This is an excerpt from the book Remember the Time: Protecting Michael Jackson in his Final Days, by Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard with Tanner Colby, to be published by HarperCollins India.
He always used to say to us, “You guys don’t know how lucky you are.” Or, “You guys don’t know how good you have it.” In the beginning, we’d hear him say that and we’d think, Huh? You’re Michael Jackson. But over time we saw what he was talking about.
We were driving outside Middleburg one day, and the kids saw a playground. They got real excited. They wanted to go play, and they begged their daddy to stop the car and come play with them. We said we didn’t think it was secure; there were a few kids and parents in the area, and we didn’t have masks for the kids and someone might snap a picture. Mr Jackson told us to go ahead. He said he’d wait in the car so his kids could play and no one would recognize them. So we took the children and they went and ran and played in the park. Mr Jackson stayed in the backseat, watching them from inside the car.
Bill: When you’re a father and you see that? When you think about having to watch your kids from behind tinted windows while they go and play with strangers? I wouldn’t trade what I have with my daughter for that. I wouldn’t have switched places with him for all the money in the world.
Javon: We were Michael Jackson’s personal security team. We’re supposed to be these big, macho bruisers, right? Just be tough. Don’t show your emotions and this and that, but it was hard sometimes. It was hard not to feel the pain he was going through. If I never knew him, and I heard somebody on the radio saying that Michael Jackson was complaining about how he couldn’t go to a playground with his kids, I probably wouldn’t care. I’d probably think he just needed to get over himself. But it was different seeing it firsthand and knowing what he was talking about.
It would always be the littlest things, too, that you’d notice about his life. We were in DC one day and we had some time to kill between appointments, so he asked us to drive him around to look at the city. We went out to Georgetown and wound up stopped at a red light in front of this bar, this Irish pub type of place. It was happy hour, everybody getting off work. Mr Jackson was watching the people going in and out of the bar, and he said, “One day, I’m gonna walk into one of these places and sit down and say, ‘Bartender, give me a beer!’ One day, I’m just gonna do it. I’m just gonna walk in and do it.”
He said it the same way a twelve-year-old kid would talk about growing up to be an astronaut. Like it was this impossible dream and someday he was going to get there. After he said it, Bill and I were like, “It’s no problem, sir. We’ll grab a beer with you. No reason you can’t. Your money says ‘In God We Trust’ just like everybody else’s. You want to loosen up, let’s go. We’ve got your back.”
We were encouraging him. But he was too scared to go in. He said, “Those people in there won’t let me.”
Bill: He didn’t trust strangers. Whenever he got caught in a crowd, he’d be real frantic and nervous. We were at a shopping mall in Virginia one afternoon. Javon had gone to get the car. I was waiting with Mr Jackson by the exit with mall security. Somebody had recognized him and a small crowd had formed. He was signing a few autographs, waving to folks. It was a friendly situation, not a mob or anything. As Javon pulled up and opened the door for Mr Jackson, this guy from the back of the crowd yelled out, “Fuckin’ child molester!”
I heard it, plain as day. I looked at Javon; he’d heard it too. We were just praying that Mr Jackson had missed it. But after we got in the car and drove for a bit, he leaned forward and said, “Guys, did you hear somebody say something back there?”
“No, sir,” I said. “I didn’t hear anything. You hear anything, Javon?”
Javon shook his head. “No, sir.”
Mr Jackson said, “I thought I heard someone say something very mean. I could have sworn. You guys aren’t lying to me, are you?”
We didn’t want to lie to him, but we knew what would happen if we confirmed it. Hearing someone call him a child molester? That would completely shut him down. He’d close the door and vanish into his room for at least a week, and we didn’t want that to happen.
We drove on with nobody saying anything for the next ten, fifteen minutes, and then out of the backseat he said, “I would never hurt a child. I would slit my wrists before I ever did anything to hurt a child.”
For me, I never believed any of that about him. As a lifelong fan of the Jackson 5 and of him, I just didn’t believe it. Growing up, I related to that family. His siblings, his father, were very similar to what my family was. They just seemed like the typical black family that was making it out of the ghetto, which is what we were all trying to do back then. I think a lot of black families felt that way about the Jackson’s. We identified with them.
That started to change a little after Thriller. You still loved Michael, but he was on a level now where you couldn’t identify with him as much. You started to see him doing all these things. Odd things. He’s hanging out with Webster. He’s hanging out with Brooke Shields. Dude’s got a monkey. You knew that he was different, but I never thought he was different in a way that he would do anything to hurt a child. I never believed it the first time. I didn’t believe it the second time. But by the time that second accusation and the trial came about? It didn’t matter what you believed anymore. In the court of public opinion, it was already decided. He was looked upon as a freak, a weirdo.
Javon: If you were an up-and-coming comedian and you needed some easy material, you just mentioned Mr Jackson’s name and little kids and you’d get the first five rows to laugh, for sure. People didn’t realize just how sensitive he was about that sort of thing.
Growing up in South Central, I would have laughed at those jokes same as everyone. I wasn’t part of that same generation as Bill, where people had more reverence for the Jacksons. I was more of the hip-hop generation. We loved Mr Jackson’s music, but we only knew him as this eccentric rock star. You loved his songs, but you’d laugh right along when it came to his personal life. But now? When I heard stand-up comedians joking about the boss, it wasn’t funny anymore. It made me angry. It was like hearing someone passing jokes about your friend or your mom.
Bill: Javon was quick to get angry, quick to want to lash out. We caught a clip of Katt Williams making fun of Mr Jackson one time, and Javon started yelling at the TV. He said, “If I ever see Katt Williams, I’m gonna slap the taste out his mouth for talking shit about the boss.” And that day at the mall in Virginia, when the guy yelled out “child molester”? The second it happened, Javon was in my ear on the two-way radio. “I can see the guy who said it. I see him. You want me to take him out?”
I had to say, “No, Javon.”
He was serious. And it was frustrating. That perception of him that people had was something beyond our control. It’s like with Friend and Flower [women Jackson had relationships with]. With anybody else, if you heard stories about a guy sneaking into hotels with hot European models, you wouldn’t even ask what that was about. But because it’s Michael Jackson, people still want to believe it’s something weird. But that’s not what I saw. What I saw was that beneath all the eccentric behavior, there was a regular guy desperate to get out and be a regular guy. Once you were around him on a personal level, you realized that all those rumors and allegations, it just wasn’t possible. As a father, if I ever thought he’d done anything harmful to a child, I’d have kicked his ass myself.
Javon: Your perspective changed completely once you knew him up close. It was the same with his relationship with his own kids. The question we always get is, “Blanket looks more like him than Prince and Paris. Do you think they’re all his?” And when we first started working there, we’d ask ourselves a lot of the same questions. “What’s the deal? Are those really his kids?” But once you spent time with them, and you saw the way he was with them, you just stopped thinking about it. Those were his kids. He was their father. They were a family, end of story.
Bill: Every day, all over the world, couples use surrogate mothers, donor eggs, frozen embryos. People go to all different lengths to have families, and nobody questions the legitimacy of those families. Nobody points a finger at those families and says, “Those aren’t really your kids.” But with Michael Jackson, people questioned his right even to be a parent. But from everything I saw, they were a better, more loving family than a lot of families I’ve seen. There’s really nothing else to say.
On one of the weekends that we took the kids to DC, we decided to stay overnight at the Four Seasons rather than drive back out to Middleburg. Mr Jackson called me and said the kids wanted to go in the pool. So I contacted management and they agreed to close the pool for a couple hours so that Mr Jackson could use it. Following protocol, we did a sweep to make sure the area was secure. There were three hotel security cameras around the pool. We went through and made sure all of them were unplugged and disconnected. Then we escorted Mr Jackson and the little ones from their room and led them down a back staircase. The kids had their bathing suits, flip-flops, and flotation devices. Grace was with us too.
We got to the pool. Prince and Paris jumped right in; they knew how to swim. Blanket was waiting for Grace to blow up his floaties so he could get in too. While the kids swam, Mr Jackson was walking around. He was singing, lost in a tune in his head. There was something about him that seemed a little odd. He seemed a little more excited than normal, a little more upbeat. He started out singing low, just humming a little bit. Then he was tapping out a little percussion and singing louder. I looked at Javon. Javon looked at me. We figured he was in his comfort zone and doing his thing. I left to make a pass through the locker room and the exercise room, just to make sure they were still empty and no one had accidentally walked in.
Javon: Everything was fine until all of a sudden Mr Jackson looked up and saw one of these security cameras. He completely lost his mind. He started yelling. “I told you guys about this! I fucking told you!” It was like something in him snapped. He ran over to this camera and he jumped up and grabbed it and started yanking on it, like he was trying to tear the thing down.
Bill: I heard Grace screaming, “Bill! Bill!” and I came running around the corner. Mr Jackson was literally halfway up the wall, hanging off this camera, jerking it and pulling on it. I ran over toward him, yelling, “Mr Jackson! It’s disconnected! It’s not on! It doesn’t work!”
“I don’t care! I don’t care!”
He’d torn the bracket loose and this camera was only hanging by a few wires, and he jumped up one more time and gave it one more snatch and he just ripped the whole thing right out of the wall. Just ripped it out with his bare hands and then took it and hurled it down and smashed it on the floor. He was yelling at it, screaming, “I hate you! I hate you! ”
I ran over to him. He looked up at me. His eyes were bloodshot red. There was blood on his hands, deep lacerations in his fingers from where these metal wires had cut into him. He started screaming at me. “You guys have to watch for this! You guys have to take care of this! These are my children! I don’t want people taking pictures of my children!”
I tried explaining again about the camera being off. Nothing I said mattered. It really freaked me out, the way he was acting. My immediate thought was that maybe he was on something. His demeanor was very different from anything I had ever seen before. This was new to me, and kind of scary.
Javon: Everybody got quiet and shut up. We were speechless. We didn’t know what to do, how to respond, how to handle it. He eventually calmed down and decided to stay at the pool. Bill went and brought the first-aid kit down to get some gauze and peroxide and a Band-Aid for his hand. The hotel ended up charging him eight thousand dollars for the camera.
We felt bad at times like that. We actually felt bad a lot of the time. Because it was our job to protect him, but we couldn’t protect him from the things that had already happened, the things that had already hurt him.
Bill: There was this one night he called me while we were in Virginia. Earlier in the evening, he’d asked me to bring him a bottle of wine. I’d brought it up to his room, and that was pretty much the last thing I did for him before I turned in. Then, around three in the morning, my phone rang. It was Mr Jackson’s room number on the caller ID. I answered it, thinking there might be some kind of emergency. He said, “Bill, are you asleep? I hope I didn’t wake you.”
“I’m fine, sir. Is everything okay?”
He said he was just calling to talk, so we talked. About his kids, about Raymone. He said, “Sometimes I just get sick of it.”
“What’s that, sir?”
“All of it,” he said. He sounded like he was trying not to cry, like he was choking back tears. “Why can’t people just leave me alone? I’m not a circus act. I’m not an animal at the zoo. I just want to be left alone. Why can’t people understand that?”
It wasn’t really a back and forth kind of conversation. He spoke. I listened. A lot of the things he was saying, I didn’t really have responses to. I’d never dealt with most of the things he was dealing with, so I wasn’t going to sit there on the phone and pretend that I could relate to him on that level. And I knew he wasn’t really calling me to get my thoughts and opinions on any of it. He was calling to vent.
“I just want my kids to have a better life than me,” he said. “I never want them to go through what I had to go through. How would you guys feel if your kids asked you for something and you had to send someone out to get it? I appreciate what you guys do for my kids, but I’m their father. I should be the one doing those things, but I can’t just get in the car and go. There are so many things I can’t do for them because those people out there won’t let me. You have no idea how that feels. You really don’t. I just wanna live my life with my kids.”
I said, “I understand, sir. You deserve that.”
I can still remember standing there in my room, looking at myself in the mirror and not really believing that this was happening, that I was listening to Michael Jackson unburden himself to me on the phone. It was hard for me to hold back my emotions. It was a good thing we were on the phone, otherwise he’d have seen his security having a weak moment.
I was just feeling the weight of everything he was going through. By that point, guarding him had become my life. I wasn’t in Virginia because I wanted to be in Virginia. I was there because he was there. If he wanted to go to Maryland tomorrow, we’d go to Maryland tomorrow. I went where he went. His reality had become my reality. And I can’t say that it was a pleasant ride, his life. It was not fun. We had fun moments, but it was not fun. It was not joyful. There was a lot of turmoil, a lot of tug of war. The constant anxiety. Never knowing whom to trust.
The fact that he was calling his security guard at three in the morning says a lot about it. If he was calling me, then he really had no one else to call. Javon and I felt that, too: the isolation. He and I could at least talk to each other, share our frustrations. But we couldn’t talk to our families, to our friends. We had to make excuses about why we weren’t getting paid. Everything had to be locked up, kept secret. You carry that stuff around inside you and it just eats at you. So when he was talking about how he was sick of it, I understood where he was coming from. I’d only been living like this for seven, eight months, and it was already wearing me down. He’d been doing it since he was ten years old.
We talked a little while longer. He kept apologizing for having called. He said, “I don’t mean to bother you with this, Bill. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.”
“It’s okay, sir.” “Thank you. I’m going to go to sleep now. Good night.”