TRIGGER WARNING FOR EXPLICIT GRAPHIC DESCRIPTIONS OF SEXUAL ACTS WITH A MINOR
This article originally appeared in The Daily Beast. What follows is the unedited, original article.
Two accusers come forward with graphic accounts of alleged child sex abuse by the King of Pop in a disturbing but essential new 4-hour documentary that premiered at Sundance.
Famed choreographer Wade Robson learned how to dance from watching Michael Jackson videos. His entire career is owed to Jackson’s mentorship. The King of Pop was the largest creative force and inspiration in his life. And, as Robson says in the new documentary Leaving Neverland: “He also sexually abused me. For seven years.”
Robson, who first caught the public eye at age 5 when Jackson invited him to dance on stage during the Bad tour, and later became a teen-phenom choreographer for Britney Spears and NSYNC, had revealed Jackson’s abuse, which started when he was 7 years old, before. He controversially came forward with the allegations in 2013, four years after Jackson had died and almost a decade after testifying in court that Jackson had never abused him. Robson’s testimony helped exonerate Jackson.
But in Leaving Neverland, Robson delivers a meticulous and graphic account of being sexually abused by Jackson. He describes the psychological damage inflicted by Jackson that forced Robson to keep the secret, reveals the lasting effects of the abuse into adulthood, and explains why he is coming forward now. Robson’s account is disturbingly mirrored by that of James Safechuck, a former child actor who starred in one of Jackson’s Pepsi commercials and says he suffered the same years-long pattern of sexual abuse after the singer befriended and, by their accounts, bewitched his family.
The four-hour, two-part documentary premiered Friday morning at the Sundance Film Festival, preceded by a warning about the graphic descriptions of sexual acts against a minor that would follow. (We’ll offer the same warning here.)
Robson and Safechuck recount incidents of masturbation, kissing, oral sex, being forced to caress Jackson’s nipples, bending over for him while he pleasured himself, and being coaxed into painful anal sex.”
They confess how Jackson brainwashed them into keeping it a secret and had carefully laid plans in place to keep them from getting caught. Both of their families are interviewed, painting a picture of how Jackson’s celebrity and child-like nature seduced them into a place of trust, chronicling through the present day the collective pain the families suffered when the truth was revealed.
The Sundance screening began nearly 30 minutes late due to intense security measures brought on by threats from protesters angry that Robson and Safechuck, whose stories have been inconsistent over the years, were given the documentary’s platform to “tarnish” Jackson’s legacy. A major police presence lined the Park City street outside the building and at one point a bomb-sniffing dog entered the theater during the screening, though only a handful of protesters could be spotted outside. Online, fans heralding Jackson’s innocence have flooded social media to discredit the documentary.
(Worth noting: Leaving Neverland premiered at Sundance three years after a Spike Lee-directed documentary on the pop star, produced by the Jackson estate, that glossed over the molestation accusations almost entirely. “The legacy has been hijacked,” Lee told The Daily Beast at the time.)
Director Dan Reed made the conscious decision to limit the documentary solely to the accounts of Robson, Safechuck, and their families rather than re-litigate the two civil cases brought against Jackson or—explaining the criticism, perhaps—hear from anyone from the Jackson camp or staff who could either corroborate or refute their accounts. It’s “a film about two families whose paths crossed with the greatest entertainer ever produced,” he told the audience before the screening.
Both Robson and Safechuck tearfully took the stage to a standing ovation after the credits rolled. “I want to speak the truth as loud as I had to speak the lie for so long,” Robson says at the end of the documentary.
“Michael would like it if you would bend over…”
In 1986, James Safechuck got his big break when he was cast in a 1986 Pepsi commercial starring Michael Jackson. After filming was done, Jackson invited him to hang out in his trailer, which his mother, Stephanie, allowed after being assured by the singer’s hairstylist that “he’s like a little 9-year-old boy.”
Later, Jackson invited the entire Safechuck family to dinner at his house, wowing them with a screening of a yet-to-be-released film in his home movie theater and gifting Safechuck his “Thriller” jacket and wad of cash as he was leaving. Jackson would eventually befriend Safechuck’s parents, with Stephanie saying she thought of the legend as her own son. He would stay the night at their house, and she would even wash his clothes.
The summer after school ended, Jackson invited the Safechucks on tour with him. Safechuck, who was 10 years old at the time, called it “like two friends going on an adventure.” It was after weeks of pleading that Stephanie says she finally allowed her son to sleep in a bed alone with Jackson, something that seemed natural after watching the two interact like childhood friends despite their two-decade age difference. It was then, in a Paris hotel room, that the alleged abuse started.
Safechuck says that Jackson introduced him to masturbation that first night, having him doing it so often that the boy’s penis swelled and Jackson would have to dip it in warm water so that he could pee. Safechuck says it felt like a “bond” between them.
“Michael would like it if you would bend over and spread your cheeks,” he says. “Then he would masturbate.” He says that Jackson liked to have his nipples rubbed. Over time, a routine developed that would start with French kissing, include the masturbation, and eventually evolve to oral sex. Safechuck says that Jackson performed oral sex on him the first time while he was sleeping. He also allegedly told him that it was his very first sexual experience, something that only made Safechuck feel more special.
Jackson would allegedly run drills training Safechuck to get dressed as quickly and as quietly as possible, in case anyone interrupted him. He told him that if anybody found out, both of their lives would be ruined.
When Jackson bought and remodeled Neverland Ranch, he told Safechuck that the sprawling property was for him. Safechuck recounts all the places they would engage in sexual acts: in the bedroom closet, so that there were more barriers; in an attic; in toy teepees outside; in a movie theater. “It sounds sick, but it’s kind of like when you’re first dating somebody,” Safechuck recalls. “You do a lot of it”
“In a little 7-year-old’s mouth…”
Wade Robson spent his childhood in Brisbane, Australia, idolizing Michael Jackson. He got to meet the entertainer at age 5 after winning a dance-a-like contest and appeared on stage with him. During a family trip to Los Angeles two years later, Jackson invited the Robson family to Neverland for the weekend. He then invited Robson, who was 7, and his sister Chantal, who was 10, to spend the night in his room with him. Their parents agreed.
When the Robsons left for five days to sightsee at the Grand Canyon, they agreed to let Wade stay behind with Jackson. That first night alone together, Robson alleges that Jackson began fondling him over his pajamas, and then under. There was “nothing aggressive about it,” Robson says. “I wasn’t scared.”
Jackson then, Robson says, guided the boy to do the same to his erect penis. “You and I were brought together by God,” Robson says Jackson told him. “This is how we show our love.”
Throughout the week, Robson says they would shower together, French kiss, and he would squeeze Jackson’s nipples. Jackson, he says, performed oral sex on him and then convinced him to do the same. “In a little 7-year-old’s mouth…” Robson says, shaking his head. He alleges that Jackson would have him kneel on all fours on the bed and expose his anus while he masturbated, sometimes sticking his tongue in it.
He says he went through the same gaslighting about how no one would believe him if he talked about the sexual acts, with Jackson allegedly telling him they would both be jailed if it came out. “I liked the feeling that I was making him happy, that I was pleasing him,” Robson says.
Getting older—and jealous
Safechuck confesses at one point that he and Jackson had a mock wedding ceremony, even showing the camera the alleged diamond-encrusted ring they used that he still owns. The singer would reward him with jewelry for sexual acts, he says.
As he got older and approached his teenage years, he says the sex got dirtier, as Jackson introduced alcohol. One time, Safechuck says Jackson put his finger in his anus, even though he asked him not to.
Robson says that Jackson was the first person to ever show him pornography as he got older. Several years later, when Robson was 14, Jackson brought him back to his hotel. At this point, Robson was roughly the same size as Jackson. During this encounter, Robson alleges that Jackson attempted to penetrate him anally, though the act was too painful for Robson and did not last long.
The next day, Robson claims that Jackson told him to find and get rid of his bloody underwear. It would be their last sexual experience together.
Both Safechuck and Robson admit that, as they got older and Jackson would befriend new boys, they became jealous. Macaulay Culkin and Brett Barnes are given as examples of “replacements.”
Both Culkin and Barnes deny ever being sexually abused by Jackson.
Safechuck and Robson both testified in Jackson’s defense when 13-year-old Jordan Chandler accused Jackson of sexual abuse. The case was settled out of court, and both Safechuck and Robson’s parents, after having given Jackson so much trust, assumed it was a cash grab on the part of Chandler’s parents.
When another trial was brought against Jackson in 2003, Safechuck refused to testify on his behalf. Robson, however, did take the stand, asserting that Jackson never abused him. His testimony is credited with convincing the jury that Jackson was innocent. In 2013, Robson revealed publicly that he had lied on the stand.
“This was a long time coming…”
What’s notable about Leaving Neverland is its scope. It doesn’t distill Safechuck and Robson’s cases to the most salacious sex allegations. It spends time with their respective families to understand how semi-watchful parents could be so ignorant of what was going on, and why the two boys would bury the truth about their relationship with the entertainer for so long.
“The film follows the effects of their alleged abuse through those milestones and, once they told their families what actually happened, the difficult paths to understanding and forgiveness.”
More, it indicts so many people: the Safechuck and Robson families, the people in Jackson’s camp, Jackson’s fans, the media, and all of us. This was happening in plain sight. The amount of footage of Jackson walking hand-in-hand with a carousel of young boys through the years is shocking. He was exonerated for it twice. In many fans’ eyes, for a lifetime.
When Safechuck took the stage after the Sundance premiere, he was overwhelmed, saying, “This was a long time coming.” He had been inspired to come out with his story after seeing Robson’s interview on the Today show and hoped to connect with him, but legally the two were kept apart until the Friday screening.
During the post-screening Q&A, another child sex abuse survivor stood up and shared his story. Asked what to say to fans who find it hard to believe their stories and angry at a project that could sully Jackson’s legacy, Robson said, “I don’t feel like there’s anything I need to say to them except I understand that it’s hard for them to believe.” After all, he spent decades unable to believe that what happened to him at the hand of his hero and friend was “bad.”
“We can only accept and understand something when we’re ready,” he said. “Maybe we’ll never be ready. Maybe we will. That’s their journey.”
Ohio State University Doctor Richard Strauss Sexually Abused 177 Male Students, Report Finds
An Ohio State team doctor sexually abused at least 177 male students from 1979 to 1996, and school officials failed to take appropriate action despite being aware of numerous reports of the physician’s misconduct over the 17-year period, according to an investigative report released Friday.
The abuse included athletes from at least 15 sports and also encompassed other students who saw physician Richard Strauss at the school’s student health center and an off-campus clinic.
According to the report, the school “had knowledge” of sexually abusive treatment from Strauss as early as 1979, “but reports about Strauss’ conduct were not elevated beyond the Athletics Department or Student Health until 1996.”
The report found male students regularly complained “that Strauss routinely performed excessive — and seemingly medically unnecessary — genital exams, regardless of the medical condition the student-patients presented.”
Strauss died in 2005. He was employed by the university from 1978 to ’98 but was suspended from his work as a treating physician in January 1996 after a patient accused Strauss of fondling him during a genital examination. Strauss continued in his role as a tenured faculty member, though, and was allowed to retire voluntarily. The school said it has initiated the process to revoke the faculty emeritus status that was conferred upon Strauss.
“On behalf of the university, we offer our profound regret and sincere apologies to each person who endured Strauss’ abuse,” Ohio State President Michael V. Drake wrote in a message to the campus community on Friday. “Our institution’s fundamental failure at the time to prevent this abuse was unacceptable — as were the inadequate efforts to thoroughly investigate complaints raised by students and staff members.”
The report, which is expected to cost the school $6.2 million, was the result of a year-long investigation by the law firm the Perkins, Coie LLP, which conducted 600 interviews with 520 subjects, including hundreds of former students.
Read the full-released report below (TRIGGER WARNING for explicit, graphic sexual content):
According to the report, “Strauss’ acts of abuse ranged from the overt — such as fondling to the point of erection and ejaculation — to more subtle acts of abuse that were masked with a pretextual medical purpose — for example, requiring a student-patient to strip completely naked to purportedly ‘assess’ an orthopedic condition, or asking probing questions about a student-patient’s sexual practices or performance.”
The investigators heard firsthand accounts of abuse from 177 victims but made clear there could have been more and noted that an additional 38 people reported an abusive experience with an Ohio State doctor but could not identify Strauss with complete certainty.
Much of the report focused on how much school officials knew and whether anyone took appropriate actions to stop Strauss when concerns were raised.
“Many of the students felt that Strauss’ behavior was an ‘open secret,’ as it appeared to them that their coaches, trainers, and other team physicians were fully aware of Strauss’ activities, and yet few seemed included to do anything to stop it,” the report stated.
School officials never reported Strauss’s behavior to law enforcement.
“As we suspected from the outset, OSU knew but intentionally failed to act upon the many cries for help by the hundreds of OSU male students who suffered sexual abuse by Dr. Strauss,” said Scott E. Smith, an attorney representing victims who are suing the school. “The systemic sexual abuse, although preventable, was horrifically nurtured by OSU when they chose not to act, turning a blind eye to those they had a duty to protect.”
While some former Ohio State wrestlers have publicly said that Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) must have known about the abuse during Jordan’s tenure as an assistant wrestling coach from 1987 to ’95, the report doesn’t mention Jordan by name.
“We’re glad it’s done and we’re glad the university, for those individuals who were harmed, we’re glad the university has agreed to pay for counseling. But it confirms exactly what I’ve said all along: that I didn’t know any type of harm to athletes,” Jordan said Friday. “If I did, I would have done something about it.”
Asked if the report provided some closure for Jordan and his alleged role in the controversy, the lawmaker said, “I thought it was closed for me a long time ago and you guys know me — if I thought one of our athletes was being harmed, I’ve taken on the FBI, I’ve taken on the IRS, John Boehner — I’d have done something. But yeah, we’re glad that the report’s done and that people who need counseling and want counseling, the university’s going to pay for that.”
While the report cites numerous instances in which athletic administrators were made aware of questionable behavior by Strauss, the investigators said they “did not identify any other contemporaneous documentary evidence indicating that members of the OSU coaching staff, including head coaches or assistant coaches, received or were aware of complaints regarding Strauss sexual misconduct.”
Three groups of plaintiffs have sued Ohio State, and the school says it is actively participating in a mediation process.
“We hope that the report will force OSU to take responsibility for its failure to protect young students,” Steve Estey, an attorney representing some of the victims, said in a statement. “If OSU refuses to take responsibility the we will continue with civil litigation and put this in front of a jury for the community to judge their actions.”
“The University’s apology to the survivors of Strauss’ abuse would have been hollow even 20 years ago. Today, it is shockingly ineffective,” Adele P. Kimmel, an attorney representing another group, said.
While the abuse spanned nearly all of the men’s sports teams offered at Ohio State, the most instances of abuse involved members of the wrestling program (48 victims). The report described much of Strauss’s alleged actions in detail and said the abuse often took place during athletes’ preseason physicals. Others sought treatment for injuries and illnesses. One reported visiting Strauss with strep throat symptoms and during the exam, “Strauss fondled the student’s genitals to the degree that he brought the student to an erection.”
The report stated that the abuse rarely occurred on an initial visit and often escalated over time. Forty-two students described encounters that included excessive touching or groping. In one instance, Strauss explained his inappropriate actions by telling the athlete he was checking for male breast cancer.
Thirty-one victims told investigators Strauss unnecessarily required partial or full nudity during exams, which often resulted in the doctor caressing or fondling the student. Two victims told investigators that Strauss performed unwanted oral sex.
The report stated that “it was broadly known within the Athletics Department that Strauss showered alongside the male students,” and 84 students described times in which Strauss showered around students or loitered in the locker room as they were nude or undressing.
One gymnast said Strauss showered as many as six times a day, and numerous athletes said Strauss would time his showers to coincide with the school’s various teams, “taking up to 45-minute showers while staring at the wrestlers and their genitals,” the report stated.
While the allegations mostly involved college students, one victim told investigators that he was first abused by Strauss when he was 14 years old in an incident that took place under the guise of a body-fat testing study that Strauss administrated at an area high school.
Friday’s report brought mixed reaction from some of the victims.
“When I first saw it, I was relieved because it validated what we’ve been saying for almost a year and a half,” said Brian Garrett, a former nursing student who worked in Strauss’ clinic. “But now I’m angry because the coverup back then was even worse than we knew.”
While many of the allegations had surfaced in a news accounts and lawsuits, Friday’s report painted a full picture of both Stauss’ misdeeds and also Ohio State’s response. Kent Kilgore, a former swimmer at the school, said the school’s inaction over nearly two decades was particularly upsetting.
“I knew what he did, and I know how many years I’ve had to deal with this,” he said in an interview. “But I’m just stunned by how many others were involved in this and aware of what was going on. I can’t believe they allowed that man to continue for that long.
“I don’t know why years and years ago, when he was doing what he was doing to me, I didn’t pick him up and slam him into the mat. I could’ve stopped a lot of other athletes’ pain. That’s haunted me for 30 years.”
Several victims told investigators the Ohio State athletes talked openly about the doctor’s behavior in front of coaching staff, but “we could not make conclusive determinations about each and every allegation made about a particular coach’s knowledge.”
Twenty-two coaches interviewed by investigators said they were aware of rumors or complaints regarding Strauss. One coach told investigators that he didn’t complain to administrators but did personally confront Strauss about his behavior around his athletes. The unnamed coach “believed that any jokes or innuendo he heard about Strauss were due to Strauss’ rumored homosexuality — or simply the student-athletes’ discomfort with medical examinations — rather than any abusive conduct by Strauss,” the report stated.
The abuse began in 1979, Strauss’s first year of employment at the state’s flagship university, and the report says athletic department employees were “aware that Strauss was conducting genital examinations on male athletes that were unusually prolonged, and that Strauss refused to allow athletic training staff to be present for these protracted genital examinations.”
It continued even after Strauss was suspended from treating students in 1996. The report says around that time, Strauss opened an off-campus “men’s clinic” where he continued to see patients and abuse Ohio State students. He advertised his services in the school newspaper, offering a “student discount” to test students for sexually-transmitted diseases.
“The findings of the report have shaken us to our core,” said Michael J. Gasser, the chair of the school’s board of trustees. “The university is committed to supporting the safety and well-being of our entire community. The lessons of the past will continue to inform our efforts today and well into the future.”
(Reporting by Washington Post)
Judge Orders Life Sentence For Iowa Coach Who Abused Players
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (AP) — A judge sent an influential youth basketball coach to prison for the rest of his life on Thursday, saying he secretly collected sexual images of 440 boys and molested more than a dozen over a 20-year period.
U.S. District Judge C.J. Williams sentenced former Iowa Barnstormers coach Greg Stephen to 180 years in federal prison, the maximum penalty he faced on sexual exploitation and pornography charges. Williams called Stephen’s crimes horrendous, saying he abused his position of trust to prey upon boys who saw him as their ticket to college basketball.
“The harm the defendant caused to the children is incalculable and profound,” Williams said from the bench in federal court in Cedar Rapids. He said Stephen’s conduct was “of such an extreme nature” that it warranted an effective life term.
The sentence, handed down after a daylong hearing, capped one of Iowa’s largest and most stunning sexual abuse prosecutions involving youth sports.
Stephen, 43, had worked with Iowa’s most promising youth players as a co-director and coach of the Barnstormers, which was sponsored by Adidas and competed nationally. Almost all of the high school seniors he worked with earned college athletic scholarships, including to play at universities such as Iowa, Northern Iowa and Wisconsin.
Stephen secretly amassed a digital collection of thousands of sexual videos and photos of his players and their friends. The majority of the victims were coerced by online personas in which Stephen pretended to be a teenage girl and enticed them to provide videos and photos of themselves masturbating — relationships that went on for years. Others were surreptitiously recorded by devices that Stephen placed in bathrooms in hotels and his home or disrobed by Stephen and photographed while they slept.
On at least 15 occasions between 1999 and 2018, Stephen touched boys, often as he shared a hotel bed with them during trips to tournaments and professional basketball games, according to Thursday’s testimony.
One of the boys later told police he kept quiet for years because he believed Stephen was his link to college basketball coaches for whom he dreamed of one day playing, Division of Criminal Investigation agent Ryan Kedley testified.
“He decided to swallow that experience and not tell anyone,” Kedley said.
Federal prosecutors and the mothers of two victims had urged Williams to impose a life sentence on Stephen, who helped manage his family’s auto dealership in Monticello, Iowa.
“He believed you held the keys to the basketball kingdom,” said the mother of one boy, who was tricked by Stephen into providing images of himself masturbating. “My son trusted you and you destroyed that … How dare you use basketball for your selfish, despicable, disgusting, self-seeking motivation.”
Stephen’s defense had asked Williams for leniency, seeking a sentence of no more than 20 years in prison followed by intensive supervision on release. His lawyers and experts argued that his conduct was primarily as a voyeur, not a hands-on molester, and that he was at a low risk to reoffend now that he’s been caught. Stephen’s father, Roger, said his son had helped him run the dealership after his brother was killed in a traffic accident 7 years ago.
“He is not a threat to society,” he said.
Stephen apologized to his former players and their parents, saying, “I am disgusted. The things I have done are repulsive and wrong.” He said his greatest regret was that his accomplishments as a coach were now tarnished.
Williams rebuked Stephen for that comment, saying his biggest regret should be the harm he caused the boys and their parents.
Stephen came under investigation after his former brother-in-law found one of the recording devices while performing remodeling work at Stephen’s home in Monticello last year and gave it to police. Eventually, investigators found a hard drive that contained more than 400 file folders, each with the name of a different boy, that contained thousands of images collected over more than a decade. A trove of additional pornographic material was stored in a file that was waiting to be organized, Kedley said.
Stephen, who has been jailed since his arrest last year, pleaded guilty to multiple counts of child sexual exploitation and production of child pornography charges. He is expected to appeal his conviction and sentence, in part by arguing that the seizure of the recording device by his former-brother-in-law violated his privacy rights.
California attorney Mark Haushalter said he has been retained for that appeal. “We believe there is merit based on the unusual and extremely unorthodox behavior of law enforcement in this case,” he said.
Patriots Owner Robert Kraft To Reject Plea Deal In Florida Prostitution Case
(CNN) — Robert Kraft will not accept a plea deal offered by Florida prosecutors in the case against the New England Patriots owner and other men accused of soliciting prostitution at a Jupiter, Florida, day spa, a source familiar with the case told CNN on Wednesday.
Prosecutors have offered to drop misdemeanor charges against Kraft and 24 other men in exchange for fines, community service and an admission they would be found guilty should the case go to trial, according to Mike Edmonson, spokesman for the Palm Beach State Attorney’s Office.
Police said Kraft twice visited the Orchids of Asia Day Spa. Video footage showed him receiving “paid acts” in a room at the spa and surveillance video shows him being driven to the spa, police Chief Daniel Kerr said last month.
The deal offered by prosecutors also stipulates that Kraft must undergo a screening for STDs.
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