Michael Jackson child abuse claims denied: Inquiry follows extortion attempt, employee of star says

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THE WORLD of music and entertainment was in shock yesterday as news spread that Michael Jackson, the pop idol of millions of youngsters, is the subject of a criminal investigation that reportedly centres on an allegation of child abuse.

It was confirmed yesterday that police conducted a weekend search at the Californian properties of the reclusive, and often eccentric, multi-millionaire star - but detectives refused to elaborate on the nature of the investigation.

According to an investigator who works for Mr Jackson, the inquiry has arisen from a botched attempt to extort dollars 20m ( pounds 13.3m) from the star, which led to a baseless complaint of child abuse. The US police are obliged to investigate any such allegation. Anthony Pellicano, a private detective who said he had worked with the superstar for four years, said: 'These people tried to extort Michael for a lot of money. When we would not pay, a phone call was made to Child and Family Services, which started this investigation.' He said the entertainer was the victim of 25 to 30 extortion attempts a year, and predicted he would be cleared.

According to law enforcement sources, investigators with search warrants raided Mr Jackson's condominium in Los Angeles at the weekend, and also Neverland, his exotic ranch 130 miles from the city where he has an amusement park which he occasionally opens for under-privileged children.

Mr Jackson, 34, was last night under siege from the media at his hotel in Bangkok, where he has begun a world tour. He issued a statement through his lawyer saying the investigation would 'demonstrate there was no wrong-doing on my part', adding he was grateful for the 'overwhelming support' of fans throughout the world. It concluded: 'I love you all, thank you, Michael.'

Los Angeles Police Department said the investigation began six days ago, and Mr Jackson had been co-operating fully.

The allegations caused surprise and indignation among Mr Jackson's aides. A child star who claims his father physically abused him, Mr Jackson has long had a reputation for devoting time and large sums of money to children's causes. He has always said he finds it easier to forge relationships with youngsters than with adults - a characteristic which, given his fame and wealth, has exposed him to the risk of extortion.

In a television interview in February, he told the American talk-show hostess Oprah Winfrey that he was compensating for his lost childhood. 'People always wonder why I have children around,' he explained. 'I adore all that stuff.'