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Nevertheless, the trial had been an ordeal for him. And it offered the world another painful look at his strange, sad isolation. "He didn't trust people," says Thomas Mesereau, Jackson's lead attorney in the case. "He felt he'd been let down so often. And he would sometimes isolate himself because he felt that anyone that went near him wanted something. There was a side of him that just wished he could be an ordinary person and walk down the street."
After the trial, Jackson never again lived at Neverland. With his children, he decamped for almost a year to Bahrain at the invitation of the ruler's son, Sheik Abdulla bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, a friend of Jackson's brother Jermaine. He later sued Jackson in a British court, claiming the singer had reneged on a music contract and book deal. The suit was settled out of court last November, just before Jackson would have had to testify.
By then, Jackson's personal fortune was in steep decline. He lost control of Neverland when he defaulted on a $24.5 million loan. At his molestation trial, a forensic accountant, John Duross O'Bryan, testified that in the early 2000s, Jackson each year spent up to $30 million more than he was earning. At the time of his death, he may have been as much as $500 million in debt.
Jackson stayed afloat by leveraging his two principal assets: Neverland and the Sony/ATV music catalog, with its 251 Beatles songs, among other treasures. In 2005 he borrowed $270 million from banks at interest rates that reached 20%. After Jackson fell behind on payments, he sold the debt to Fortress Investment Group, a New York City private-equity firm that threatened to call in the loan in December 2005 when Jackson seemed about to default. Sony came to the rescue, arranging for financing at just 6% in return for Jackson's agreement to give the company an option to buy half his stake in the Beatles catalog for about $250 million if he defaulted on those loans.
But Jackson wasn't finished. In March he announced his comeback plan, a series of concerts at the O2 arena in London, backed by the concert promoter AEG Live, that were set to begin on July 13. When the initial demand for tickets was huge, he extended the run to 50 shows, which would have gone right into 2010. There was also the prospect of a years-long world tour that might bring in as much as $400 million. In the days just before he died, Jackson was in Los Angeles rehearsing for the London shows.
Even if he had succeeded in making it back to the top for a while, however, it would have always been difficult to imagine Jackson, the eternal child, in old age. It was hard not to picture him as ever more eccentric and secluded, like Howard Hughes, or Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. The Michael Jackson we prefer to keep in our memories is the man-child at the height of his phenomenal powers, the one with the saw-toothed yelps and the jackhammer moves, the one who flung thunderbolts from the stage. That's the man whom the future, which has a way of putting uncomfortable questions to the side, will take to its heart. With reporting by Laura Fitzpatrick, Barbara Kiviat and Julie Rawe