WARNING: The following text includes graphic details of child sexual abuse.
In the second part of Dan Reed’s unnerving HBO documentary Finding Neverland, the subjects express conflicting emotions about their alleged abuser. Both James Safechuck and Wade Robson say they felt hurt and jealous when Michael Jackson “replaced” them with other boys. Yet both still felt attached to him. “I felt special. I was, like, head-over-heels in love with Michael,” Robson says. “And he said he loved me.” He claims that was his motivation for keeping the secret, even as he began to suspect Jackson was involved with other boys.
In 1993, Culkin, Robson, and a new boy named Jordan Chandler took part in a mass sleepover at Neverland. Out of nowhere, Robson remembers, “Michael and Jordy were gone. They had gone in one of his bathrooms, and the door was closed.” Wade became convinced that Jackson and Chandler were doing the same sexual things that he and Jackson had done.
That concern deepened in August, when two cops showed up at Robson’s door. They informed him that Jackson was being investigated for child abuse. Jordan Chandler’s father had accused Jackson of molesting his son. Police in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara launched separate criminal investigations, according to the New York Times.
“As soon as the cop started asking me these questions, the first thing that came to mind for me was everything that Michael started saying to me when I was 7,” says Robson, who was 11 at the time. “If anyone ever found out that we were doing any of these sort of things, these sexual things, that he and I would go to jail for the rest of our lives. It was terrifying.” There was good reason to fear: the deposition included testimony from Jackson’s maid, who claimed to have seen him naked with boys on several occasions. The chaffeur said he’d dropped Jackson off at Chandler’s house 30 days in a row (!)
Robson and Safechuck emphatically denied any abuse, both to their parents and law enforcement agents. The Robsons defended Jackson on television. Joy Robson, when asked what a 35-year-old Jackson was doing with young boys, answered: “It’s just party time. They watch videos. They eat junk food. They play video games.” Wade and his sister Chantal defended Jackson in that televised interview, insisting that Jackson had never inappropriately touched either of them. Joy “I loved this man. I trusted him. I didn’t think that he would do anything,” Chantal Robson now says. Her brother had a different take. “I knew it was true, but I couldn’t let myself go there,” Wade Robson says. “Michael told me that I had to lie, and that’s what I did. I lied.”
Both Wade Robson and James Safechuck testified in Jackson’s defense during his 1993 trial. “I was excited by the idea of being able to defend him,” Robson says, “and to save him.” Still attached to Jackson — and terrified of being caught — Robson says his hands were tied. “I had no choice but to say what I said in that deposition when I was 11.” Safechuck, who was 16 at the time, prepared for the case by doing a mock interview with Jackson’s lawyers. “We’d rehearsed so much it was like going through the motions,” he says — “like part of my job, to do that for Michael.”
Jackson and his defense painted the case as an extortion attempt. “He used the ‘They want fame and money’ card,” Safechuck remembers. “Like, that was kind of what he pitched to everybody.” His mother Stephanie says that when she confronted Jackson about Jordan Chandler’s allegations, Jackson replied, “His father wants money.”
He got it. In Sept. 1994, Jackson and Chandler’s family reached an out-of-court settlement. (The New York Times reports that the settlement was for $23 million.) Joy Robson took the settlement as proof of extortion: “To me, it proves that all it was about, all along, was money. How much money would make it okay for your child to be abused?” Robson asks rhetorically. “To me, no amount of money would make that okay. If I thought that he touched my son I would not stop ’til he was behind bars.”
Jackson, who both men say had made little contact with them in previous months, was now ubiquitous. Safechuck says that he was just happy Jackson was talking to him again. Robson, too, reports that Jackson had been absent for weeks, but suddenly was calling (and even faxing) daily. After the settlement, the contact continued. Jackson rewarded the family’s defense of him by buying Safechuck a car when he turned 16 and by loaning the Safechucks money for a house. The Robsons, for their part, re-joined Jackson at Neverland soon after the settlement. “Mom stayed in one of the rooms upstairs at Neverland, and I went into Michael’s room and into Michael’s bed, and the same sexual stuff all happened again,” Robson says.
By May 1994, Jackson had married Lisa Marie Presley. Safechuck wasn’t shocked: “I remember Michael saying to me that he’s going to have to have these public relationships with women so that people don’t think anything. He would always say he’s going to get married; he said he’d have to go get married at some point, but that it wouldn’t mean anything.” But Jackson’s resulting absence hurt not only Safechuck but his mother, who had also drawn close to Jackson. “I loved him. He was one of my children,” she says in the film.
By 1996, Robson was 14 and teaching a dance class. At Jackson’s hotel, the routine restarted — but with a twist. Robson alleges that Jackson tried to have intercourse with him, “but it was too painful for me, so he stopped.” The next day, Jackson summoned Wade back to the hotel. “What did you do with your underwear?” he asked. Wade answered that he didn’t know; he’d showered and changed. “There might be some blood on them, and if there is, you gotta get rid of them,” he recalls Jackson telling him. After returning to his mother’s condo, Robson discovered some drops of blood on the underwear and threw them away. That was the last sexual contact that Robson had with Jackson.
As the 1990s drew to a close, Jackson’s contact with both boys waned, and Wade’s career took off. By 16, he was choreographing Britney Spears; he choreographed Spears’ Pepsi commercials and co-directed her 1999-2000 tour. He also co-directed the No Strings Attached tour for a popular boy band. “At 17, with N’SYNC, I directed what I think at the time was considered the largest tour — I mean just in scale, the size — that had ever happened,” Robson says in the film. In 2001, Robson and singer Justin Timberlake co-wrote the hit singles “Pop” and “Gone” for N’SYNC’s final album Celebrity.
During this time, Wade also tried to reconnect with his father Dennis. But Dennis, battling bipolar disorder, would often disappear in the middle of the night for walks around the city or random bus rides. His children would have to find him. This unpredictable behavior put further distance between Wade and his father. In 2001, Dennis committed suicide by hanging himself. After a night of emotional mourning with his family, Robson went right back to work.
As they entered their early twenties, both men formed adult relationships: Wade met his future wife Amanda at a nightclub in 2001, when he was 19 (she was 22). Safechuck moved in with girlfriend Laura roughly six months after they started dating. (The two met in a dive bar, where Safechuck was gigging with a band.) They ended up working together. But as they became husbands (and eventually fathers), both Safechuck and Robson suffered from depression, anxiety, and insomnia. “One of the weird things is not liking yourself and not knowing why,” Safechuck says. “Constant anxiety and then depression and not knowing why you’re like that.” Laura recalls times that James would
In November 2003, Michael Jackson was arrested. He was charged with seven counts of lewd acts with a child and two counts of giving alcohol to a child with the intent of a lewd act. This time, the charges were centered around 13-year-old Gavin Arizo. Audio from his interview with investigators is in the film. “He put his hand in my pants,” the boy is heard saying. “Outside or inside?” the investigator asks. “Inside,” Gavin says. “He started masturbating me. I told him I didn’t want to…”
As he’d done before, Jackson turned to Robson, Safechuck, and their families. Safechuck refused to do so: “I was kind of breaking, like, having a nervous breakdown. And I didn’t want to be involved,” Safechuck says. Though Jackson cajoled and then threatened him via phone, Safechuck held firm. He told Jackson not to call again, then hung up. It would be the last time they ever spoke.
Though Robson was initially reluctant to testify, Jackson eventually wore him down. “I would have dreams of Michael being in jail, and being killed in jail or dying in jail,” he remembers. That, combined with his concern about Jackson’s children losing their father, compelled him to testify. (So did the subpoena he received.) Robson’s testimony was credited with Jackson’s eventual acquittal in 2005.
Over the course of the film, the two men discuss the effects of the abuse on them — and their reaction to Jackson’s death in 2009. Both were saddened, but their emotional upheaval only deepened in the months after Jackson’s death. Safechuck suffered a breakdown after the birth of his son: “I think the abuse symptoms intensify when you have kids,” he says. “Like, you see how innocent kids are.” Similarly, Wade’s struggles intensified after his son Koa was born in Nov. 2010. He’d just landed his first job as a feature film director, but fatherhood and the stress of the film undid him. “I stopped being able to sleep at all,” Robson recalls. A year and a half after Koa was born, Robson had visions of his own abuse happening to Koa. He entered therapy and, for the first time, revealed what had happened to him. Robson later told his family.
In 2013, Robson went public, sharing his story in an interview on the “Today” show. Safechuck — who was drinking, having marital problems, and battling “a lot of self-hatred” — saw the appearance. After seeing Robson’s interview, Safechuck was compelled to tell his wife about the abuse. He then revealed the truth to his mother and siblings, all of whom were shocked by the news.
Today, Robson continues to work as a dance teacher; he won two Primetime Emmys for his choreography work on Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance.” Safechuck, meanwhile, is a director of innovation and technology at a digital advertising company. But both still carry the scars of what happened to them. “They say time heals all wounds,” Safechuck says towards the end of the film, “but I don’t think time heals this one.”