- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 18, 2006

LOS OLIVOS, Calif. (AP) — Here lies Neverland.

Trains once packed with laughing children no longer roll around the grounds. The arcade that pulsed with rap music — the curse words edited out — has fallen silent. No one waits at the gate with ice cream for youngsters to arrive.

After years of rumors about its demise, the fantasy playland Michael Jackson created as a celebration of childhood and a retreat from his troubles is going dark.

The pop star, now living half a world away, dismissed many of the remaining employees Thursday after agreeing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in back wages to avoid a lawsuit by state labor officials. His spokeswoman characterized the moves as those of someone who will be away for an extended period, not someone abandoning a home for good.

Mr. Jackson once opened Neverland for everything from an Elizabeth Taylor wedding and celebrity fundraisers to field trips for busloads of children. That was before his trial on charges he plied a young cancer patient with alcohol and molested him in 2003 in the master bedroom. After his acquittal last year, Mr. Jackson moved to the Middle Eastern kingdom of Bahrain.

He left behind troubled finances, a tattered reputation — and Neverland.

The 2,600-acre estate, which Mr. Jackson bought for $14.6 million in 1988, is tucked into the California countryside about 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

Some of the curiosities behind its gates are world famous: a menagerie of exotic animals, a mini amusement park, two trains and pictures of Mr. Jackson holding hands with children.

The singer’s trial revealed other oddities. A juke box in the arcade concealed a wine cellar. Other rooms were full of dolls and mannequins dressed as super heroes and film idols. Walls of videotapes, many of Mr. Jackson’s Disney favorites, made some rooms look like a Blockbuster franchise.

On Friday, the home was undisturbed, except by an occasional fan and a delivery truck. The driver, who gave his name only as Larry because he has signed an agreement not to talk about Neverland, said he was delivering food for Mr. Jackson’s animals. He said a woman who cared for and trained the animals was still working there Friday and that the animals, a bear and giraffe among them, appeared healthy.

“The animals are well taken care of,” he said.

A man at the guard house just inside the gate, speaking through an intercom hidden in a mailbox, said he was a relative of Mr. Jackson’s but declined to discuss the ranch, where he said he lived.

Mr. Jackson moved to Bahrain with his children after his acquittal in June. At least 30 Neverland employees said their paychecks stopped in December.

State officials effectively shut down the ranch this month and ordered Mr. Jackson to pay $306,000 in back wages. On Friday, they said he had complied.

Regina Rivera, 29, a nurse who lives in nearby Santa Maria and attended Mr. Jackson’s trial there, brought her grandfather and cousin to the ranch Friday because it has been in the news.

“I don’t think he’ll be back for a while,” she said of Mr. Jackson.

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