of my professional life.”