Late one night at Neverland ranch, Michael Jackson and a 12-year-old boy hopped off his custom golf cart, named Moon Rover, and gazed into a Peter Pan display window in the breezeway behind the pop star's home.
With Jackson's arms draped over the boy's shoulders, the two watched raptly as an electronic Tinkerbell darted through a scene from the classic tale, according to the testimony of a former security guard who said he had observed them.
As the former guard watched, Jackson slipped his hand down the boy's pants, kissed him and led him into the 25-room Tudor mansion. The defense immediately challenged the man's testimony in Santa Barbara County Superior Court, pointing out that he had lost a wrongful-termination suit against Jackson, a possible motive for lying about his former boss.
Even so, the former guard's account raises a question that has reverberated throughout Jackson's child-molestation trial: In escorting his young friends around Neverland, was Jackson sharing his enthusiasm for the paradise he had created? Or was the pop star using his $50-million playground to lure boys into his bed?
Whether the four-square-mile ranch is a shrine to innocence or a shortcut to depravity depends on where one sits in the courtroom. Defense lawyers have described the opulent refuge as a blend of pilgrimage destination Lourdes, France, and Chuck E. Cheese's, the family-friendly restaurant chain "where a kid can be a kid."
Santa Barbara County prosecutors, however, view the ranch as a trap lavishly baited by a serial pedophile with candy, carnival rides, toys, pornography and booze.
Neverland has been "used for beautiful causes," Dist. Atty. Tom Sneddon said in his opening remarks to jurors in February. "But like so many things in life, something very good can end up being ... something very bad."
Jackson, 46, is accused of molesting a 13-year-old boy at Neverland in 2003. He is also charged with attempted molestation, giving minors alcohol to aid in the commission of a felony, and conspiring to keep the accuser and his family from leaving the ranch. If convicted of all charges, he could face more than 20 years in prison.
As they grapple with the case, jurors are bound to agree on one thing: Neverland is a remarkably accurate reflection of its owner -- in some ways spectacular and, in others, very, very strange.
It's a place, according to testimony, where Jackson would throw stones at the lion in his private zoo to make the beast roar.
It's a place where neighbors could hear the long, moaning whistle of a steam engine as Jackson, alone and sleepless, chugged through the night on its 1 1/2 -mile track. The engine is named Katherine, after the pop star's mother.
It's a heavily guarded retreat where even the FedEx driver has to sign a lengthy pledge to never disclose whatever he might see. But it's also a place where thousands of underprivileged children have been welcomed to see the animals, hop aboard the rides in Jackson's private amusement park, and enjoy all the burgers and fries and cotton candy they can eat.
Set five miles down a narrow country road, about an hour's drive from Santa Barbara, Neverland is, more than anything else, Jackson's home.
Neverland is where he wakes up at 4:30 a.m. each day that he's free on $3-million bail. Above his bed hangs a rendering of Michelangelo's "Last Supper," with Jackson's face imposed on that of Jesus.
On many mornings, Jackson has a telephone pep talk with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, according to the pop star's publicist, Raymone Bain. A wardrobe advisor lays out the day's choice of outfits. And a makeup artist frequently visits to help Jackson cover blotches characteristic of the skin disease vitiligo.
A little after 3 p.m., Jackson returns to Neverland from the courthouse in nearby Santa Maria, sometimes rolling down the tinted window of his SUV to greet waiting fans. His dark-suited security crew drives him up the winding road to his oak-paneled, 13,000-square-foot residence, where he plays with his three children, ages 3 to 8, sits down to a family dinner, and, by phone, confers with his attorneys about the next day in court.
It may sound like a country retreat for a hardworking chief executive, but, for Jackson, Neverland is a place to experience the childhood that he says show business stole from him.
"It gave me a chance to do what I couldn't do when I was little," he told Geraldo Rivera of Fox News in February. "Other men have their Ferraris and their airplanes or helicopters or wherever they find their bliss. My bliss is in giving and sharing and having innocent fun."
During the trial, defense attorneys have described hordes of sick children from the Make-a-Wish Foundation swamping Jackson with hugs.
A defense video of Neverland played in court showed lawns dotted with bronze sculptures of children rolling hoops and throwing balls. In the dining room, a massive painting in a Rococo frame depicts Jackson gazing skyward, with children of every race and nationality gathered around him.
If jurors didn't get the message, a note from Jackson's daughter Paris, scrawled on a kitchen chalkboard, drives the point home. "To Daddy," it says in a childish scrawl, "I love you."
The defense video contrasted sharply with a prosecution video shown earlier in the trial, in which the camera lingered on a half-open briefcase found in Jackson's bathroom. Inside was a stash of what attorneys called "adult materials," including Barely Legal, a skin magazine featuring young-looking models.
The prosecution video, dark and dimly lighted, also took jurors into two rooms teeming with hundreds of toys, action figures, mannequins and full-size models drawn from Batman, Superman, "Star Wars" and the like.
One of the rooms was devoted to Jackson's collection of dolls, which he has said helped him through his loneliness before he became a father. "I used to walk around with dolls, I wanted a baby so bad," he told British documentary maker Martin Bashir in clips that were shown to the jury.
Upset by friction with his father at his parents' estate in Encino, Jackson bought the ranch for $17 million in 1988. Its owner, golf course developer William Bone, had already given it the look and feel of a country club, with two lakes, waterfalls, a treasure trove of antiques and a generously stocked wine cellar.
A quarter-mile from the baronial main house, Jackson added a Ferris wheel, a carousel, a Tilt-a-Whirl and other amusement park rides. He also created the zoo, brought in pink flamingos for the lakes and hid tiny speakers amid the rocks so that music could be heard day and night.
But the ranch's dominant motif comes courtesy of children's author J.M. Barrie. Barrie's fictional creation, Neverland, was the place where children never had to grow up -- a theme Jackson has embraced in the Peter Pan statuary that dots the grounds, in the "Peter Pan" movie that plays frequently in his 80-seat private theater, in a cluster of Indian tepees and in the Peter Pan display window.
Through the years, busloads of children have streamed into Neverland almost daily. Even after the start of the trial on Jan. 31, children's groups were clamoring to drop by, according to Jackson's spokeswoman.
In Neverland's movie theater, a hospital bed sits behind large glass windows on either side of the projection booth, so that ill children can enjoy the films.
"My fondest memory here," Jackson told Life magazine in 1993, "was one night we had a houseful of bald-headed children. They all had cancer. And one little boy turned to me and said, 'This is the best day of my life.' You had to just hold back the tears."
Not every visit carries such memories. Toni Ortiz, a retired Long Beach schoolteacher, recalled a 1994 trip to Neverland that ended as a lesson in the perils of excess for some high school students.
"At the end of the day, I had two kids who were turning green and throwing up," she said. "They ate so much junk, they'd gone on so many rides -- one of them said he felt like one of the little kids from Pinocchio who was turned into a donkey."
That experience supports the prosecution's view of Neverland, which has been described by Deputy Dist. Atty. Gordon Auchincloss as "very possibly the most extravagant and expensive and modern monument to self-indulgence that has been created in our lifetime."
To be sure, the ranch operates on a grand scale. As many as 160 staff members have been on the Neverland payroll, making Jackson one of the biggest private employers in the Santa Ynez Valley. The annual tab to run Neverland and provide security is $5 million, a forensic accountant testified at Jackson's trial.
Dozens of groundskeepers tend acres of roses and about 128,000 other flowering plants. When brown patches appear in the ranch's vast, meticulously groomed lawn, workers spray them with green dye, according to former employees.
Much of the ranch remains relatively untouched, with cattle grazing on rolling hills. But on the dozens of acres surrounding Jackson's home, nature has been thoroughly tamed.
When he was taken on his first tour of the property in 1991, Jackson's former chef, Philip LeMarque, saw a black swan and a white swan in a golden cage set beside the road. The birds were confined, he was told, because their droppings on the sandy lakeshore upset Jackson.
Jackson's home decor also is carefully tailored to reflect his tastes. According to Jackson biographer Christopher Andersen, a guest room in the pop star's bedroom suite is a "virtual shrine" to child star Shirley Temple, with posters and old publicity shots on the walls and a Shirley Temple mannequin clad in a pink dress, pink hair bow and patent-leather Mary Janes.
In Jackson's library, leather-bound first editions and hundreds of other books line the shelves. Most of the entertainer's 1-million-volume collection -- more than a quarter the size of USC's library -- is in storage, according to defense attorney Thomas A. Mesereau Jr.
"He's a voracious reader," Mesereau explained in court, adding that Jackson delved into psychology books to help the 13-year-old cancer patient who later accused him of molestation visualize ways of beating back his tumors.
Now 15, the boy told jurors that Neverland was so much fun that he didn't want to leave. Neither did the other young men who have testified about their boyhood romps at the ranch. When Jackson was around, he would often join in the fun, the witnesses remembered.
But prosecutors said there was trouble in paradise, arguing that Jackson got boys drunk, browsed adult magazines with them and enticed them into sexual acts.
To prosecutors, Neverland is a sophisticated child-trap. A jukebox in the video arcade hides the stairway to the wine cellar, where Jackson allegedly plied boys with alcohol. His library, prosecutors say, hides books beloved by pedophiles. And dolls in leather bondage outfits, they point out, poke out of the clutter on his desk.
If Neverland had a sinister side, it was hidden from guests such as Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando, who favored the lakeside guest cottage where the accuser's mother also stayed.
In gratitude for lending the ranch for her 1991 marriage to contractor Larry Fortensky, Taylor gave Jackson an elephant named Gypsy, who is led around the grounds once a day and fed doughnuts.
Brando, who died in 2004, spent weeks at Neverland toward the end of his life. "He loved it," his son Miko, a longtime Jackson employee, said in a 2004 interview with The Times. "My father had a 24-hour chef, 24-hour security, 24-hour help, 24-hour kitchen, 24-hour maid service. Just carte blanche."
Troubles with the help also eluded the celebrities. At the trial, a former security guard, Ralph Chacon, described tensions between the crew of about 20 unarmed Neverland guards and Jackson's armed bodyguards known as the OSS -- the Office of Special Services.
"They just interfered in every aspect of our duty," Chacon said, alleging that OSS men would taunt the ranch guards, sometimes deliberately setting off alarms to see the guards scramble to find nonexistent intruders. "They would come by and laugh," Chacon said, "and sit out in their vehicle and stare at us inside the security office."
Despite the occasional security breach -- one fan hid in Jackson's home for 10 hours -- Jackson has described the ranch as his secluded haven, a place where he can wander alone at night composing songs.
After the police searched Neverland in 2003, Jackson vowed to leave his Shangri-La, but soon returned. If Jackson goes through with the long-rumored sale of the ranch, the property would fetch $50 million to $100 million -- and new owners could erase his legacy overnight, said Bill Etling, a Los Olivos real estate broker who hauled hay to the ranch long before Jackson bought it.
"They could truck out all the carnival stuff in a day," Etling said.