Has Michael Jackson closed the gates on Neverland?

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The Independent US

Reports yesterday suggested it might be so.

Renewed speculation about the ranch came after staff claimed that Jackson, who has been based in Dubai since he was cleared earlier this year of abusing a young boy at Neverland, has been struggling to pay their wages. The singer, it was claimed, had missed the most recent pay-roll two weeks ago and finally made the payment on the following Monday.

It added that at least six Neverland employees had quit in recent months and that, earlier this summer, work stopped at the ranch when the wages went unpaid on several occasions. "Everyone is pissed. It was one thing when this happened during the trial but now it is a different story," one staff member said.

The entertainer's departure from his ranch was highlighted earlier last week when he was randomly called for jury duty as a resident of Santa Barbara County. Jackson's attorney notified the court that he would not be able to serve because he would no longer be living at Neverland full time.

Jackson bought Neverland, a former cattle ranch nestled in the scenic central California foothills, for $17m (£8.5m) in 1988 and added an extensive theme park, with many rides.

The news of the possible sale comes as Jackson has accused a former associate - who is suing him for more than $3m - of concealing and misappropriating funds. The singer's lawyer, Brent Ayscough, said earlier this week that Jackson had filed the cross-complaint against Marc Schaffel in Los Angeles County Superior Court on 18 October.

The original lawsuit was filed in November, and claimed that Jackson owed Mr Schaffel $800,000 for producing two 2003 television specials and $2.3m for payments and loans made to the entertainer in the past three years.

In the latest filing, Jackson said Mr Schaffel failed to pay costs related to the production of the song "What More Can I Give?" The complaint also alleged that Mr Schaffel continued to represent himself as being affiliated with Jackson after their business arrangement had ended. Jackson also alleged Mr Schaffel kept $250,000 in sculptures and paintings belonging to him.

Mr Ayscough said that Mr Schaffel had tried to get a lien placed on Neverland, which is located in California's Santa Barbara County. Mr Schaffel's lawyer, Howard King, dismissed the accusation, calling it "another ridiculous claim".

Last June, a court in Santa Maria, California, cleared Jackson of child molestation, conspiracy and alcohol charges that could have sent him to prison for nearly 20 years. The jury deliberated for more than 30 hours throughout the course of seven days before reaching its decision.

Among the more than 130 people who testified during the trial was the former child star Macaulay Culkin. He disputed testimony from other witnesses who claimed they saw Jackson behaving inappropriately with him in the early 1990s.

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