The instant the phone call arrived, Anthony Pellicano knew there was trouble--possibly big trouble. The caller told him there had been a raid. Police had confiscated photos and videotapes from the homes of the private investigator's top client, pop superstar Michael Jackson.
For Pellicano, who was accompanying the singer on the Asian leg of a world concert tour, the bombshell was sufficiently jarring to prompt his own phone call moments later to Los Angeles, where it was not yet dawn.
"Wake up," Pellicano told an old ally, criminal attorney Howard Weitzman, whose high-profile legal battles have been waged on behalf of former auto maker John DeLorean, actress Kim Basinger and, most recently, a Columbia Studios executive rumored to have crossed paths with alleged Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss. This time, it was Jackson who needed him, Pellicano said to Weitzman.
The move, reuniting an investigator-attorney team that had prevailed despite videotaped evidence in DeLorean's 1984 cocaine trafficking trial, was a key step in a hurried, increasingly complex effort to defend Jackson against allegations that he had molested a 13-year-old boy.
The storm unleashed by the charges has created a revealing, and especially difficult, test for the star-making machinery that shapes and protects the multimillion-dollar images of America's top entertainers. In Jackson's case, the damage control is being carried out in several countries by a cadre of high-powered attorneys, private investigators, marketing experts and publicists.
Typically, the response to such crises involves crafting counterattacks against the credibility of the accusers, even as the star's investigators and lawyers work behind the scenes, collecting evidence and trying to "neutralize" unfavorable witnesses, according to specialists in the field. Celebrity friends often are trotted out as character witnesses on behalf of the accused, making endorsements much as they might for a new clothing line or a luxury car. The star's reply to the allegations is carefully measured by strategists, and public access is strictly controlled.
Although sex scandals have marred Hollywood careers from Fatty Arbuckle to Woody Allen, few, if any, episodes have so seriously threatened a pop culture figure of Jackson's stature. Despite declining record sales in recent years, the enigmatic singer remains a music industry colossus--a regular on the Forbes' roll of top-grossing entertainers.
With his trademark glove and dangling locks, Jackson has moonwalked to the pinnacle of a one-man empire. Not only is he an international product symbol for Pepsico, but he boasts a line of personal fragrances, newly repackaged and remarketed, and has made overtures in recent months toward filmmaking. Through his Heal the World Foundation, the singer has donated millions of dollars to charity while gaining renown as a benefactor of young children. That reputation, especially, seemed vulnerable to the allegations.
As the Aug. 21 police raid threatened to spill the accusations into the public realm, Pellicano sought to act quickly, enlisting Weitzman's services before flying from Bangkok, Thailand, to Los Angeles.
Even the first sketchy media accounts of the investigation, which surfaced a few days later, contained Pellicano's spin on the case. Initial reports contained no reference to molestation, but quoted the investigator saying police were acting on "an extortion attempt gone awry."
That assertion, augmented by Pellicano later with details of alleged meetings with the father of the 13-year-old boy, was consistent with the strong style of counterattack favored by Pellicano and Weitzman, according to one prominent Hollywood attorney who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"All effective litigators understand, in my opinion, that the best defense is a good offense," noted the lawyer, a specialist in celebrity cases. "Weitzman is a shrewd, tough litigator . . . very competitive. He made his reputation getting DeLorean off (in the drug-trafficking case). That was no mean feat. He put the government on trial for its tactics in that sting."
Strategy for Jackson's defense, Weitzman said, is being mapped out through constant communication among Weitzman, Pellicano and Jackson's entertainment attorney, Bertram Fields. "Michael is kept regularly advised," Weitzman said. "I talk to him almost daily. I know that Anthony and Bert talk to him almost daily."
One goal of the strategy, the attorney said, is to deal with the "media frenzy." "You try the best you can to contain the wild rumors and speculation," he said.
Even more than Weitzman, the feisty, freewheeling Pellicano has kept a high public profile. Even Jackson's longtime spokesman, Lee Solters, referred all media calls to the private investigator. Those inquiries totaled 700 in the first week alone.
While sifting through the interview requests, Pellicano and Weitzman began dealing privately with the Los Angeles Police Department, providing information that led the LAPD to open an investigation into the alleged extortion attempt.
The private eye also tracked down child friends of Jackson who might help paint a positive image of the singer. In one of several interviews with The Times, the investigator described his role as that of a far-ranging problem-solver: "I had to lay out the chessboard and say: 'What does the public think? How will this affect Michael and all of the other deals that are in the works for him? And the sponsors involved?'
"I have to let the public know (his side)," said Pellicano, who says he has worked for Jackson for four years. "I'm like some guy sitting at a computer control panel. And if something is not going right in a certain direction, I have to make it go right."
The investigative work in such a case is often vital, according to other private detectives. Don Crutchfield, a veteran Hollywood private eye who closely follows celebrity cases, cited two examples.
In one, boxing champion Mike Tyson was convicted last year of raping an Indiana beauty contestant, even though witnesses who turned up later offered evidence that the woman encouraged his advances, Crutchfield said. By contrast, William Kennedy Smith, accused of raping a woman at his family's West Palm Beach estate in 1991, was acquitted by a jury after only 77 minutes of deliberations.
In the Smith case, private investigators interviewed more than 100 people in piecing together a portrait of the woman who leveled the charge. The siege was such that the woman's attorney in published reports accused the sleuths of witness tampering and obstruction of justice.
Crutchfield, who was in Florida at the time but did not work on the case, noted that Smith's investigators were "already up and running before the charges were even filed. They got to the witnesses before the police did, and it was very important. That's what it's all about."
A skilled detective can obtain damaging information about the accusers--including prior criminal or psychological histories, if any--and plant seeds of doubt in the minds of potential prosecution witnesses, Crutchfield added.
"I can talk to somebody, and by the time I get through talking to them I can convince them they didn't see what they actually saw," Crutchfield said. "I've done it before. By the time you get through, you've just neutralized them. They're no good to anybody--but that's good."
Dealing with children is especially tricky because their accounts of events sometimes can change, according to Crutchfield and legal experts. And attacking the credibility of children who are the accusers runs the risk of alienating the public.
In spite of those dangers, Pellicano seemed to score a winner several days after the scandal broke when an Australian youngster appeared on CNN television, some experts said. The child was found by police in one of Jackson's residences at the time of the raid, and was interviewed by LAPD investigators before he was questioned by Pellicano.
After Pellicano made the child available to CNN, the child talked of sleeping in the same bed with Jackson, but said that the singer never improperly touched him. "I'll tell you what, he was good," Crutchfield said. "They couldn't have picked anybody better."
By then, however, critics of Jackson's defense had begun to wonder why the reclusive singer was not taking a more direct role in protecting his multimillion-dollar image. Except for a brief statement denying wrongdoing, Jackson has not commented directly on the allegations.
"He's got to make a statement," suggested Noreen Jenney,president of Woodland Hills-based Celebrity Endorsement Network, a firm that lines up stars with advertisers, including Anheuser-Busch and Revlon. "If you're a Michael Jackson fan . . . you're going to believe him more than you're going to believe his attorneys."
Jackson still has not spoken to news media. Weitzman rejected any suggestion that the singer should do so. In defending his strategy, the attorney said: "I've been in this fishbowl before. I've represented a number of high-profile people before. I'm not doing anything differently."
In an interview several days after the first news reports, Jenney fretted about the silence among Jackson's prominent pals. "He needs to call on his celebrated friends," she said. "Elizabeth Taylor's got credibility. Those people need to come out in his defense, and they've got to do it soon."
As if on cue, Taylor arrived by jet in Singapore on Aug. 29, joining Jackson's concert tour to show her support. The next day, Jackson's mother and other family members spoke out on his behalf at a news conference. Former teen-age actor Corey Feldman, a star in the film "Stand By Me," expressed his support for Jackson in an appearance on the television news.
Pellicano followed by giving previously undisclosed details of the alleged extortion attempt. In phone calls and meetings spanning six weeks, Pellicano alleged during interviews, the boy's father had threatened to ruin Jackson's career unless Jackson paid $20 million in a series of movie development deals.
Those accusations from the Jackson camp fostered their own whirl of controversy. Neither the boy's father, mother, stepfather or their attorneys would comment publicly on the stream of allegations from Pellicano. But a new voice, Chicago sleuth Ernie Rizzo, waded in to brand Pellicano's story a fabrication. Rizzo claimed to represent all three parents, an assertion that was quickly disputed by a new attorney hired by the father.
Amid the confusion, some other private investigators raised questions about Pellicano's approach. Why, they wondered, did Pellicano tell the media that he had not tape-recorded the alleged extortion demands? Under California law, the secret taping of phone calls is allowed if there is reasonable fear of extortion. That would have been a sure-fire way to document the allegation.
The same critics noted that Pellicano, who has worked for the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Kevin Costner and the National Enquirer, had gained a reputation for cleverly choosing when and how to play his cards. A 1992 profile of the investigator in GQ magazine--which ran under the headline, "The Big Sleazy"--quoted the investigator on the subject of extortionists. He starts out by "appealing to their sense of values," Pellicano was quoted as saying. "If they don't have any, then I have to counter-blackmail 'em."
Pellicano appeared at a news conference with Weitzman on Wednesday and released a tape, one Pellicano said he made just before the scandal broke. In the 23-minute tape, he said, he was talking to the father's attorney about the demands--but no demands were stated explicitly on the tape.
"We didn't release the tape earlier because we didn't think it was necessary," Weitzman said. "It was just a strategy we employed."
While the story took daily twists and turns, the marketing machinery surrounding Jackson braced for further developments. Pepsi officials, who had entered an 18-month, multimillion-dollar agreement to sponsor Jackson's "Dangerous" tour, agonized over whether to keep the show on the road through mid-December.
"We're not sure what the tour plans are right now," conceded Pepsi spokesman Andrew Giangola. "We're following the investigation very closely. At the same time, we don't want to prejudge the situation. Right now, there are very few facts."
Whatever happens, the aftereffects are likely to bubble into Pepsi's cola war with Coke.
"Jackson is the major reason that Pepsi has picked up two market share points (in overall soft drink sales) over the past decade," said Jesse Myers, publisher of Beverage Digest. Myers noted that each share point is worth about $470 million in annual sales.
Sales of Jackson's most recent album, "Dangerous," fell a few notches on the Billboard charts last week, from 40 to 44. Industry analysts noted that the sales were falling two weeks before the scandal broke and that such a decline may be normal for an album released more than a year earlier. The album's estimated worldwide sales figure is 20 million copies.
Meanwhile, Jackson's line of fragrances, reintroduced in the U.S. market this summer after disappointing sales a year ago, have not been hurt by the publicity, according to Ann Mitchell, president of Jean Pierre Sand USA, which distributes the line.
"We all wish this publicity was not going on, but it doesn't seem to have damaged our sales," said Mitchell, who said the company hopes to sell up to 500,000 units in the United States by year's end. There was no thought of pulling the fragrances off the market, she added.
Nonetheless, marketing experts said Jackson would have to make strong efforts to rebuild his image, even if no criminal charges are filed against him. He might have to redouble his efforts for charity, one analyst said. Or he might have to step forward to offer candid accounts of his side to sources such as Barbara Walters and People magazine, as tennis star Billie Jean King did more than a decade ago.
King, who was sued by a former female lover, took the offensive in that scandal by frankly acknowledging the affair, said her publicist at the time, Pat Kingsley. Still, plans for a new clothing line fell through.
"We were trying to save her career," Kingsley said. "We didn't really succeed. We succeeded with the public--they poured out their affection for her. But the advertisers did not support her and that's where an athlete makes money. All of the endorsements dried up."
Jenney, the head of the Woodland Hills celebrity service, predicted that Pepsi and other accounts might dry up for Jackson, as well.
"This is going to have a negative effect on Michael Jackson for the rest of his life, no matter what," she said. "Kids products? He can forget it. I don't think he'll be out there hawking McDonald's (or) toy companies. There's irreparable damage."
Times staff writers Claudia Eller and Bruce Horovitz contributed to this story.
* JACKSON'S ACCUSER: Alleged victim wants his day in court, boy's lawyer says. B1