Mother, his rock in life, now picks up the pieces

In the lowest moment of Michael Jackson’s life -- his 2005 criminal trial -- his mother, Katherine, was his greatest supporter. In breaks between testimony of witnesses accusing the pop star of molesting young boys, she and her son would repair to a private room in the courthouse with his legal team and she would murmur comforting words to him.

“She would tell him that the truth would prevail, that God would help him. She just kept him strong,” defense lawyer Thomas A. Mesereau Jr. recalled. “She never missed a single day of testimony, and it was a five-month trial.”

As the quiet center in an often fractious family of outsized personalities, Katherine Jackson, 79, held a deep and affectionate bond with the pop star all his life -- even through its most isolated chapters.

A steadfast and religious woman, she not only doted on Michael but also fiercely protected him, according to people who have had close dealings with the family.


When the Los Angeles courthouse opened Monday, she stepped into the media squall to take control of her son’s estate and custody of his three children, amid the growing cacophony of claims over the singer’s vast assets and debts.

A Superior Court judge appointed her special administrator of her son’s estate, with limited powers to secure his personal property.

The judge also granted her temporary custody of the children, Prince Michael Jr., 12; Paris Michael Katherine, 11; and Prince Michael II, 7.

“They have a long-established relationship with paternal grandmother and are in her care,” an attorney, Diane Goodman, wrote about the children in court papers.

On Saturday, Katherine Jackson was photographed buying sleeping bags and toys for the children at a Target store.

The court will address permanent arrangements for the children at a hearing July 6. Debbie Rowe, the mother of Jackson’s two older children, is considering whether to seek custody or continued visitation rights. Her attorney, Eric George, said Rowe will decide within the next several days how to respond to Katherine Jackson’s petition for temporary custody.

Rowe initially signed a contract with Jackson giving up her parental rights, but later hired George to challenge it. An appeals court threw the contract out in 2006, ruling that she remained a legal parent of the two children. Jackson retained custody, and Rowe obtained visitation rights.

Attorneys for Katherine Jackson argued in their court filing Monday that Rowe does not have a relationship with the children and that if she got custody it would be “detrimental” to them. The court papers also indicated that Katherine Jackson was anticipating a legal battle over Michael’s estate. Her lawyers have said they have found no will, but allowed in the filing “it is possible that the court will have to review many wills and evaluate the competing claims of the presenters of such wills.”

Where Michael’s father, Joe, fits into this picture is unclear. In court papers seeking custody of the children, Katherine Jackson’s lawyers listed her address as the family home in Encino, but the space reserved for Joe Jackson’s address was marked “Unknown.”

Although Katherine and Joe Jackson have been married for almost 60 years, they have not lived together for at least a decade, said Stacy Brown, a onetime family friend who co-wrote the 2005 biography “Michael Jackson: The Man Behind the Mask.”

Joe Jackson, he said, lives in Las Vegas full-time, but stays in the family home in Encino when visiting Los Angeles.

“She puts up with Joe when she has to, which is not too often,” said Brown, who frequently stayed at the home during his 15-year relationship with the family.

Michael Jackson was much closer to his mother.

Born in Alabama and raised in the steel mill towns of northern Indiana, Katherine had a sweet demeanor, but could grow icy and unforgiving with anyone she felt might harm her children, Brown said.

At the time of the molestation trial in Santa Barbara County, she once asked Brown, a witness, if he believed the charges against her son.

“She really wanted to know,” he recalled. “And once I uttered those fateful words -- ‘I think he’s guilty’ -- there was a line drawn in the sand. It was, ‘How dare you?’ ”

Brown never talked to the family again. In her eyes, he said, Michael was “a vulnerable cub” and she the mother bear.

“She treated him that way and Michael loved that,” he said.

Randy Phillips, the head of the firm putting on Jackson’s comeback concerts, worked with the singer daily in the months leading up to his death and said his mother was his closest confidant.

“I’ve never seen a closer relationship between a 50-year-old man and his mother,” said Phillips, the chief executive of AEG Live, calling her a constant presence at Jackson’s rented Holmby Hills home. “One of the rare times he went out to a restaurant at night, he went to her birthday party with the kids.”

She was concerned about the upcoming London concerts, his first shows in a dozen years. “She grilled me pretty good. She wanted to make sure we weren’t taking advantage of him . . . that he was getting enough rest and not overworking,” Phillips said.

The doting was reciprocal, he said. Jackson had money problems -- he owed more than $400 million to creditors -- but “even when he was tight on money, he would make sure all of her bills were paid.”

Phillips, who spoke to Katherine Jackson on Monday, said she was composed and focused on the tasks ahead of her. “Because she has to take care of the kids and stuff she’s been pretty good. She’s pulled it together,” he said.

Michael’s relationship with his father, however, was tortured.

Joe Jackson ruled the family, by most accounts, with his fists and a bellowing rage.

The former crane operator at U.S. Steel was both the disciplinarian dad and ruthless manager, driving his five sons from obscurity -- in Gary, Ind. -- to Motown and stardom as the Jackson 5 in the late ‘60s.

In a 2003 documentary by British journalist Martin Bashir, Jackson said his father often brandished a belt during rehearsals and hit his sons or shoved them into walls if they made a misstep.

“We were terrified of him,” Jackson said.

That same year, Joe Jackson told the BBC: “I whipped him with a switch and a belt. I never beat him. You beat someone with a stick.”

When the interviewer told him that Michael “regurgitates” whenever he saw his father, Joe replied: “He regurgitates all the way to the bank. That’s right.”

Jackson biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli said that although Joe Jackson is often described as the head of the family, “I’ve always thought Katherine called the shots.”

Those who know her say her faith sustains her. Katherine Jackson raised her children as Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Michael left the faith but at the time of the 2005 trial his mother was still very active in the faith.

“She was going to the Kingdom Hall four days a week,” lawyer Mesereau said.

During the trial, recalled Taraborrelli, “She had to sit there, this Jehovah’s Witness, very religious woman and hear the most horrible, lurid testimony about her son day in and day out. It was brutal, embarrassing and humiliating and man, she just did it. . . . She is just unflappable.”

He said that her marriage speaks to her determination to get through rough patches.

“They’ve had a lot of good fights over the years, but she is the type of person who will always see things out,” he said. “She is strong and determined, and no one should underestimate Katherine Jackson.”


Times staff writers Raja Abdulrahim, Maura Dolan, Cara Mia DiMassa and Maria Elena Fernandez contributed to this report.