Jackson family win first round of battle for custody

Judge to decide future of singer's three children at hearing in August
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The Independent Online

And so, to court. Michael Jackson's family came out all guns blazing yesterday, as opening shots were fired in two snowballing legal disputes prompted by his death: over the singer's billion-dollar estate, and his three children.

Jackson's mother, Katherine, was made temporary guardian of the children when she filed papers at Los Angeles Superior Court seeking full control over her late son's affairs. Her submission claimed he died without a valid will, and that his children had "no relationship with their biological mother".

The application set the stage for showdowns on 6 July and 3 August, when a judge will consider her application to administer the estate, and weigh up the pros and cons of candidates who volunteer to bring up Michael Jr, 12, Paris, 11, and Prince Michael II, the seven-year-old known as "Blanket."

Both represent high-stakes decisions. Jackson's net worth, which was roughly $400m [£240m] in the red, has soared in value since his death. They also promise some controversy: the singer's lawyer John Branca was yesterday reported to have a copy of a recently signed will.

The custody issue remains tricky. It would usually go to a surviving parent, but Jackson's children have complex provenance. The eldest two were born to his second wife and former nurse, Debbie Rowe. The youngest had a surrogate mother, who is thought to now reside in Europe.

L Londell McMillan, a show-business attorney acting as the Jackson family's legal representative and spokesman, hit the airwaves yesterday to argue the case for Katherine, who has been caring for the children since their father's death. "The fortunate reality is they have a long-term relationship with their loving grandmother, who the world knows and appreciates is just an amazing woman, a very, very loving and strong woman," he told NBC News. "She presently has custody, and I guess there isn't... anyone better."

Mr McMillan claimed the family has yet to hear from Ms Rowe. She surrendered custody as part of her $10m divorce in 1999, but successfully challenged that agreement in 2006, and has since been entitled to one parental visit every 46 days. Some reports suggest Ms Rowe is ready to "fight tooth and nail" to bring up her children. Her attorney, Iris Finsilver, released a statement at the weekend describing her as "inconsolable" about the loss of "a beautiful and loving soul".

The Jackson family's other priority is to establish exactly what caused the 50-year-old singer to suffer a cardiac arrest at his rented home in Holmby Hills, just days before he was due to visit London for his first live tour for 12 years. Reports have suggested that he was taking a dangerous array of prescription drugs. However, Jackson's personal physician, Dr Conrad Murray, has denied responsibility for any such regime, and disputed reports that he injected Jackson with the painkiller Demerol shortly before his collapse.

Full details of pharmaceuticals in his system will not be known until either the coroner reports in four-six weeks, or the family publishes toxicology tests from its own autopsy. There are also concerns that Dr Murray, who was present when Jackson stopped breathing, botched a CPR procedure by conducting it on a soft bed, rather than a harder surface.

"The family is quite deeply troubled with the circumstances surrounding the death, as most people who know about the facts are," Mr McMillan said yesterday. "It's been well documented that Michael was receiving medical care on a bed as opposed to on the floor. So the facts speak to themselves."

Lawyers hired by Dr Murray, who was $400,000 in debt following a string of legal battles, claimed yesterday that he carried out the CPR with one hand behind the patient's back.

That will cut little ice with Jackson's father, Joe. In two public statements – at the Black Entertainment Television awards in Los Angeles on Sunday, and outside the family home in Encino yesterday – he claimed to have "a lot of concerns" over his son's death, adding: "I don't like what happened."

Asked about how the mood of Jackson's nearest and dearest, Joe said: "My family's doing pretty good. Yes they are. It has been really tough. Remember, we just lost the biggest star, the biggest superstar in the world."

Architect of singer's success: His father, Joseph Jackson

There's a time and a place to plug your new business venture, and as Joseph Jackson just inelegantly demonstrated, it's very much not during the first two interviews you give to mark the death of your widely-adored son. Hiding behind an enormous pair of dark glasses, the patriarch of the Jackson clan twice delivered perfunctory tributes to Michael, before attempting to drum up interest in what appears to be his latest get-rich-quick scheme.

His first effort came in an interview with CNN, on a red carpet on Sunday. "This is Marshall here," he said, gesturing to a companion. "Marshall and I, we own a record company called... tell him." The man broke in saying: "Ranch Records, it's driven by Blu-ray technology, that's his next step."

More of the same came yesterday, when he interrupted a news conference with the Rev Al Sharpton to shamelessly say his firm had "a lot of good ideas waiting to come out".

Both were clanging public gestures from an 80-year-old man who was the architect of the King of Pop's extraordinary rise, yet has for most of his life been also held responsible for his downfall.

A failed boxer, musician and crane operator from Gary, Indiana, Joe founded the Jackson 5 in the 1960s, and went on to preside over his children's careers with an iron fist blamed for the psychological problems that dogged Michael's adult life. In Martin Bashir's 2003 documentary, Michael recalled that Joe conducted rehearsals with a belt in his hand. "If you didn't do it the right way, he would tear you up, really get you," he recalled.

The quiet fixture in his life: his mother, Katherine Jackson

In a story thick with potential villains, the one member of Michael Jackson's circle to emerge as a heroine is Katherine, his 79-year-old mother and one of the few close personal confidantes who always seemed to have his best interests at heart.

Since her son's death, Katherine has remained largely hidden at the family home in Encino, caring for her three suddenly bereaved grandchildren.

There is much to support her claim for long-term custody, not least the fact that it will allow the siblings to remain in each other's company. Giving the eldest two to their biological mother, Debbie Rowe, would leave the fate of the youngest in doubt.

More importantly, Katherine is the only potential guardian who does not appear to be motivated by financial gain. A strict Christian, and Jehovah's Witness, who used to sew the Jackson 5's costumes during their early days, she maintained regular contact with Michael and his children.

In recent years, when the singer was often short of funds, she allowed them to stay, without compensation, for extended periods at her home in a gated community in Las Vegas where she tends to reside - while her husband Joe prefers the main Encino property. Her marriage is complex. Though often estranged, thanks to his occasional adultery, Katherine never sought a divorce and they celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary in Las Vegas this year.