LOS OLIVOS &
Michael Jackson still has Neverland, having cut an 11th-hour deal Thursday to keep it off the auction block.
But the magic that once made the financially troubled entertainer's 2,500-acre paradise in the rolling hills of central California's wine country one of the most talked-about places on Earth seems to have vanished along with its reclusive owner.
Jackson hasn't been seen in this bucolic area of oak-studded hills since he was acquitted in June 2005 of molesting a 13-year-old visitor to his estate, and his absence leaves the future of Neverland, a sort of Hearst Castle for 12-year-olds, in doubt.
"We're all, of course, wondering what's going to happen. We've heard rumors but we don't know anything," said Kim Morrison, one of the administrators of a private school located just across the road from Neverland.
One of those rumors has soccer star David Beckham interested in the property.
"I wouldn't mind having a new neighbor. It would be nice to have Beckham there," laughed Morrison, although she quickly added that Jackson "was always a good neighbor."
The pop star's attorney, L. Londell McMillan, told The Associated Press his client has worked out a confidential agreement with Fortress Investment Group LLC allowing him to retain ownership of the estate.
Whether he'll keep it for long, however, remains to be seen. Jackson is said to be living in various places, including overseas, and his family has said that when dozens of sheriff's deputies raided the place in 2003 they destroyed the fond feelings he once had for Neverland.
Before Thursday's deal was announced, the property was scheduled to be auctioned March 19 because Jackson had gone into default. Financial Title Co. of San Francisco said he owed $24.5 million on the former cattle ranch he bought from real estate baron William Bone in 1988.
Jackson, then just 29, was at the height of his career when he purchased Neverland, naming it after the mythical land of Peter Pan &
where boys never grow up. He had become a pop superstar before his 12th birthday, and he has said he created Neverland in an effort to obtain the childhood he never had.
Soon he had installed a merry-go-round, bumper cars, a Ferris wheel, roller coaster, a game arcade and a private train to rival that of Disneyland's. He brought in a zoo that included flamingos, giraffes, elephants, orangutans and reptiles and brought in a veterinarian and snake handler to care for them.
"It's like stepping into Oz," he once said. "Once you come in the gates, the outside world does not exist."
These days all is quiet at Neverland except for the squawking of a few of exotic birds that continue to roost in the trees. The other animals are gone and the only outward thing to distinguish Jackson's home from any other is the guard shack with its satellite dish just inside the locked front gate.
"Nobody is living here," says a friendly but otherwise reticent guard who has been ordered not to talk to anyone.
The shuttered amusement park sits out of sight, but recent aerial photos show it beginning to fall into disrepair.
It's a far cry from Jackson's heyday in the 1980s and '90s, when hundreds of children might be playing there.
"People would line up for a quarter mile or more just to get in the gate," recalled longtime resident Carol McCarley, out for a morning walk past the ranch.
Although he was rarely seen around town, many say Jackson always gave off the impression of a friendly neighbor.
When a rattlesnake would get into a classroom at The Family School, Morrison said, a call to Neverland would bring the snake handler over to dispose of it. If a child got hurt on the playground, the ranch doctor and Neverland's own fire department would arrive sooner than the local paramedics.
Jackson, meanwhile, would invite children by the thousands to enjoy the ranch.
Many were disadvantaged or seriously ill. Some were simply local school kids lucky enough to be granted a field trip to Neverland.
"My son knew Michael's nephews and would hang out at the ranch a lot. It was a wonderland for kids," said Skip Biolley, taking a break from putting a fresh coat of paint on J. Woeste's knickknack shop in the heart of downtown Los Olivos, an area that stretches all of two blocks in one direction and two in another.
"He had nothing but good experiences there," Biolley said of his son, adding the family remains friendly with one of the nephews.
Jackson's presence in Neverland and his financial empire began to unravel when one of his visitors accused the pop star of molesting him.
His trial, coupled with his often bizarre public behavior, turned him into a pariah in the eyes of many.
But not in this town of 1,000 residents 150 miles north of Los Angeles. Here, it is hard to find anyone who will say a bad word about Jackson. Some, like Fred Chamberlin, whose ranch abuts Jackson's, believe he was the victim of an overzealous prosecutor and are quick to note he was never convicted.
Now that he's gone, people are torn in trying to decide who their new neighbor should be.
Although Jackson's presence sometimes brought in gawkers who were a nuisance, Biolley noted that having a pop superstar does add a certain cachet.
"Maybe Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt will buy it for their kids," he speculates.
Jackson still has Neverland but he and the magic are gone
LOS OLIVOS &