Originally created 11/25/03

Michael Jackson remains an elusive presence

LOS OLIVOS, Calif. -- For more than a decade, John Cody has watched thousands of Michael Jackson fans stream past his front porch and up the eight miles of rural road that lead to the pop star's sprawling Neverland Ranch.

After all that time, he still doesn't know much about his reclusive neighbor.

Still, Cody has words of praise for Jackson, even after the entertainer was arrested last week for investigation of child molestation.

"He's got a lot of support from people in this valley," said Cody, 54, a stonecutter who visited Neverland with his 2 1/2 -year-old daughter and created a 700-pound stone sculpture for the ranch. "He's an incredibly smart, kind man. He's a moving target, and I think the allegations are bogus."

Cody can't say much about the ranch. Jackson requires everyone who enters Neverland to sign a nondisclosure agreement. Even fans who won $2,500 auction tickets for a visit to the ranch had to sign the agreement. And cameras are not allowed.

Jackson surrendered to Santa Barbara County authorities on Thursday after an arrest warrant was issued alleging that he committed lewd or lascivious acts with a child under 14. He was released on $3 million bail and immediately returned to Las Vegas, where he had been filming a video. Authorities have said they expect to file formal charges sometime after Thanksgiving.

The singer's attorney, Mark Geragos, has said Jackson denies the allegations, and a Jackson spokesman said Saturday that Jackson was "fighting mad."

Actress Elizabeth Taylor, a close friend of Jackson's, issued a statement Sunday criticizing all the media attention, saying: "I thought the law was 'innocent until proven guilty.' I know he is innocent and I hope they all eat crow."

Jackson's wealth and fame have cast something of a spell over Los Olivos, a quiet, upscale community about 30 miles northwest of Santa Barbara, where Jackson has established himself as a generous benefactor and employer at the same time he has kept himself shrouded in secrecy.

Beyond his occasional forays into town, residents say they rarely see the "King of Pop" and don't know much about what goes on behind the gates of his 2,700-acre estate.

"He's been known to walk up and down the street here," said Sharon Frowiss, manager of Jedlicka's Saddlery Inc., where Jackson recently bought a $229 tricycle. "He doesn't talk a lot."

Most residents claim some sort of tenuous connection to Jackson: They know someone who works at Neverland, they've visited the ranch or they've sold something to Jackson.

Many Los Olivos residents have visited Jackson's playland at least once, either as guests of his 60-some employees or as children on field trips from one of the local schools.

But Jackson is hardly ever home when people come calling.

"A lot of people think he's there to show them around, but he's not there at all," said Jesus Garibay, 23, who worked for four months in the Neverland zoo's reptile wing for $8.25 an hour. "He gives them access to things, he lets them tour and have fun, but he's mostly away."

He adds that ranch employees cannot speak to Jackson unless spoken to first.

Neverland is so private that local officials weren't aware of potential violations of land-use law there until they saw footage of the property on a national television special last year, said Bill Gillette, agricultural commissioner for Santa Barbara County.

After the show aired, Gillette was allowed to visit the ranch, accompanied by Jackson's lawyers, to check some buildings.

"I got more attention on this than probably for anything else I've done in Santa Barbara County," he said.

A county investigation found that Jackson had failed to file building permits over the past 10 years. "The permits that should have been filed are for everything from a gatehouse and a three-car garage to a primate center, a go-cart track, seven rides at his amusement park and a giant outdoor movie screen," county planner Larry Appel said in September.

Gillette was amazed by what he saw during the inspection. The playland, a miniature replica of Disneyland, was completely empty but children's music blared from loudspeakers, the rides were running and fresh popcorn and ice cream were waiting at the train station.

"They were all set up like they could have visitors at any moment, but there was nobody around but us," Gillette said. "I still don't know if they turned it on just for us or not."


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