'Michael is, like, my best friend'

Holding vigil at the gates of Neverland, fans wait for a glimpse of Michael Jackson, horrified at the child-sex charges against the star they say is just a boy who wouldn’t grow up.

A wave from their idol out of a car window stirs a frenzy of excitement, but the hardcore supporters insist they have not come to stargaze.

They say they have travelled from across the United States or from Europe to show their support for the “King of Pop”, whose child-sex trial they see as a vendetta by a district attorney jealous of Jackson’s fame, talent and money.

Dozens of them spend their weekends at the gates of the entertainer’s fantasy-themed Neverland ranch, clad in T-shirts bearing Jackson’s likeness, painting banners proclaiming his innocence and discussing the week’s proceedings at the courtroom in the nearby Californian town of Santa Maria.

Many sit inside the courtroom on weekdays, or stand outside chanting their love and devotion for the frail, pale man widely seen as the world’s most famous entertainer.

Most of the fans, now in their early 20s, were young children when the pop singer was at the height of his fame, but they know every one of his songs and celebrated dance steps.

But a few grew up with Jackson’s music when he and his siblings performed as the Jackson Five. Among them is Wiedjar Sewgobind, a 39-year-old Dutch national born in Surinam, who says he has no doubt Jackson would not hurt a child.

“If there was any evidence he had ever done anything like that, I would not be here,” says Sewgobind, a technical engineer who regularly travels to California from Amsterdam to show his support for the embattled singer.

Jackson has said he enjoys sharing his bed with children, but insists the sleepovers are innocent and denies the charges he fondled a 13-year-old boy two years ago.

And Sewgobind is convinced Jackson’s lawyers have clearly demonstrated his innocence in the 11 weeks since opening arguments.

“There is no case, it collapsed,” he says, sitting on a low wall outside Neverland, watching fellow fans share a picnic and enjoying the view of the rolling hills that hide the estate’s amusement park, petting zoo and spacious residences.

He smiles when he recalls how Jackson stopped briefly on his way in a few days ago, handing out autographs and thanking the fans for their support.

“He is very shy,” says Sewgobind.

BJ Hickman, who says he has received awards for being such a loyal fan, admits he was ecstatic when his idol gave him an autographed photograph of himself performing his famed “moonwalk”.

“Michael is, like, my best friend,” gushes Hickman (20), who quit his job in Tennessee to be closer to the 46-year-old father of three he says he loves.

There is no question in his mind Jackson couldn’t possibly have committed the crimes of which he is accused.

“He is innocent until proven innocent.”

Vanessa Castro (13) agrees, and says she’ll continue showing up outside the courtroom—on her way to school—every weekday to proclaim Jackson’s innocence.

Another regular is Vanessa Casal (25), who travelled from Barcelona to give support to the man she says “could not possibly be guilty”.

“What’s happening is unjust, particularly after everything he has done for children’s charities.”

“He’s given a new life to sick children, he cured them from cancer,” she says, in an apparent reference to Jackson’s young accuser who was recovering from a cancer doctors thought would kill him, when he first met the entertainer.

She admits, though, that her colleagues back in Spain thought she was nuts when she quit her job as an administrator to be closer to her idol, but understand her better now that she has told them what is going on in the courtroom.

“The prosecution has no case,” she says.—Sapa-AFP


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