Urban-Exploring Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch
While the Ranch floats in real estate limbo, we spoke to the group of photographers who snuck onto the grounds to explore the abandoned kingdom.
On November 18, 2003, Michael Jackson's 3,000-acre primary residence, Neverland Ranch, was searched by 70 police officers from the Santa Barbara Sheriff's Department after accusations that Jackson had molested some children (The People of the State of California v. Michael Joseph Jackson). Following this, Jackson abandoned his estate, saying it had been "violated," and three years later the property went into foreclosure.
While the Ranch floated in real estate limbo, a group of photographers snuck onto the grounds and explored the abandoned kingdom, returning several times between December 2007 and March 2008. I spoke to the photographers to see what they saw. (Because tresspassing is illegal and I was feeling nostalgic for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, they will be referred to as Leonardo, Raphael, and Donatello. A fourth member contributed photography and was not interviewed.)
VICE: What inspired you guys to explore Neverland Ranch?
Leonardo: It was kind of a spur-of-the-moment thing. I was aware that the park had been abandoned for quite a while, and I knew that Jackson was in Dubai at the time and that he wasn't able to pay his electric bills. So, my understanding was that it would be a short-lived opportunity. I usually drive along the 101 freeway, and I decided, I have a few extra hours, I'm just going to go check it out. It just so happened that the day I was out there, it was pretty windy. It was a good cover because there were guards on-site, and the wind sort of blocked out my noise. I was able to sneak in without being heard. I had no expectation to make it in, but I just wanted to see.
What was the weirdest shit you saw?
Leonardo: Raphael is laughing because everything we saw was pretty weird. To be honest, I wasn't a big fan of Michael Jackson, but I knew that he was an important American historical figure. At the time, most people probably didn't realize that he was part of history, and I knew that there was the potential for everything that was associated with him to be quickly lost. Without our documentation, I think it would've been a huge loss. So, I thought it was important to do that as quickly as we could, before it was gone.
Raphael: Are we talking about going into his house? Is that part of the story?
Raphael: We haven't really told anyone about it... OK, the strangest thing to me was the little boy in pajamas sitting on the moon logo, everywhere. Like, it amazes me how much it resembles the DreamWorks logo. That thing was painted on the ground, like, 60 feet wide. It was on the signs, on the bumper cars, it was on the coach station where they parked the coach, one on the ground.
Donatello: That's his creepy logo, right?
Raphael: It's got a little boy sitting on it in those footie pajama things. Isn't the back open, or is that only on some of the paintings? [Laughs]
Oh my God.
Donatello: The other thing was that he collected memorabilia that had his likeness on it. He had Pepsi bottles and books and other promotional material in boxes. He also had stacks and stacks of fan mail, and one piece that really grabbed me was the prosecuting attorney of his molestation case with devil's horns drawn on. That was just laying on a tabletop—maybe a Pac-Man table?
Raphael: You read his fan mail?
Donatello: We were flipping through some of it.
How did you guys get into his house?
Raphael: We probably don't want to talk about the details about how we entered.
Was it difficult?
Leonardo: We didn't have to break any laws, because it was open. It was all open. The house was open.
Raphael: One thing that really sticks out in my memory was drinking his grape soda from that walk-in kitchen storage area and then very carefully wiping the fingerprints off the bottle and hiding it in the bushes.
Wait, you drank his juice?
Raphael: I was thirsty and he had all of this grape soda, and I thought I'd just drink something from his house.
Was it actual grape soda?
Raphael: Yeah! It was actual grape soda. In the kitchen there was this "Children of the World" menu. Everything in there was geared toward children. I'm not sure he had any, but...
Raphael: That menu, on a permanently-printed chalkboard with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and macaroni and cheese, that sticks out in my mind. And the strange hodgepodge of shit that he had bought that didn't have any relation to his house. His entire house was filled with these expensive looking, one-off, semi-artistic things.
Raphael: These weird mirrors on this four-foot by four-foot platform. And that would be next to some Roman statue-looking thing. Next to that would be an eight-foot-tall oil painting of Michael Jackson himself. There were all of these paintings inside the house.
Donatello: There's one where he's leading a procession of children.
What was the vibe in the house?
Donatello: I was really on-edge and uncomfortable, mostly because I was worried that someone might find us in there and I think it's just such a breach of privacy. It was so compelling to do it; I couldn't not go in because the opportunity was there. But at the same time, it just felt wrong. It was this constant friction between fascination and, I've got to get the fuck out of here, I shouldn't be in here.
Leonardo: That's true. We all felt that way. We [as urban explorers] don't normally ever go in peoples' houses.
Raphael: It's all usually industrial, or old schools, or things that aren't people's personal residences. At one point, I got so fed up with the weirdness that I went outside and I tried to loosen them up by banging on the door. I had a flashlight in my hand, and made it look like I was busting them. We fuck around with each other quite a bit, but Donatello was furious that I did that.
Donatello: I don't remember that. It must've been such a bad memory.
Raphael: I scared the shit out of you.
Leonardo: I remember that vividly, actually. I didn't find anything that creepy about the whole thing. I found it really odd and different, but I wasn't scared at any moment. I think none of us were really scared. Mostly we felt like we shouldn't be invading the privacy of someone else. But I never felt like I was afraid of any of the things that he put out there. It just seemed really exotic and different. There are far more odd things in this world than what Michael Jackson was.
Raphael: The whole thing was just really an adventure, and going somewhere that nobody's ever seen, and seeing all of this stuff, it was right after he left the country because of the molestation charges. So in our mind, it was like looking at everything more from that angle. There's the kids' stuff, there's toys everywhere, there's the huge arcade—a giant child-magnet.
Donatello: I don't know. I don't want the whole gist of this interview to back up those allegations toward the guy.
That's OK. I was actually going to ask how much of the property you ended up being able to see?
Donatello: We pretty much saw everything except for the petting zoo area. We went to the arcade, the mansion, the amusement park rides, the railroad train station, all of the statue areas...
I'm shocked that you guys weren't caught.
Donatello: We're kind of professionals. I don't want to sound arrogant, but... We do this a lot. We do a lot of research and recon. But also, it's surprisingly low-key because there's a guard truck down by the road, and we just avoided that guard truck, and once you're past that, you're in the valley, and you're on your own, and it's pretty desolate.
Raphael: Surprisingly, we just roamed about the grounds. Casually.
It's a pretty huge space, isn't it?
Raphael: Really big. We didn't even get to the zoo, because it's so far away.
Donatello: One other interesting thing—we did go in Michael's room, but both of the kids' rooms were locked from the outside.
Raphael: We decided not to get into the kids' rooms, because it didn't seem right.
What about his toy room?
Raphael: It was maybe 60 feet by 30 feet, and filled with every toy you could imagine. Life-size Lego models, Darth Vader—all sorts of awesome toys.
Donatello: The other thing I remember is that there were game stations set up all around the house. Imagine those consoles for Super Nintendo that you might find at the Best Buy store, but set up with all different systems.
Was there anything adult in there? It all sounds like mostly kids' stuff. And weird art.
Raphael: There were a lot of big, lounge-y spaces with couches and all the strange art objects.
Donatello: I remember seeing really normal things, change lying on a coffee table and a little office space with a computer and typical home stuff.
Roughly how many rooms did he have? It's a mansion. It must've been fucking huge.
Leonardo: He probably had ten rooms, I would say. The mansion itself was not as huge as you'd think, but there were all of these other smaller buildings that we didn't really go in.
Isn't there a massive clock in the garden?
Donatello: Oh, dude, there's all kinds of crazy shit in the garden.
Leonardo: Didn't you take a picture of the clock with the hands stuck, and then you realized later on that you took the picture within three seconds of what the hands were stuck at?
Donatello: I did! There's this clock that's stopped around 2:55, and I just happened to snap the shot almost exactly at that same time, without even realizing it until a year later.
Pretty serendipitous. Although, how did you know that it had been stopped?
Donatello: The power had been cut off, and the hands weren't moving.
The house didn't have any power?
Donatello: If I remember correctly, there was no power in the mansion but the water was working.
Did you guys use the bathroom?
Donatello: I think we checked the water or something because we were just curious if it worked. What's weird is that within his house, there was no dust. It was immaculate. The carpet was vacuumed, and there was no dust on any of those crazy sculpture or statues. That's kind of why we were on edge—like, people are here. A lot of things were covered in vinyl-type tarps to protect them. But it was obvious that someone was in there cleaning, I would say, at least once a week, by how clean it was.
But he hadn't lived there for a while...
Raphael: I think that's what signified to Leonardo that he was OK to go in there.
Leonardo: The house is foreclosed, it's basically derelict, defunct. That's when it hit my radar.
Raphael: It's probably obvious that we really only go to abandoned and defunct sites.
You don't seem like paparazzi.
Raphael: We're paparazzi of bridges, maybe.
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