05.09.13 8:45 AM ET
Behind the Michael Jackson Bombshell: How a Staunch Defender Suddenly Flipped
Wade Robson met the late Michael Jackson when he just five years old. By the time he was seven, he had established a professional and personal relationship with the older pop star, notably appearing in some of Jackson’s hit music videos. And when he was 22, Robson testified vehemently in Jackson’s defense as the pop star stood accused of sexual abuse in a sensational 2005 trial.
In fact, Robson has spent 20 years praising and defending Jackson—steadfastly maintaining, as he swore in court, that there was never any sexual relationship between them.
Now, he says there was.
Robson, 30 years old and a successful choreographer who has worked with the likes of Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake, quietly filed papers in Los Angeles last week claiming that Jackson sexually molested him for a period of seven years. The filing asks for permission to file a late claim against the Jackson estate and indicates that Robson has been a patient of Dr. David Arrendondo, a Harvard-educated child psychiatrist who has written extensively on the effects of sexual abuse on children and the resulting depression and anxiety of adults.
So the question is: did Robson perjure himself in 2005, or is he lying now?
Advocates of the late pop star are already trading messages accusing Robson of opportunism, suggesting the plaintiff is seeking a piece of Jackson’s booming estate, which has seen sales of his music spike since his death in June 2009. Howard Weitzman, the Jackson estate’s lawyer, sounded a similar note in a statement to The New York Daily News: "This is a young man who has testified at least twice under oath over the past 20 years and said in numerous interviews that Michael Jackson never did anything inappropriate to him or with him. Now, nearly four years after Michael has passed, this sad and less than credible claim has been made. We are confident that the court will see this for what it is."
But what if Robson’s latest version of events is the true one? What if, like so many other molested young boys, he repressed the memory of his abuse and in adulthood found it impossible to function under the weight of his past? In the trial of former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky, for example, young men testified that they had kept their terrible secret for years as a way of protecting their notions of their own masculinity. They testified to feeling a paralyzing sense of shame and guilt, feelings so strong that they ultimately bubbled up and led to nervous breakdowns. Some have said that after having their own children, the secret became so crushing that they could barely function.
What if this is the case with Wade Robson? His lawyer, Henry Gladstein, said as much to TMZ on Wednesday: "Last year, on a career trajectory that was off the charts, he [Wade] collapsed under the stress and sexual trauma of what had happened to him for seven years as a child ... He lived with the brainwashing by a sexual predator until the burden of it all crushed him." Jackson, Gladstein said, was a “monster” who threatened Robson to keep him quiet.
And as much as Robson has denied any abuse for the past 20 years, his own account has been frequently contradicted.
Robson’s history with Michael Jackson dates back to 1987 when the two crossed paths in Robson’s native Australia, one a international icon and the other the winner of a local talent contest. By the late 80s, the Robson family had moved to Los Angeles to pursue a dancing career for Wade, and the two reconnected. Jackson began tapping young Robson to appear as a dancer in his popular videos, including “Black & White,” “Jam,” and “Heal the World,” all tracks on Jackson’s 1991 album Dangerous.
Robson, often dressed just like his idol, was a frequent sidekick to the King of Pop. And so it made sense that Jackson’s defense team would ask the boy for help after allegations of child molestation first surfaced.
In September 1993, shortly after I first revealed the allegations on the television program Hard Copy, Jackson’s private detective offered up both Robson and another young boy named Brett Barnes for media interviews. The two children spoke to a CNN reporter about their nighttime ritual with Jackson. Young Wade, then just 10, declared to the camera, “We sleep in the same bed. We’re both fully dressed—[in] pajamas. It’s a huge bed. He sleeps on one side. I sleep on the other.’” Brett Barnes agreed: “It’s this big bed … and I was on one side and he was on the other.” No charges were filed against Jackson at the time, and over the years, whenever they were asked, both boys stuck to that story.
However, other versions of the relationship soon surfaced. I found Blanca Francia, the master bedroom maid from Jackson’s Neverland Ranch. She told me, and later testified at Jackson’s 2005 criminal trial on charges brought by a 14-year-old Hispanic boy that she caught Jackson and Robson in bed together, under the covers and nude from the waist up. She told of finding the two in a steamy shower together in Jackson’s master suite. She pegged Robson to be about 8 or 9 at the time, and she was sure it was that particular boy because his “neon green Spiderman underwear” was on the floor in front of the shower. (She said she recognized the underwear because her duties including washing the boy’s clothes when he visited.) Francia told me her own son, Jason, had been sexually fondled by her employer. Jason Francia testified at Jackson’s criminal trial about the abuse.
A confident-looking Wade Robson ultimately refuted all of Francia’s claims at the 2005 trial, taking the stand as Jackson’s first defense witness. He sat straight and tall in the witness box at the Santa Maria, California, courthouse as Jackson’s defense attorney Tom Mesereau walked him through the time he spent with the superstar.
“Has Mr. Jackson ever molested you?” Mesereau asked.
“Absolutely not. And I can tell you right now that if he had, I wouldn’t be here right now,” Wade said in a stern voice.
“Has Mr. Jackson ever touched you in a sexual way?”
“Never. I wouldn’t stand for it.”
This kind of unequivocal and firmly stated sworn testimony will surely be revisited as Robson’s claim for monetary relief from Jackson’s billion-dollar estate moves forward in the California civil courts. So might some of his answers to the prosecution.
Under intense questioning from Santa Barbara Senior Assistant District Attorney Ron Zonen, Robson’s ramrod dancer's posture began to slump. Zonen got Robson to admit he was forever indebted to Jackson for helping make his career in Hollywood. The prosecutor then asked about the family’s first trip to Neverland; Robson said his mother had readily given permission for him to sleep in Jackson’s bedroom. I wrote about the exchange in my book, Be Careful Who You Love: Inside the Michael Jackson Case.
“Had you ever crawled into bed with a 30-year-old man prior to that?” Zonen asked.
“My father,” Robson said a bit defensively.
“But other than that, no,” the witness said.
“Any person you had just met?”
Robson then detailed all the places he had slept with Jackson. At Neverland Ranch, at his mother’s apartment in Hollywood, in a hotel in Las Vegas, at Jackson’s condo in Century City while his mother stayed across the street at the Holiday Inn. During this time Jackson’s office manager, Norma Staikos, openly called Robson one of her boss’s “little boyfriends.”
All of this occurred before he was 14, Robson told the jury, because after that age Jackson never again invited him into his bed.
Wade’s mother, Joy Robson, testified too, saying of Jackson, “I feel like he’s a member of my family. I trust him with my children. He’s not the boy next door—he’s just a very unique personality.”
Those words may come back to haunt Wade Robson. Perhaps he is already haunted by seven years of sexual abuse. In either case, he now faces the difficult task of convincing a judge that his own testimony is unreliable.