The never-ending queue at Jackson's Neverland

Fans flocked to Michael Jackson's fantasy home in California yesterday in advance of his funeral, but hopes that the ranch could be turned into a shrine to the singer may be dashed by angry locals. Guy Adams reports
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The Independent Online

In death, the circus lives on. A small town in rural California became an unlikely venue for the greatest show on earth yesterday, as thousands of fans, hundreds of police officers, and a small army of media gathered outside the exotic ranch that Michael Jackson once called home.

They came expecting to see the showbiz version of a royal funeral: the King of Pop's coffin was originally supposed to be loaded into a limousine at noon today before being driven in a vast motorcade to Neverland, the 2,800-acre country pile in leafy countryside north of Santa Barbara.

Yet as evening approached, confusion began to reign amid reports that the planned homecoming and funeral had been scrapped. Public officials had apparently pulled the plug on the event after concluding that massive public interest would create a safety hazard. Instead, a funeral and memorial is expected to take place this weekend, in Los Angeles.

Huge crowds had been arriving at the gates of Neverland on Tuesday, jostling for parking spots alongside a growing fleet of satellite trucks and news crews. Fans spent the day making exotic plans for the moment this afternoon when his 30-vehicle cortege was supposed to crunch up the gravel driveway for the very last time.

"If I had a flock of doves, I would release them," said Amey Avila, who was pitching her tent on the grass verge opposite the gates. "Instead, I think I'll just throw flowers. This is Michael's final farewell, his last concert, the curtain call, the last yee-hah and I wouldn't miss it for the world."

Ms Avila, a 50-year-old housewife from the nearby town of Buellton had jumped in her car with her son, Karson, when TV news reported on Tuesday that Jackson's family had decided to return his body to its former home. "Michael and I were born on the exact same day," she said. "I like to say that we grew up together. He was a sensation, and he changed my life, but I never got to see him. So I'm going to stay here to put that right. I'm at the front of the line to do that, and if means sleeping rough here for three days, so be it."

The decision to disappoint her emerged after Jackson's final will was made public, revealing no particular instructions regarding his funeral and final resting place. The document, written in 2002, was lodged at Los Angeles Superior Court yesterday, and puts his financial estate in a trust, with the proceeds divided between his mother, Katherine, his three children, and charities.

Michael's father, Joe, and the singer's ex-wife Debbie Rowe are cut out of the will, while Katherine is named as preferred custodian of the two sons and one daughter: Michael Jr, 12, Paris, 11, and Prince Michael II, 7. The singer Diana Ross, an old friend of the star, is named as their alternative guardian.

It remains unclear where Jackson will eventually be buried, and his remains could yet find their way to the ranch. The owner of Neverland, which was this year transferred from Jackson to an opaque company controlled by property magnate Tom Barrack, is thought to have applied for a special burial license required under state law.

There is evidence that Barrack is also constructing a mausoleum there. More than a dozen vehicles, including a cement mixer, a tractor, and several lorry-loads of landscaping equipment swept into the property yesterday morning, along with trucks carrying dozens of manual workers.

The activity fuelled persistent rumours that Barrack and the Jackson family hope to turn Neverland into a Californian version of Graceland, the mansion near Memphis where Elvis Presley lived and died, and where hundreds of thousands of paying punters come for guided tours each year. That would bring chaos to the surrounding area.

The small lane outside the property is ill-equipped to cope with a country fete, let alone this week's media circus. Hotels remain fully booked all the way to Santa Barbara, the nearest major city 30 miles away.

"Michael Jackson was part of our cultural history, but so was the hullabulloo and the screaming people," said Sydney Thatcher, who was adding to the pile of cuddly toys, letters and floral tributes yesterday. "I've come today, because if I leave it any longer, I don't reckon I'll get anywhere near. The roads are already grid-locked, it's in the middle of nowhere, and there's zero buses out here. It'll be a mess."

The pandemonium, with almost fifty satellite trucks lining the verge outside Neverland foreshadows a growing battle between those seeking to profit from the ranch's future, and residents of the Santa Ynez valley, including celebrities such as Bo Derek, whose jealously guarded peace and quiet is threatened by any effort to turn it into a visitor attraction.

Some businessmen in Los Olivos, a small and somewhat twee town with a population of 1,000, in the heart of Santa Barbara wine country, are delighted at the prospect of becoming a global tourist destination. And their excitement is apparently shared by the authorities in Santa Barbara, who govern the region around Los Olivos, which is too small to have its own mayor.

Residents, however, are aghast. They suspect, to paraphrase complaints being made in the local stores and wine-tasting rooms, that Neverland will become a gaudy theme park patronised by coach parties and common people. Some are ready to go to court to block development, pointing out that the ranch sits on what is officially designated as agricultural land.

"We are a very prosperous area, we have a lot of movie stars and rock and roll stars here, and they come because of the lifestyle, not economic need," said Mark Oliver, president of the Santa Ynez Valley Association.

"So frankly we don't want or need the jobs this would bring. Neverland is in a conservatory, so to develop it under the law is a very long process. It doesn't happen overnight. In fact, it takes about a decade to get permission for that, even if it were allowed.

"As an organisation, we protect the beautiful land from unlawful hotchpotch development."

Though the Stars and Stripes flag that hangs in the central square of Los Olivos is currently at half mast, residents have a mixed attitude towards the late King of Pop, who they came to know during the two decades that he spent at the ranch he bought during the mid-1980s.

For many years, he was a popular figure, who would patronize local stores, invite parties from nearby schools to play on the fairground rides and arcade games at his ranch, and give generously to local causes.

Yet after Jackson's trial and acquittal on allegations of child molestation, he never returned to live at the property and let it fall into disrepair.

The 150 workers who were employed there were unceremoniously sacked without any compensation. Last year, Neverland fell into foreclosure, and was only saved from repossession by a loan from Barrack, a colourful figure who also owns the Las Vegas Hilton as well as much of the Costa Smeralda in Sardinia. His firm, Colony Capital LLC, in which Jackson and his former manager, Thome Thome, were both partners, controls the estate.

Local conservationists have already had one run-in with Barrack, after he bought the local Happy Valley Vineyard to use as a holiday home, and promptly tried (unsuccessfully) to get permission to open a tasting room there, where paying visitors could sample his "Barrack" wine. Until recently, he was rumoured to be on the verge of unloading Neverland to the toy magnate Ty Warner. But Jackson's sudden death added tens of millions to the property's potential value. Within hours of the singer's demise, Barrack had added smart new signs on the gate saying "Neverland: Once upon a time."

To worried locals, it already looks suspiciously like the entrance to a theme park, a concern heightened by the piped music – including "Billie Jean" – emanating from the gatehouse yesterday.

Many locals point out that the singer is unlikely to have felt any desire to be commemorated at Neverland after the traumatic events of 2003, when police raided the property, seizing many of his possessions, including a selection of prescription drugs and a stash of (adult) pornography.

After his acquittal on charges of child molestation, Jackson vowed never to return, telling CBS that the property no longer felt like home and had been "violated."

In an "open letter" to locals released yesterday, Barrack did little to play down fears about his plans: "The consideration of the future of the Neverland property will be addressed in due time through normal process and with appropriate deliberation," he said.

"Right now, the imperative is to be responsive at a sensitive moment in which the world is watching us and observing our conduct as we mourn the loss of one of our own long-time residents."