Jackson Finds a New Home in Bahrain

Does anyone know a good mover in the Santa Ynez Valley that can handle a Ferris wheel, a merry-go-round and zoo animals?

Michael Jackson's attorney said Thursday the pop singer has made the Middle Eastern nation of Bahrain, not Neverland ranch, his permanent home.

Attorney Thomas A. Mesereau Jr. declined to comment on local speculation that Jackson planned to sell Neverland ranch, but said the singer is very happy in his new home.

"He's looking much better. He's with his children, and he's moving on in life," Mesereau said. "He's living permanently in Bahrain. He has friends there who have been very loyal and helpful to him in a difficult period of his life."

Jackson spent four months earlier this year in a Santa Maria courtroom before a jury acquitted him in June of charges that included sexually abusing a young recovering cancer patient.

Within weeks, the singer traveled to Bahrain, where he has been a guest of the royal family. He has been a houseguest of Sheik Salman ibn Hamed Khalifa, the crown prince of Bahrain, staying in a palace in the desert kingdom. The singer's brother, Jermaine Jackson, reportedly has close ties with Bahrain's royal circle, earlier this year announcing plans to unveil a charity theme song written by a son of the nation's king.

As for the King of Pop, he appears to have won a warm reception in the Persian Gulf. In August, according to press reports, Jackson visited the Gulf region's trade and tourism hub of Dubai, where he hob-knobbed with friends and local celebrities.

Mesereau said he saw Jackson a few weeks ago in London, where the singer is reportedly working on a charity single to benefit the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

"He looks really well," Mesereau said of the singer, whose already slight frame became even more brittle-looking during his trial.

In the Santa Ynez Valley, Jackson's departure has met with a decidedly mixed reaction. Some will miss his largesse, but others are glad to see the crowds, the media and the weirdness go.

Felicia Cody, a gallery owner in Los Olivos, said she will miss the entertainer coming in to buy art, and his friendship.

"He's definitely going to be missed, no question about it. He's a beautiful man," she said. "He's an artist, and he understands the life of an artist."

An employee of a nearby school would only say that "the ranch has always been very good to us."

Others were all but saying "good riddance," noting that Jackson's ranch had become a media circus after he was charged with molestation in 2003.

"It's fine by me. It takes the pressure and the spotlight off the community," said former Santa Barbara County Sheriff Jim Thomas, a close associate of county Dist. Atty. Thomas Sneddon, the man who prosecuted Jackson. "This is a quiet, nice little town. Anything that brings less attention to the community, all the better."

Terri Stricklan, manager of the Hitching Post, a steakhouse that was frequented by Mesereau and Sneddon as well as media and trial witnesses, said she wouldn't be sorry to see the singer go.

"For many years he's gotten better support outside of this country, so it doesn't surprise me in the least," Stricklan said. "There's people like myself who when we were young were fans of his, but that's all changed in the last 15 years for a lot of people. He just made a spectacle of himself."

Bill Etling, a Los Olivos real estate broker, used to haul hay to the ranch long before Jackson bought it. He has estimated that the ranch could fetch from $50 million to $100 million if it were ever sold. Etling said the singer's legal problems turned him into a divisive figure.

"We have a lot of celebrities here. They're great people, and with the exception of Michael Jackson, all are down to earth," Etling said. "They'll go to the hardware store by themselves, and not with some guy holding an umbrella for them" and wearing a surgical mask.

The question of Jackson's permanent residence cropped up this week after he received a jury summons to appear in a Santa Maria courthouse on Wednesday, said Santa Barbara County court spokesman Gary Blair.

A Jackson attorney, Robert Sanger, called court officials to tell them the 47-year-old entertainer would not be able to serve because he would no longer be living at Neverland, Blair said.

Jackson purchased Neverland, formerly a cattle ranch, in Santa Ynez for about $17 million in 1988 and turned it into a theme park with carnival rides and a private zoo. The 4-square-mile ranch also included a steam engine the singer rode along a 1 1/2 -mile track.

Thousands of underprivileged children have been welcomed to see the animals, hop aboard rides in Jackson's private amusement park and picnic on the ample grounds. But during his trial, prosecutors alleged that the entertainer molested numerous children there over the years, in some cases holding them hostage within Neverland's gates. They charged that Jackson used the ranch's amusement park, animals and toys to lure children, who he would then abuse.

There has been much speculation in the Los Olivos area about whether Jackson is trying to sell Neverland to pay off mounting legal bills. But local real estate agents said they have not heard that it's on the market.

Neverland, named for the home of Peter Pan, a favorite character of Jackson's, features a water-pistol range, bumper cars and classic rides like those at state fairs.

Some of his supporters expressed doubt that he would ever truly leave Neverland.

"I don't ever personally feel he'll sell the ranch," said Cody, the gallery owner. "That's what he told me. But that was before this nightmare."