Los Angeles (CNN) — A London tabloid declared Sunday that “secret FBI files” reveal Michael Jackson paid millions to silence dozens of boys he abused.
The story quickly echoed throughout global media, perhaps in part because of the trial of the Jackson family’s wrongful death lawsuit against a concert promoter and the recent suicide attempt by Jackson’s teenage daughter.
A website can enjoy a sharp spike in traffic — which can translate into advertising revenue — with a sensational headline.
But journalists and others who have closely followed the controversies and legal fights surrounding the pop star found the description by the Sunday People newspaper of the documents as being from FBI files to be questionable.
‘Recycled tabloid reports’
“None of this is new — zero — and there was no FBI involvement,” said CNN Special Investigations reporter Drew Griffin. “It just sounds like recycled tabloid reports from 20 years ago.”
Griffin saw and reported on the same material more than a decade ago as a local Los Angeles reporter.
“The bottom line is this stuff was not in the FBI files,” said Tom Mesereau, the lawyer who successfully defended Jackson against child molestation charges in a lengthy trial in 2005. “The FBI closed the investigation. It sounds like a bunch of utter nonsense.”
Journalist Diane Dimond, who is no defender of the pop icon, also attacked the Sunday People article.
“It is obvious the paper took this old story and proceeded to make it seem new by adding numbers to it — 24 boys paid off $35 million by Michael Jackson,” Dimond said. “The problem is there’s no evidence to back up the claim that Jackson made that many payoffs.”
Dimond’s book “Be Careful Who You Love: Inside the Michael Jackson Case” details her coverage of allegations of improper relationships between Jackson and boys.
The tabloid report was published at a critical time for the Jackson family, as its wrongful death lawsuit against a concert promoter entered its 10th week and while Jackson’s daughter, Paris, is being treated after a reported suicide attempt.
“The files will also dismay Jacko’s kids, Prince, 16, Paris, 15, and 11-year-old Blanket, who have not yet come to terms with losing their father,” the Sunday People story said.
Michael Jackson considered the British tabloids’ use of “Jacko” to be a derogatory term.
Griffin, Dimond and Mesereau each point to Paul Barresi, a former porn actor who lost his private investigator’s license for fabricating evidence, as the person who possessed the material published Sunday.
It included an audio recording of an interview done by Jim Mitteager, a reporter with the U.S.-based Globe tabloid, with a couple who worked as chefs at Jackson’s Neverland Ranch. Mitteager left the tape to Baressi when he died of cancer in 1997.
“Paul Barresi made it no secret over the years that he had come into possession of the Mitteager tapes and that they included a long interview with Philip and Stella LeMarque, the former live-in couple at Neverland,” Dimond said. “He discussed the tapes and their contents with me on several occasions.”
Griffin said Barresi also gave him access to the material years ago. It included reports Barresi wrote when he worked for now-disgraced celebrity investigator Anthony Pellicano. Pellicano is serving a 15-year federal prison sentence for a wiretapping and racketeering convictions.
Porn star turned P.I.
“Since Barresi has fairly recently been stripped of his P.I.’s license, I can imagine that money has been tight for him,” Dimond said. “My best guess is that the UK paper offered Mr. Barresi several thousand dollars for his copies of the old Pellicano files.”
When CNN called Barresi on Tuesday to ask if he sold the materials to the newspaper, he responded: “I have no comment and that’s all I have to say.”
But before the question could be posed, he asked if the reporter wanted to know how many times he’s had sex in a hammock. He explained it was a common question people ask because of his porn film career.
Barresi’s films, with titles such as “Married Men with Men on the Side” and “Leather Bears and Smooth Chested Huskies,” won him the X-Rated Critics’ award for best “group grope scene” in 1985 and he was inducted into the GayVN’s Hall of Fame in 2008.
Barresi, now 60, retired from the porn business to focus more on his investigative work, but court records suggest he was not as successful in that work.
He obtained a California private investigator’s license in 2009, but lost it three years later. He signed a “stipulated settlement” with the state admitting that he faked a report about an ex-girlfriend’s drug use to get her fired from her hospital job as a nurse in 2011.
Federal court records also show Barresi and his wife filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2010.
Tabloid stands by story
A Sunday People spokesman would not confirm that Barresi was the paper’s source or if it paid for access, but he did stand by the story.
“Our article clearly states that we have seen copies of reports, phone transcripts and interviews carried out by an agent working for private investigator Anthony Pellicano who had been hired by Michael Jackson,” Rupert Smith said in an e-mail to CNN. “The files were seized by the FBI when Pellicano was himself investigated in 2002. The documents then became part of the FBI’s files on Jackson case numbers CADCE MJ-02463 and CR 01046.”
In fact, the FBI released files it collected on Michael Jackson in December 2009, six months after his death. Most of them related to the federal agency’s support of the California investigations of child molestation allegations against the entertainer.
Los Angeles Police, who were investigating child molestation allegations against Jackson, called the FBI’s Los Angeles office in September 1993 to suggest the agency look into a “possible federal violation against Jackson concerning transportation of a minor across state lines for immoral purposes (Mann Act)”, one document said.
The Los Angeles County district attorney did not pursue criminal charges against Jackson, but the singer did reach a confidential financial settlement with the 1993 accuser, Jordan Chandler, and his father after they filed a lawsuit. Reports at the time said the Chandlers got between $16 million and $20 million from Jackson’s insurance company.
The Chandler accusation became a key part of the prosecution’s case when Jackson was tried and acquitted of molestation a decade later in Santa Barbara County, California.
Mesereau, who reviewed the 330 redacted pages released by the FBI, said the documents purported by the newspaper to have been included in the files were not there.
CNN also reviewed the files, which are still posted on the FBI website, and found none referring to other payoffs by Jackson. None of the file numbers matched those quoted by the newspaper.
“You can imagine what the prosecutor in Santa Barbara would have done with this information if they really had it,” Mesereau said.
Phillip LeMarque did testify, telling the court that he once caught Jackson improperly touching then-child actor Macaulay Culkin while he worked as Jackson’s self-described cook and “majordomo” for about 10 months in 1991.
Culkin, the second witness called in Jackson’s defense, denied any improper touching by Jackson.
Jackson’s guilt is ‘inconsequential’
Barresi represented the LaMarques in an attempt to sell their story to tabloid media outlets, Mesereau said.
LeMarque admitted at the trial that he tried to make money from his story, even meeting with Barresi, who promised him $100,000 from the tabloid press, maybe more if the story were dirtier.
“He began to make the story more and more graphic as the price went up,” Mesereau said, referring to Phillip LaMarque.
“Was it true that the broker told him the payoff might be higher if Mr. Jackson’s hand was inside Culkin’s pants?” Mesereau asked during cross examination.
“That’s what he said,” LeMarque said.
Barresi discussed his deal with the LaMarques in an interview for a PBS “Frontline” documentary in 1994.
“My interest in helping them was that they promised me a percentage of what they made,” Baressi said. “I was not on any kind of crusade to bring anyone to justice. Whether Michael was guilty or innocent at that point was inconsequential. My interest was strictly for the money, as was theirs, I might add.”