Supporters of Jackson gather at Calif. ranch

Sunday, December 21, 2003

LOS OLIVOS, Calif. -- Friends and relatives of Michael Jackson descended on his Neverland Ranch on Saturday to show their support for the entertainer who is fighting child molestation charges.

The private gathering behind the gates of the sprawling estate was described as a homecoming for Jackson, who has kept a low profile in Las Vegas and undisclosed locations since surrendering to authorities on Nov. 20 and being released on $3 million bail.

"This event is to show Michael that he has the love and support of his friends and family," Jackson's spokesman Stuart Backerman told reporters outside the estate.

The gathering -- entitled "You Are Not Alone" after a Jackson song -- drew about 600 people, including celebrities such as comedian Eddie Griffin and "American Idol" host and DJ Ryan Seacrest.

More than 450 cars entered the main gate of the estate. Fans ran up to a black Mercedes that carried two people who appeared to be Jackson's parents.

About 20 reporters staked out the gate, along with a dozen fans. One sign pasted on a car read, "Michael is innocent!! Leave him alone!!"

Sheree Wilkins, 32, of Inglewood, said she was contacted Thursday by an assistant to Katherine Jackson, the pop star's mother, about attending Saturday's gathering.

"That's Michael's style. When he wants to say thanks, he does it big and invites the people who care about him," said Wilkins, who has visited the Neverland compound several times before.

Jackson was charged Thursday with seven counts of performing lewd or lascivious acts upon a child under 14 and two counts of administering an intoxicating agent. He maintains his innocence.

Jackson was looking forward to thanking people who have stood by him, said Brian Oxman, a lawyer and Jackson friend who planned to attend Saturday's gathering.

"It's for family and friends to say thank you from Michael to people he loves and who have supported him," Oxman said. "It's not a party. It's not a pep rally. It's not hoopla or celebration."

Jackson soon will travel to England to fulfill unspecified contractual obligations. There have been reports he will be promoting his latest CD, "Number Ones," which is doing better in the United Kingdom than it is in the United States.

Mark Beaumont, a staff writer at music magazine NME, said he doesn't expect a rapturous welcome for Jackson if he goes ahead with his visit to England.

"There will always be the hardcore fans but that is a relatively small group now and people are becoming more suspicious," Beaumont said.

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