By Sam Knight, Timesonline
June 14, 2005
The reputation of Michael Jackson’s accusers, the Arvizo family, lay at the very heart of the singer’s three month trial on child abuse charges.
Were Gavin Arvizo and his mother Janet the victims of a nightmarish series of crimes? Or were they sophisticated hucksters, prepared to use Gavin’s cancer and the weirdness of a popstar to “pull off the biggest cons of their careers”, as the singer’s defence lawyers claimed?
Yet despite the mountain of testimony, and the best efforts of the world’s press corps, the family remained an unknowable quantity. At times it appeared that they could be both victims and villains.
At least the start of the story is clear: Gavin, who is now 15, grew up with his parents, his younger brother, Star, and older sister, Davellin, in a poor neighbourhood in east Los Angeles. Their lives started to intertwine with celebrity in 2000, when Gavin, a healthy 10-year-old boy, attended a summer comedy program for underprivileged children run by The Laugh Factory, the LA stand-up club.
That summer, Gavin met famous comedians like Chris Tucker and Jim Carrey and the Laugh Factory empresario, Jamie Masada. But then the Arvizo family started to come apart.
Gavin was diagnosed with cancer and his parents divorced, his father leaving his wife and children amid allegations of abuse. Gavin’s sister Davellin told the Jackson jury that he hit them “too many times to count”.
Janet, Gavin’s mother, met an Army Reserves Major called Jay Jackson and in 2004 married him, to become – confusingly, as it turned out – Janet Jackson.
In all the upheaval and in the throes of his cancer treatment, Gavin managed to speak to Jamie Masada, who asked if there was anything he could do. Gavin said that he would like to meet Michael Jackson, “the coolest guy in the world”.
And here the story diverges. Over the last three months, the world has heard two parallel versions of what came next, with matching dates and locations but seemingly different characters.
On the one hand, there has been the prosecution’s case: telephone calls from Michael Jackson, long conversations into the night, followed by the first invitation to the Neverland ranch during Gavin’s chemotherapy treatment. And then a strange silence as Jackson seemed to forget about Gavin, before an unexpected call, asking Gavin and his brother and Janet to come to Neverland to take part in the filming of Martin Bashir’s documentary, Living with Michael Jackson.
It was during those stays at Neverland in 2002 and 2003 that the prosecution claimed that Michael Jackson’s rescue of the Arvizos turned into an entrapment. Abandoning school, shopping, playing by day, flying in hot air balloons, visiting Jackson’s private zoo, Gavin and his brother Star were feted and lured while Gavin was abused by the popstar.
And when Jackson’s aides sensed that the upcoming film would reflect badly on the singer’s life, they kept the Arvizos under strict surveillance and made them attend a press conference defending Jackson, the family claimed. Then the Arvizos were effectively kidnapped and forced them to make a rebuttal film against their will.
The climax of the Arvizo testimony came in the video recording of Gavin’s questioning by Santa Barbara police that was shown to the jury in the last days of the trial. Looking uneasy, his voice breaking, Gavin described the five times that he claimed Jackson made him drink alcohol and then abused him.
“He said boys have to masturbate because if they don’t they go crazy,” Gavin told the police of Jackson. “He said that he wanted to show me how to masturbate. I said, ‘no’. He said he would do it for me. He grabbed me in my private area.
“He put his hand in my pants… he started masturbating me. I told him I didn’t want him to do that… He kept on doing it.”
But alongside the Arvizo’s own version of their plight has been a very different plot, their depiction as “con artists, actors and liars”. Even as the prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney Ron Zonen, insisted during the trial that Janet “never asked for one penny from Michael Jackson”, the testimony of the Arvizos – itself often contradictory – has sat uneasily with the list of confidence tricks that they have pulled off over the years.
During the trial, a local newspaper editor, the Los Angeles Department of Public Social Services and the US television host, Jay Leno, all testified that their contact with the Arvizos had made them suspicious of their motives.
The newspaper editor, Connie Keenman of the Mid Valley News, told how she was contacted five times by Janet in 2000, who asked her to run stories to raise attention of the money needed to pay for treatment for Gavin’s illness. Ms Keenan described her surprise as she found out later that the costs of treating Gavin’s cancer were all covered by insurance.
Jay Leno, who routinely receives calls from sick children in need of support, said that he had been contacted directly by Gavin Arvizo, and found the boy’s polished praise of his show “a little scripted” and unusual from one so young. In the end, Mr Leno asked a friend to stop the calls, although he said the Arvizos never asked him for money.
But it was the testimony of Mercy Dee Manrriquez, a Los Angeles city social worker, who gave the most intricate account of the Arvizos’ appetite for money. Ms Manrriquez said that just ten days after receiving $151,000 from a successful civil lawsuit against the American department store chain, JC Penney, Janet applied for basic welfare help and food stamps – and omitted to mention the financial payout.
Filling out the forms in November 2001, which were signed under threat of perjury, Janet also failed to disclose that Gavin and her family already had medical insurance, which would have disqualified them from the benefits.
During the trial Janet cited her constitutional right not to incriminate herself.