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2 Ex-Neverland Guards Sought Witness Protection, Officer Says

Times Staff Writer

Two guards at Michael Jackson’s Neverland ranch were so frightened of reprisals in 1994 for their pending grand jury testimony that they secretly met with prosecutors to ask about placement in a federal witness protection program, according to testimony Monday from a Santa Barbara County sheriff’s commander.

The officer, Russ Birchim, was called to the witness stand by defense attorneys, apparently because the guards also told him that their observations of alleged molestation at the Santa Ynez Valley ranch could bring them a pile of cash from tabloid newspapers and TV shows.

But Birchim’s account of the pair’s fearful demeanor 11 years ago dominated his testimony more than their remarks about selling their story.

Birchim was one of nine defense witnesses who took the stand Monday in Santa Barbara County Superior Court. An orthodontist said that Jackson’s young accuser and his family could have ended their alleged captivity at Neverland simply by walking out of her office door in nearby Solvang. And an esthetician who gave a leg waxing to the accuser’s mother said the woman was free to leave her day spa in Los Olivos, where she had been dropped off by a Neverland employee.

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The two professionals and a string of current and former Neverland workers told much the same story: The then-13-year-old accuser, his younger brother, his older sister and their mother never complained that they were being held against their will. And nobody ever saw the “positive public relations film crew” that the mother testified was documenting the trips to the day spa and the orthodontist for a feel-good video about the embattled singer.

Jackson, 46, is charged with molestation, attempted molestation and conspiring to keep the boy’s family captive to ensure their participation in the video tribute. Prosecutors also have charged Jackson with giving the boy wine in order to seduce him -- an accusation that contrasts with testimony from two of Monday’s witnesses.

Former Neverland guard Shane Meridith said he caught the accuser and his brother “laughing and giggling” over a half-empty bottle of wine in the ranch’s ordinarily locked wine cellar. Jackson was not on the property at the time, he said.

And Angel Vivanco, a chef’s assistant, said the accuser’s brother, who was 12 at the time, threatened him in order to get a liquor-laced milkshake.

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“He said if I didn’t do it, he’d tell Michael Jackson and I’d get fired,” Vivanco testified.

The brother is the only witness to two of the four alleged molestation incidents in 2003 in which Jackson is charged. If the singer is convicted of all charges, he could be sentenced to more than 20 years in prison.

The day’s most surprising testimony came from Birchim, the sheriff’s commander who served Los Angeles County grand jury subpoenas on guards Ralph Chacon and Kassim Abdool in May 1994 in another molestation case.

Chacon has testified in the current case that he saw Jackson perform oral sex on a 13-year-old boy outside a Neverland shower in 1993. But his credibility and that of his then-boss, Abdool, was shaken by the fact that the two sold their stories to tabloids after suing Jackson for wrongful termination. They and three other former employees lost that case and were held liable for $1.4 million in Jackson’s legal fees.

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After being served the subpoenas at their homes in Lompoc, the two asked Birchim for a meeting in a location where they would go unnoticed by Jackson’s investigators, Birchim testified.

They met with Birchim and another sheriff’s detective at a rest area near Gaviota Pass. “They talked about going to the tabloids but said they felt morally obligated to go the grand jury, not to seek money for what they might know,” Birchim testified.

He said both men were fearful that they would be fired if they testified before the grand jury. Chacon said he “was also in fear for his family and his life,” Birchim told the jury.

The two said that they had been offered the free services of an attorney hired by Jackson, but they had declined, he said.

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At the rest stop, another secret meeting was set up, this one with Santa Barbara County Dist. Atty. Tom Sneddon in his office, Birchim testified.

On cross-examination, Sneddon recalled that the two guards had “grave concerns” about protection. But they were told they could not be assured of placement in a federal program.

Defense attorney Robert M. Sanger was skeptical, suggesting that the two were trying to squeeze money out of the prosecution. He also said they were concocting stories about possible retribution from Jackson to bolster the lawsuit they were then contemplating.

“Did you believe they were trying to use law enforcement for the purpose of helping them win a civil case?” Sanger asked.

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Birchim said no.

Testimony is to continue today. Jackson spokeswoman Raymone Bain said attorneys expect TV personality Larry King to appear as a witness Thursday.


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