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Earlier Probe Cleared Jackson

Times Staff Writers

Months before Santa Barbara County officials arrested Michael Jackson on suspicion of child molestation, Los Angeles County child welfare investigators had determined there was no basis to believe the boy involved in the case had been abused, according to a confidential memo revealed Tuesday.

The Nov. 26 memo, disclosed on a Web site called The Smoking Gun, said Los Angeles County officials began their investigation after a call from an unidentified school official urging a probe into broadcast comments by Jackson. A Feb. 6 segment of ABC-TV’s “20/20" showed Jackson holding hands with the boy and saying they had spent the night in the same room.

Jennifer Hottenroth, assistant regional administrator for the child services agency, wrote in the memo that the boy, his mother, brother and sister denied any sexual abuse. The mother said Jackson was like a father to her children, Hottenroth wrote.

“The investigation by the Sensitive Case Unit [Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services] concluded the allegations of neglect and sexual abuse to be unfounded, both by the LAPD Wilshire Division and the department,” Hottenroth wrote.

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Santa Barbara County Dist. Atty. Tom Sneddon and Sheriff Jim Anderson issued a joint statement early Tuesday afternoon dismissing the memo as having only minor importance in their case against Jackson.

“Our investigators were aware of the contents of the interviews prior to seeking the search warrants and the arrest warrant for Mr. Jackson,” the statement said. “The report and its contents, along with the totality of the investigation and the circumstances and the timing under which the statements were given, were provided to the judge at the time that the search and arrest warrants were issued.”

Jackson, 45, who was arrested Nov. 20 in Santa Barbara, has called the allegations against him “a big lie.” He is scheduled to be arraigned Jan. 9.

The self-proclaimed King of Pop met the boy, who was 12 at the time of the alleged crimes, while the youngster was undergoing treatment for cancer. The boy alleges that Jackson molested him several times last winter during visits to the entertainer’s Santa Ynez Valley compound.

The disclosure that Los Angeles County authorities were told by the boy and his family earlier this year that nothing improper had taken place on Jackson’s Neverland Ranch prompted defense attorney Mark Geragos to call on Santa Barbara County officials to drop the case.

“This revelation of the investigation is merely the tip of the iceberg, and shows that Michael is not only innocent, but that all of this is much ado about money,” said Geragos, who had been hired by Jackson before the “20/20" segment aired.

Legal experts said the initial denials by the boy and his mother could significantly help the defense case by establishing that Jackson’s accusers had made inconsistent statements in the nine months since the broadcast.

“This looks really important to the defense,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, an expert in criminal law at USC. “It could be sufficient evidence that this never goes to trial. But we don’t know what the prosecution has. It would take something like films of Michael and the boy or eyewitnesses, if the prosecution has such things.”

A Los Angeles lawyer who has successfully defended priests and others accused of sexual abuse called the memo a major setback for the prosecution. “Any time there have been denials of sexual abuse and then there is 180 degrees turnabout, you got a problem as a prosecutor bringing that case,” said attorney Donald Steier.

Laurie Levenson, a professor of criminal law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said, “On the face of it, this report is very damning.” But Levenson added that she would be shocked if Sneddon, an experienced prosecutor, was not prepared to respond.

Robert Pugsley, a criminal law professor at Southwestern School of Law in Los Angeles, agreed that the February denials would be an important tool for Geragos. But he also warned that the prosecution’s evidence could turn out to be more persuasive.

The prosecution is likely to counter that the mother’s story began to change after her initial interviews only because she subsequently learned that Jackson had been giving her son wine, sources said.

The mother then grew increasingly suspicious and contacted attorney Larry Feldman, who put her in touch with a therapist who elicited the boy’s later account that he had been molested several times by Jackson, one source said.

Feldman then set up a June 12 meeting with David Sanders, head of the Los Angeles County children’s services department, the source said.

The child abuse charges were reported to Santa Barbara officials the next day by Feldman, the source said.

Though the memo written by Hottenroth said both the Los Angeles Police Department and her agency had found the allegations to be “unfounded,” the LAPD said the only police involvement in the February investigation was an unsuccessful attempt to interview the family.

Sanders confirmed Tuesday that the memo was legitimate.

“This was an absolutely confidential document that was clearly leaked. That is at least a firing offense, if not a criminal act,” he said. An investigation into who leaked the memo was started early Tuesday.

Several sources, including Bill Bastone, editor of the Smoking Gun Web site, said there are obviously many other documents that have not yet been revealed. “There has to be a whole case file, interview notes with the mother and the kids,” he said.

Though Jackson was arrested on multiple counts of child molestation, Santa Barbara County prosecutors have not yet filed a formal criminal complaint against him.

Sneddon first said he would do so after Thanksgiving and later pushed back that timetable.

Times reporters Andrew Blankstein, Sue Fox and Josh Meyer contributed to this report.


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