Inspired by Serial, The Jinx, and O.J. Simpson: Made in America, Crime and Culture finds Wren Graves taking a closer look at the artists who were involved in lurid offenses, using their stories to ask broader questions about our culture at large. For the inaugural installment, we go back to the early ’90s, when Michael Jackson became entangled in a molestation scandal that changed the way the world saw the late King of Pop.
“A lot of kids starve, Michael,’ I reminded him. ‘A lot of kids are poor, they become addicted to drugs. A lot of kids don’t live in mansions with servants. A lot of kids have it a lot worse than you did. In fact,’ I said, maybe feeling a little too self-confident, ‘I think you had a pretty good childhood. You travelled. You had friends. You did what you wanted to do, didn’t you? You performed. You entertained. It was fun. I think you miss your childhood, yes. But I don’t think you missed out on it.’
Michael stared at me, angrily. ‘No, it was horrible,’ he countered. ‘I had a terrible childhood. All of that performing. All that recording. The fans took over my life,’ he said, pointing at me. ‘I never got to play,’ he complained. ‘It was awful.’”
— Michael Jackson: The Magic, The Madness, The Whole Story, 1958-2009
On August 2nd, 1993, dentist Dr. Evan Chandler was extracting a tooth from his own son, Jordan, when he did something unusual. Under the supervision of an attending anesthesiologist, Dr. Chandler injected his son with a dose of a sodium Amytal — a barbiturate, although in popular culture it has sometimes incorrectly been called a “truth serum.” It is not normal to use sodium Amytal to pull a tooth; in fact, it is a psychological drug with sedative and hypnotic effects.
According to Alison Winter, a science historian at the University of Chicago, experts believe this type of drug “…makes people feel like talking, but it also puts them in a state of extreme suggestibility: people will pick up on cues about what questioners want to hear and repeat that back. This is one of the reasons that statements made under the influence of these drugs have never, as far as I know, been accepted in an American court.”
Perhaps Dr. Chandler didn’t know this, or perhaps he didn’t care. His son Jordan, often called Jordie, had developed an unusually intense friendship with the most popular musician in the world, Michael Jackson. Chandler had learned that 13 year-old Jordie and the 34 year-old King of Pop routinely held sleepovers where they slept in the same bed. The dentist had expressed his concerns to his ex-wife, June Chandler-Schwartz, and she told him not to worry. But he did worry. And as Jordie had become increasingly withdrawn from his father, Evan Chandler decided he wanted some answers.
After the sodium Amytal had been administered through an IV, Chandler asked his son if Michael Jackson had ever touched his penis. Groggily, young Jordie said yes.
Jordie met Michael Jackson because the pop star’s Jeep broke down on the side of the road in Beverly Hills. Jackson was alone, and helpless in a way that few adults are ever helpless. He tried dialing 911, but they told him to refrain from calling an emergency number for non-emergency situations. To his surprise, they refused to aide him even when he told them he was Michael Jackson.
The pop star was spotted by the wife of an employee of a Rent-A-Wreck. She called the shop, and a tow truck was dispatched. Meanwhile, the owner of Rent-a-Wreck, Dave Schwartz, called his wife June Chandler-Schwartz, and told her to come down if she wanted to meet the biggest musical superstar in the world. June was excited, and she brought along her son from a previous marriage, Jordie.
Jackson was shy with all of the adults asking for autographs, but he lit up when he met Jordie. The two became fast friends, and when Jackson was ready to leave, he and Jordie exchanged phone numbers.
Today, of course, this would have been a bit alarming for any parent paying attention. But today’s parents have lived through a series of high profile child-abuse investigations, such as the scandals that rocked the Catholic church and the Penn State football program. In 1993, June Chandler-Schwartz did not have that benefit.
Besides, Jackson had talked openly in the press about his loneliness and his feeling that he never had a childhood. The pop star had struck up a high-profile friendship with Macaulay Culkin, seen in the video above, whose star-turn in the Home Alone franchise made him the most famous child actor since Shirley Temple. And so when Jackson called up Jordie Chandler and invited him, his mother, and his half-sister Lily to the Neverland Ranch, they agreed.
In addition to statues of Peter Pan, Michael Jackson’s 2,000 acre Neverland estate contained a four-acre lake and plenty of animals. As J. Randy Taraborelli writes in his biography Michael Jackson: The Magic, The Madness, The Whole Story, 1958-2009, “There was a zoo with a menagerie of alligators, giraffes, lions, a 12-foot albino python and a 70,000-pound elephant named Gypsy (a present from Elizabeth Taylor)… Of course, Bubbles the chimpanzee also lived on the property, often sitting in the cinema with Michael, eating free candy from the sweets counter… Then, of course, there were the many rides: the Ferris wheel, bumper cars, steam trains… and for the little ones, a carousel, firetrucks and frog hoppers… If any one of the 30 full-time gardeners or 10 ranch hands didn’t smile enough, or seemed otherwise unhappy, he would be dismissed — another necessity. After all, this was supposed to be a happy place.”
For over a year after that first visit to the Neverland Ranch, Jordie and Jackson talked frequently, often several times in the same week. The pop star flew Jordan and his mom around the world, occasionally introducing them to other boys that Jackson considered his friends. June Chandler-Schwartz had asked Jackson if his intentions were sexual, and she believed him when he said no. She was aware of the sleepovers at the Neverland Ranch, and knew that the two shared a bed. Jackson even spent nights at the Chandler-Schwartz household, on the floor of the bedroom that Jordie and Lily shared.
At first, Evan Chandler bragged about the relationship that Jackson had developed with his son and ex-wife. Like June, he accepted expensive gifts from the pop star. But soon he grew suspicious. When he asked Jackson directly if he was trying to have sex with Jordie, Jackson told him that his relationship with Jordie was “cosmic,” which neither answered the question nor put Dr. Chandler’s mind at ease. Some parents might have involved the police, but as Chandler later explained, he didn’t want to ruin Jackson’s career without reason. And so on August 3rd, 1993, he resorted to sodium Amytal.
After Jordie told his dad that he’d been molested, Dr. Chandler still didn’t go to the authorities. Instead, he approached Jackson’s lawyers. Most accounts agree that he asked for $20 million dollars to keep the matter out of the courts and newspapers, and that Jackson refused. In a letter Chandler wrote to his attorney dated August 5th, he said, “I would like you to continue to negotiate with [Jackson’s lawyer] Mr. Pellicano. But if those negotiations are not successful then as your client I am instructing you to file a complaint against Michael Jackson for the sexual assault on my son.” At the bottom of the note, he attached a drawing 13-year-old Jordie had made the night before of a boy jumping off a building and landing in a gory puddle. The drawing seemed to suggest a suicidal mindset. Chandler wrote he was “frightened” and asked his lawyer to work quickly. But for almost two weeks, Chandler continued to negotiate with Jackson instead of going to the police.
Finally, on August 17th, 1993, Evan Chandler made an appointment for Jordie with Dr. Mathis Abrams, a psychiatrist. Chandler told the psychiatrist that Jordie had been molested, knowing Abrams would be legally bound to inform the Department of Children’s Services.
Over the course of three hours, Jordie told Dr. Abrams that his relationship with Jackson had been sexual for months. His details were graphic, including accounts of masturbation and oral sex. A few hours later Jordie was speaking with a Los Angeles County caseworker and an officer with the LAPD.
The caseworker’s 11-page report included Jordie’s detailed description of Jackson’s private parts. According to the report, “Minor also said Mr. Jackson told him about other boys he had done this with, but did not go as far with them. Minor said Mr Jackson tried to make him hate his mother and father, so that he could only go with Mr Jackson.”
On August 23rd, Los Angeles police raided Neverland. Tarborelli paints the scene in his biography, writing: “Michael Jackson was suspected of committing a crime, the police confirmed. However, the officers would not be more specific. Even with the lack of details, the story became the focus of more than 70 news broadcasts and Special Bulletins in the Los Angeles area alone over the course of the next day.” Seventy television news reports, in one city, and in one day! That’s the kind of breathless coverage we associate with elections, wars, and acts of terrorism, not police investigations that have only barely begun.
The story brought out the best in newspaper headline writers, especially the kind that likes to use caps lock. NY Post: “PETER PAN OR PERVERT?” Washington Post: “MALICE IN NEVERLAND?” Newsweek: “Is He Dangerous Or Just Off The Wall?” Time: “Michael Jackson: The End of Innocence?” Remember, Jackson had yet to be charged with a crime.
Now, it’s easy to blame the media for this tempest in a teapot, but that’s not quite right, and for several reasons. First, judging the behavior of the media is almost as ridiculous as judging the behavior of the American people. The American people elected Donald Trump as President, and yet no one in America would claim he’s the most favorable pick of the country. The media are no more unified.
For instance, during this period the Los Angeles Times repeatedly put Michael Jackson on the front page, valuing the police investigation as the most important news story of the day. Time and Newsweek ran pictures of the boy with his face electronically disguised. The London Sun published undisguised pictures of the boy but protected his identity. The New York Daily News went a step further and published the boy’s name.
On the other end of the spectrum, the New York Times ran only a wire report, a news brief, and a single 10-paragraph story. Looking back, it’s easy to praise the Times for their restraint while the rest of the media was going so far over-the-top, but remember that news consumers wanted to hear about Jackson. The Times is one of the world’s largest newspapers, and for that reason, it could afford to ignore consumer demand. How many news organizations could do the same? The media frenzy reflected a frenzy among the people. We could have tuned out, and instead we demanded more.
Meanwhile, Jackson’s lawyers began to push back against the media onslaught, arguing that Dr. Chandler had behaved like an extortionist, and not like a concerned parent. As proof, they produced a remarkable piece of evidence. They were able to produce a tape recording.
Let’s review the facts of the tape recording, as it gets a little confusing.
Dave Schwartz, Jordie Chandler’s step-father and June Chandler-Schwartz’s husband, met with Evan Chandler at Schwartz’s Rent-A-Wreck shop. The purpose of this meeting was to discuss Jordie’s relationship with Jackson. Unbeknownst to Evan Chandler, Dave Schwartz taped the phone call. Since Schwartz and his wife believed Jackson was innocent, they gave the tape to the authorities, who quickly leaked it to the press.
Evan Chandler is unquestionably hostile to Jackson: “This man is going to be humiliated beyond belief. He will not believe what is going to happen to him, beyond his worst nightmares. He will not sell one more record.”
In transcripts of the tape recording, Chandler continues: “Jackson is an evil guy. He is worse than that, and I have the evidence to prove it. If I go through with this, I win big-time. There’s no way I lose. I will get everything I want, and they will be destroyed forever. June will lose [custody of the son] and Michael’s career will be over.” When Schwartz asks how, exactly, the plan is going to help Jordan, Evan said, “That’s irrelevant to me. The bottom line is, yes, his mother is harming him, and Michael is harming him. I can prove that, and I will prove that. It cost me tens of thousands of dollars to get the information I got, and you know I don’t have that kind of money. I’m willing to go down financially. It will be a massacre if I don’t get what I want. It’s going to be bigger than all of us put together.”
It’s not clear what ‘proof’ he’s referring to; in any event, that’s not the most interesting part. No, the interesting detail is the date on which the conversation took place. According to Dave Schwartz, the tape recording was made on July 8th: almost a month before the incident with the sodium Amytal. Almost a month before Jordan, under the influence of that problematic barbiturate, told his dad that he’d been molested, Evan Chandler was already threatening a “massacre” if he didn’t get his way.
In the glamorous world of Hollywood, Evan Chandler was more than just a tourist. Alongside J. David Shapiro, he had written the first draft of a screenplay about Robin Hood that parodied Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. The screenplay was eventually rewritten and directed by Mel Brooks, and was released as Robin Hood: Men In Tights. It stars Cary Elwes and Richard Lewis, and is also Dave Chappelle’s first movie. This might have been made possible because of Chandler’s well-connected clients.
“Evan Chandler, D.D.S. Dentist to the Stars,” is how Carrie Fisher described him in her 2011 memoir Shockaholic. In 1993, Carrie Fisher was a drug addict, and Evan Chandler was her dentist. The two facts are not unconnected.
Fisher writes, “And as [I was] one of the people who would have unnecessary dental work just for the morphine, [Chandler] was one of those people who could arrange such a welcome service.” For the right financial incentives, it was even possible to arrange for morphine to be delivered and administered in a celebrity’s home, no dentistry required. As Fisher tells it, Evan Chandler serviced the rich and famous less as a dentist than a drug dealer.
Perhaps because of her frequent visits, Fisher began to hear a lot of stories. “And so my ‘dentist’ would go on and on about how much his son liked Michael Jackson and, more important, how much Michael Jackson liked his son. And the most disturbing thing I remember him saying was, ‘You know, my son is very good looking.’ Now I ask you – what father talks about his child that way?
“Dr. Chandler’s stories became longer than my treatments. The drugs were wearing off before the story. Not that there was enough dope in the world to make these stories palatable.”
Eventually, Chandler told Fisher that he planned to sue Jackson, and she was not impressed with Chandler’s logic. “Why did he encourage [Jordie] to sleep in the same bed as Michael Jackson to begin with? He did it because he knew somewhere, he would eventually be able to say, ‘Oh, my God! I suddenly realize that this thing between Michael and my son is weird. I’m horrified. My son may have been damaged! And the only thing that can repair this damage is many millions of dollars!’”
Of course, Fisher was close to Jackson — not exactly friends, but as near to friends as the reclusive pop star was able to be. She may be biased, and we should read her words with eyebrows slightly raised. But Fisher’s feelings are clear. “I never thought that Michael’s thing with kids was sexual. Never. Granted, it was miles from appropriate, but just because it wasn’t normal doesn’t mean that it had to be perverse. Those aren’t the only two choices for what can happen between an adult and an unrelated child spending time together.”
In November of 1993, Jackson cancelled the rest of the dates for his Dangerous world tour and went into rehab for painkiller abuse. When he emerged in December, he was summoned to Los Angeles to have his naked body photographed, in order to compare his private parts to a description provided by Jordie Chandler.
Jordie had drawn a diagram of the singer’s genitals on a napkin for the police. He wrote, “Michael is circumcised. He has short pubic hair. His testicles are marked with pink and brown marks. Like a cow, not white but pink colour. [sic]” This isn’t strange when one remembers that Jackson suffered from vitiligo, and for some time had been bleaching his skin.
There was hope the photos would prove Jackson’s innocence or guilt; that they would definitely show whether Jordie had seen Jackson naked or not. But the evidence was inconclusive. Jackson did have short pubic hair as Jordie had said, and his testicles were indeed spotted pink and brown. But Jackson was uncircumcised. Did this mean Jordie was lying? Or did this only mean that Jordie had seen Jackson’s penis erect, and couldn’t tell the difference between circumcised and uncircumcised in that state?
Meanwhile, the media circus continued, and Jackson’s sister LaToya took center stage. She claimed to have damning evidence proving that Jackson was a pedophile, and she was willing to sell it to the highest bidder. Several media outlets were interested, but negotiations fell apart when they began to believe LaToya was lying. Eventually, she recanted, saying Michael was innocent and that she had been coerced into claiming otherwise by her husband, Jack.
The police interviewed about 30 other children who had spent considerable time alone with Jackson, many of whom had also spent the night in bed with the King of Pop. None of those children said that anything sexual had transpired. And despite a flood of Jackson’s ex-staff — housekeepers, gardeners, cooks and more — speaking to the press and guessing what had happened behind closed doors, nobody had actually seen a crime committed.
With no other witnesses besides Jordie Chandler, and with the best evidence being Jordie’s partially-correct description of Jackson’s genitals, there are a number of experts who believe that Jackson would have been found innocent in the pending civil suit. What’s more, it would have taken months or years to be resolved, and might have required the reclusive pop star — never the most stable of personalities — to take the stand. Perhaps this is why, on January 25th, Jackson agreed to pay $20 million dollars to Jordie and $1 million each to parents Evan and June Chandler. The settlement included no admission of guilt. The police investigation resulted in no criminal charges, citing a lack of evidence.
Now, our criminal justice system is far from perfect, and considering the events that followed, it’s fair to wonder if justice was served. After all, alleged victims of sexual assault are often labelled liars, and their every action held under a microscope to be scrutinized and judged. That certainly happened here. Furthermore, wealthy individuals have an easier time avoiding justice, and Michael Jackson was almost unfathomably rich.
On the other hand, America incarcerates blacks at significantly higher rates than whites; for instance, according to the ACLU, “Despite roughly even usage rates, blacks are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana.” And Jackson, with his long hair and makeup, challenged traditional gender stereotypes, leading unsympathetic members of the press to ridicule his masculinity and nickname him, “Wacko Jacko.” It’s possible that neither plaintiff nor defendant were treated fairly.
Of course, this isn’t the end of the story. In fact, the whole sequence of events was repeated, with only slight variations, 10 years later.
Briefly: In the year 2000, Gavin Arvizo met Michael Jackson while being treated for cancer. Jackson gave financial support to the family and took Gavin, his brother, and their mother Janet to Neverland several times. On February 3rd of 2003, a documentary called Living With Michael Jackson was broadcast, which showed Jackson spending time with the then-13 year-old Gavin. Jackson mentioned that they occasionally slept in the same bed. A new media frenzy ensued, along with a new investigation by the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department. At first, Arvizo denied that Jackson had molested him, but later changed his story.
Shortly after Arvizo made these accusations, the credibility of his parents came into question. In 1998, the whole Arvizo family was caught shoplifting at a J.C. Penney’s. Janet and her ex-husband, David, had loaded the children up with an armload of clothes and sent them to the car, expecting that the children wouldn’t be challenged. They were stopped by security guards and all four of them were briefly detained. Later, Janet claimed she had been assaulted, suffering bruises and even broken bones. The Arvizo’s sued J.C. Penney’s, but Janet Arvizo’s story of the events kept changing. Two years later, she added a new detail: that one of the security guards had fondled her breasts and pelvis, “for up to seven minutes.” Before the lawsuit went to court, Gavin and his brother were discovered to have taken acting lessons. J.C. Penny’s settled out of court for $152,000. Then, in 2002 and 2003, father David Arvizo pled no contest to counts of spousal and child abuse.
Back in 1993, Dr. Evan Chandler had hired Larry Feldman to be his attorney and consulted with a child psychiatrist named Stan Katz. In 2003, Janet Arvizo hired the same Larry Feldman to be her attorney, and consulted with the same child psychiatrist, Stan Katz. This time, Jackson refused to settle out of court and criminal charges were brought against the pop star. More children were interviewed, including Macaulay Culkin, and none came forward with more allegations.
The trial took six months, and consumers demanded almost constant coverage. Some journalists refused to pander. Others? Not so much.
“LEAVING FOR LUNCH BREAK” screams the banner headline. The trial hasn’t even begun yet; MSNBC is covering the jury selection. After five seconds of footage featuring Jackson walking to his car, we’re treated to an incredibly dull interview with Mike Taibbi. And no, it’s not Taibbi’s fault — he’s an award-winning journalist who has covered presidents and wars. With this particular story, however, he has nothing interesting to say, if only because nothing has happened — of course, that’s not what the news would have you believe. Here’s a breakdown of what follows:
01. While we’re looking at live footage of Jackson, we’re informed of what clothes he’s currently wearing.
02. Taibbi tells us he did not know that defendants were allowed to make eye contact with jurors. This story takes a long time.
03. We learn that the prospective jurors receive instruction on their duties as jurors, and that many of them tried to get out of jury duty. Will the surprises never end?
04. NBC sent over 30 journalists to cover the first day of jury selection! There were over 1200 journalists there in total!
At least MSNBC’s tone is respectful; other news organizations couldn’t be bothered. “King of Freaks” is how the New York Post referred to him, along with, “Peter Pan wannabe.” In an article called “Wacko Jacko,” Fox News correspondent John Gibson takes it for granted that Jackson will be convicted and encourages the pop star to “drop by the weight pile” if he wants to survive his jail sentence. The manner in which he casually emasculates Jackson is common in the worst of these articles; Jackson’s high voice, makeup, and long hair emboldened a certain type of chauvinist.
The low point, though, came in an essay that has since been scrubbed from the web. The Sun, Britain’s largest newspaper, referred to him as a “freak,” a “twisted individual,” and “an ex-black superstar.” For dozens of journalists and news organizations, Jackson wasn’t just guilty, he was a monster. For this reason, many well-informed people around the world were shocked when the trial ended and the jury returned their verdict: not guilty on all charges.
Several years after Michael Jackson’s death, two other accusers came forward, claiming years of sexual abuse and suing the Jackson estate for millions of dollars in damages. Decades earlier, both James Safechuck and Wade Robson had testified that they had never been molested, and both men claimed, separately, that they were only able to remember the abuse after years of therapy. The suit was thrown out because too much time had passed, and because they had no proof to back up their claims. For those same reasons, we’ll leave them without further comment. A revised lawsuit is wending its slow way through the courts, but it is unlikely to turn up any new evidence.
To the best of this writer’s research, that brings the total number of accusations to four: Jordie Chandler, Gavin Arizo, James Safechuck and Wade Robson, and in each case, the evidence is sparse, even contradictory. What are we to make of this mess?
The facts of the case are consistent with Michael Jackson as a serial molester with good lawyers who successfully smeared his innocent victims. After all, he could surely purchase a smear campaign with the reported $5 million he spent on his 2003 trial alone. Even if you’re feeling generous, the best you can say of the pop star is that he behaved in an inappropriate manner with dozens of children over more than 10 years.
But with only four exceptions, those dozens of children have told a different story. To the police, to the press, and to the courts, only four of the many children who have shared a bed with Jackson claimed that they were molested. Evan Chandler’s behavior — involving lawyers before police, using the drug sodium Amytal, gloating about bringing Jackson down — undermines Jordie’s story. And the Arvizo family, with their previous lawsuit against J.C. Penney’s, and their decision to hire the same lawyer and psychiatrist that had won $20 million for the Chandlers, are even more problematic. With Safechuck and Robson, who can know after such a long time? The facts of the case are consistent with Jackson as a victim of blackmail.
So which is it? Innocent? Guilty? Somewhere in between? We’ll never know, and that’s why Michael Jackson’s story is important.
There is a tendency with true crime to want to play amateur detective; to pull out our magnifying glass, put on Sherlock’s hat, and reach our own conclusions. “Truth will out,” says the Bard, but that’s not actually true. Facts have a habit of slipping through the fingers. The media is inconsistent, and it is possible to be well-informed and still be wrong.
Michael Jackson is guilty. Michael Jackson is innocent. He’s both at the same time, an antidote to convictions and certainty. We must content ourselves with being stuck in the dark, tripping over unanswered questions, surrounded by all that we do not understand.
(Editor’s Note: This article pulled from the aforementioned biography by J. Randy Taraborelli, as well as reports by The Washington Post, BBC News, ABC News, New York Daily News, and quotes from Carrie Fisher.)