The Jacksons of Gary, Ind., rose to fame on pitch-perfect harmonies, synchronized dance moves and an unwavering devotion to family as personified by their pious and steadfast mother.
But in the last week, those qualities have come to seem as out of date for the famous family as the bell bottoms and butterfly collars they sported on “The Ed Sullivan Show"four decades ago. In a bitter public feud that has played out in tabloid leaks, Twitter posts and police reports, some family members accused others of kidnapping the 82-year-old matriarch, Katherine, in a bid to enlist her in a fight over the vast fortune of their deceased superstar brother, Michael.
The tumult boiled over Wednesday when a Los Angeles judge stripped Katherine Jackson of custody of the late pop icon’s three children. Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff transferred guardianship temporarily to a cousin after hearing allegations that Katherine Jackson was being “held against her will” at an Arizona spa and had sounded “strange” in the one phone call she made to relatives since leaving L.A. on July 15.
“I’ve never heard my grandmother talk like that,” the cousin, Tito Joe “T.J.” Jackson, told the judge about the early morning phone call Wednesday. “She wasn’t sharp. Some words seemed a little slurred.”
An attorney for Katherine Jackson, Sandra Ribera, told the judge that after staying with Michael Jackson’s children this week in the Calabasas home where they live with their grandmother, “I have reason to believe she is being held or has been held against her will.”
In naming T.J. Jackson temporary guardian, Beckloff said he was responding to “the intentional acts of third parties” rather than any misconduct by Katherine Jackson. He said that the law required T.J. Jackson, 34 — son of Michael’s brother Tito — to file paperwork seeking permanent custody but that Katherine Jackson could be reinstated if she returned.
The relatives involved in arranging her out-of-state trip — her sons Randy and Jermaine and daughters Janet and Rebbie — were not in court. In television interviews, Randy Jackson has said his mother left town “under doctor’s orders” to rest and relax. ABC News reported that she was returning to Los Angeles and that she said the court hearing was “based on a bunch of lies.”
The fight between family factions became public over the weekend when relatives in Calabasas filed a missing person’s report. Sheriff’s deputies later closed the case after speaking with Katherine Jackson in Arizona, where she was staying with Rebbie.
That finding didn’t dissuade 14-year-old Paris Jackson from taking to Twitter to declare her grandmother missing.
“9 days and counting,” she wrote. “So help me god i will make whoever did this pay.”
Then on Monday, deputies were called to break up a fight at the Calabasas residence between family members, and a video shot from inside the home subsequently surfaced online showing Janet Jackson swiping at a cellphone held by Paris.
The backdrop for the discord appears to be a widening family rift over who should control Michael Jackson’s legacy and assets. On July 17, two days after their mother left L.A., Rebbie, Janet, Jermaine and Randy Jackson signed a letter demanding the resignation of the two men who oversee the star’s posthumous business affairs.
The letter accused music industry veterans John Branca and John McClain of a host of misdeeds, including faking the will that gave them their powers, lying to Katherine Jackson and covering up the real cause of the star’s 2009 death.
“THIS HAS TO STOP NOW.... You’ve dishonored everything our brother Michael stood for,” they wrote.
Their brother Tito was listed as an author of the letter, but did not sign it and later repudiated its contents.
The letter, which was leaked to the tabloid site celebuzz.com, was notable for its vitriol and for the fact that many issues it raised seemed long settled. When Jackson died, his parents filed papers saying he died without a will and asking that his mother be put in charge of his estate. But days later, Branca, a longtime advisor, produced a 7-year-old will that put him and McClain in charge of the estate.
The probate court determined that the will was valid. Under the terms of the trust set up by Jackson, his mother received 40% of the estate proceeds and his children — Prince, 15; Paris, 14; and Blanket, 10 — split 40%. The remaining 20% goes to charity. When Katherine Jackson dies, the children inherit her portion of the proceeds. Jackson left nothing to his father or siblings.
In the months after Jackson’s death, his family fought with the executors over a number of issues, including whether the estate should support the singer’s father, Joe, and whether Katherine Jackson should have a formal role in management of the estate. Beckloff, the probate judge, repeatedly sided with the executors, saying the will had to be followed.
By most accounts, Branca and McClain’s stewardship of Jackson’s financial affairs and musical legacy has been a success. In the three years since his death, the estate has generated gross earnings of $475 million, according to a filing by the executors this month. They have also pared down the pop star’s notorious $500-million debt. And they have covered all living expenses, from mortgages and tuition to vacations and spending money, for Katherine Jackson and his children. According to court filings, the estate spent more than $5 million on family expenses in a 13-month period.
But in the letter, the Jackson siblings accused the executors, who get a 10% cut of some earnings, of being motivated by money. In response, Branca and McClain released a statement saying they were “saddened that false and defamatory accusations grounded in stale Internet conspiracy theories are now being made by certain members of Michael’s family whom he chose to leave out of his will.”
Howard Mann, a business partner of Katherine Jackson, said the anger the siblings expressed in the letter was at odds with their mother’s improving relationship with the executors in recent months. While she has done publicity for projects such as the Jackson Cirque du Soleil show, some of her children are eager for a showdown with executors, he said.
“Some in the family feel like opportunity is slipping away and something has to be done while Katherine still has the faculties to do it. I guess they feel like there’s still some opportunity to overturn the will,” Mann said. “It’s literally like one has a hold of each of her hands and each of her feet and is just pulling.”