The two-part documentary Leaving Neverland, which began airing on HBO on Sunday night, tells the story of two men, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who accuse Michael Jackson of having sexually abused them for years, beginning when they were respectively about seven and 10 years old.
Michael Jackson’s estate continues to deny all allegations, as the entertainer did in his lifetime. His estate has sued HBO for distributing the Dan Reed-directed documentary, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January; in its filings, the estate called Leaving Neverland a “posthumous character assassination.”
It’s no secret that, before and even after his death in 2009, Jackson was the subject of multiple sexual abuse accusations and police investigations as well as civil and criminal lawsuits. This timeline lays out key dates, known allegations and the main accusations the artist and his estate have faced, going back more than a quarter century.
December 1986: James Safechuck meets Michael Jackson on a Pepsi ad set
A 10-year-old California boy, James (Jimmy) Safechuck, is hired to appear in a Pepsi commercial alongside Michael Jackson. In Leaving Neverland, Safechuck says that Jackson befriended him and his family after the ad began airing, that the singer was immediately generous to him and allegedly began lavishing him with gifts — including, Safechuck says, his jacket from the “Thriller” video. Safechuck and his family also say that Jackson began flying them for visits and on vacations.
On one such trip to Hawaii, Safechuck alleges, Michael Jackson first asked the boy to sleep with him in his bed.
August 1993: Los Angeles police begin investigating Jackson
The Los Angeles Times reports that the LAPD has begun investigating Jackson based on allegations that he possibly molested four children, including a 13-year-old boy. (The boy is mentioned by name and in photos in Leaving Neverland.)
The police find no incriminating evidence at Jackson’s Neverland ranch, nor at his Los Angeles condominium.
In a lengthy report published the following January, Vanity Fair — calling the boy “Jamie” — publishes the 13-year-old and his family’s allegations. The boy’s lawyer tells the magazine, “Michael was in love with the boy.”
The family says that Jackson argued with Jamie’s mother about sleeping in the same bed with him, saying, according to Vanity Fair, “Why don’t you trust me? If we’re a family, you’ve got to think of me as a brother. Why make me feel so bad? This is a bond. It’s not about sex. This is something special.” From that point onwards, the family claims, Jamie slept with Jackson nearly every night for the next several months.
September 1993: One family files suit against Jackson
In the filing, a family — whose child is ostensibly the 13-year-old boy referred to as “Jamie” by Vanity Fair — alleges that Jackson had “repeatedly committed sexual battery” on their son.
Jackson’s team maintains that the suit is part of an attempt to extort the star for $20 million. More than a decade later, however, Court TV reveals in a 2004 report that Jackson settled the suit for even more than that. As part of the settlement, the singer denied any “wrongful acts.”
In September 1994, prosecutors announce that they are not filing criminal charges against Jackson involving three boys — because the “primary alleged victim” declined to testify.
In the course of the investigation and ensuing civil case, Jackson and his team put various young boys on the witness stand and in front of cameras.
One is 10-year-old Wade Robson, an Australian boy who first met the megastar five years earlier, when he won a Michael Jackson dance contest in Brisbane. Within a few years, Robson had moved with his mother to Los Angeles with Jackson’s encouragement.
In 1993, Robson’s mother talked to CNN about her child’s “slumber parties” with the singer.
“They play so hard, they fall asleep, they’re exhausted,” she tells the interviewer. “There’s nothing more to it than that.”
In Leaving Neverland, Robson says: “I was excited by the idea of being able to defend him. And being able to save him.”
February 2003: Living with Michael Jackson documentary airs in the U.K. and U.S.
The documentary, reported by journalist Martin Bashir, includes footage of Jackson holding hands with and cradling a young teenager, then identified as a cancer survivor, and says that they share a bed. Both Jackson and the boy deny that anything untoward is going on. “My greatest inspiration comes from kids,” Jackson says to Bashir indignantly, while holding onto the child. “It’s all inspired from that level of innocence, that consciousness of purity.”
After the documentary airs, Jackson issues a statement denying any wrongdoing, and says that he is “devastated” by Bashir’s portrayal of him. Nevertheless, Living with Michael Jackson sparks a criminal investigation.
November 20, 2003: Police book Jackson on child molestation charges
Two days after raiding Neverland, Jackson’s famous ranch in Santa Barbara County, Calif., the sheriff’s office arrests Jackson on charges of child molestation, but does not immediately disclose details of the charges or identify the victim.
Jackson’s lawyer, Mark Geragos, calls the charges “a big lie.” After posting $3 million in bail the same day and surrendering his passport, Jackson is allowed to go free as he awaits trial.
Jackson is eventually indicted on 10 criminal counts, including child molestation, abduction, false imprisonment and extortion.
February 28, 2005: Jackson’s criminal case goes to trial
After being charged in late 2003 and then given additional charges the following April, Jackson is put on trial. The victim is identified as Gavin Arvizo, the young man who appeared in the Bashir documentary; he is among those who testify at the trial.
Among those testifying in Jackson’s defense are actor Macaulay Culkin, James Safechuck and Wade Robson. (By 2005, Robson is a noted choreographer and songwriter, who has created dance routines for the likes of Britney Spears and ‘NSYNC, and who has already had his own show on MTV.)
They are described as “special friends” of Jackson who have slept with the singer in his bed. The men deny that Jackson has touched them or otherwise acted inappropriately. According to The Washington Post, Robson’s mother, Joy, says of the singer: “Unless you know him, it’s hard to understand him. … He’s not the boy next door.”
Gavin Arvizo is now aged 14, and says on the stand that Jackson masturbated him; Gavin’s brother corroborates his claim, and says that Jackson gave them alcohol and showed them pornography. Gavin’s mother, Janet Arvizo, also appears as a witness; the BBC describes her testimony as “combative and rambling.” A former member of Jackson’s household staff, Blanca Francia, testifies that she saw the singer taking a shower with Robson. Francia’s son also alleges that Jackson has molested him.
Years later, both Robson and Safechuck say that they lied at the trial.
June 13, 2005: Jackson is acquitted of all criminal charges
After a trial that had a circus-like atmosphere and whose proceedings seemed to sometimes be upstaged by Jackson’s antics (including showing up late in pajamas on one occasion), the singer is acquitted of all charges. At least some of the jurors seem to place the onus on the alleged victim’s mother, Janet Arvizo. according to NPR. Allowing a child to sleep with any non-family member, one of the female jurors asks, according to NPR, “What mother in her right mind would allow that to happen?”
June 25, 2009: Michael Jackson dies, age 50
The singer is found unresponsive at his home in Holmby Hills, Calif. At the time of his death, his family releases a statement saying that it is believed that he died of cardiac arrest.
On Nov. 11, 2011, a doctor, Conrad Murray, is found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in Jackson’s death for having administered a deadly dose of the anesthetic propofol.
During the trial, the New York Times reports that Murray, who had been hired as Jackson’s personal physician, “had stayed with Jackson at least six nights a week and was regularly asked — and sometimes begged — by the insomniac singer to give him drugs powerful enough to put him to sleep.”
2013-2014: Wade Robson and James Safechuck file suits against the Jackson estate and his companies
The Daily Beast reports in 2013 that after very publicly and repeatedly defending Jackson, Robson now says that Jackson sexually molested him for seven years.
Two years later, in May 2015, a judge in Los Angeles County Superior Court, Mitchell L. Beckloff, dismisses Robson’s suit against the estate, saying that he waited too long to file his claim. In December 2017, the same judge dismisses the rest of Robson’s suit, filed against Jackson’s two companies, MJJ Productions and MJJ Ventures, because the two corporations could not be found liable for Jackson’s alleged behavior. Notably, neither of these judgments address the credibility of Robson’s accusations.
James Safechuck files a similar suit against MJJ Productions and MJJ Ventures in 2014, alleging that Jackson abused him on “hundreds” of occasions between 1988 and 1992. Beckloff, who is also the presiding judge in this suit, rejects Safechuck’s suit in June 2017 on the same grounds he gave Robson.
March 3, 2019: Leaving Neverland begins airing on HBO
After debuting at Sundance in late January, the two-part, four-hour documentary begins airing. Jackson’s estate has already filed suit against the network, claiming that damages could exceed $100 million. Its petition begins: “Michael Jackson is innocent. Period.”
The estate also argues that HBO has violated a non-disparagement agreement that it made with the singer in order to air a concert special, Live in Bucharest: The Dangerous Tour, back in 1992. (That program was a megahit when it aired, scoring HBO its highest-rated special ever at that time.) In a bid for positive counter-programming, Jackson’s estate releases the 1992 film on YouTube at the same time as Leaving Neverland‘s broadcast premiere.
“In producing this fictional work,” the suit continues, “HBO ignored its contractual obligations to Michael and his companies by disparaging both him and the Dangerous World Tour that HBO had previously profited from immensely.” The estate also calls Robson and Safechuck “two admitted perjurers,” and accuses them of “practicing their stories and rehearsing their lines … for years now.”
In an interview on All Things Considered, filmmaker Dan Reed says that two different threads drew him to telling the two men’s stories.
“It’s the complexity that drew me into wanting to really tell the story,” Reed says, “which is that in an abusive pedophile relationship there is both love, affection, mentoring, friendship, caring — and there is sexual abuse. Those two things coexist.”
Additional reporting by NPR’s Elizabeth Blair.