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|| News Item: Posted 2003-12-01

Max in Never-Neverland
By Max Morse

Photo by Jon Austria

Photo by Jon Austria

Max Morse working the phones.
Last Tuesday was an unusual day. I had planned to take care of some business, eat lunch with a friend, and maybe even go to class. But that all went out the window real fast. And the next 72 hours flew by even faster. I was on the phone with my editor at Reuters talking about some future assignments when he said to me, "What are you doing right now?"

When I told him that I was doing nothing, he proceeded to tell me that I had to get out to the Santa Barbara Airport right away. He wanted me on a plane to shoot aerials of Michael Jackson's Neverland Valley Ranch (in case you've been hiding under a rock, MJ's in a bit of trouble again).

The next thing I know, I'm at 5000 feet flying towards the estate. The toughest part of shooting from the sky was keeping myself steady. The plane was very wobbly, and I was looking straight down through long glass that seemed to get much heavier when hanging out a window. After about 7 or 8 passes, and nearly dropping a 400 mm f/2.8 from the sky, we headed back to the airport to transmit.

Everything went smooth, and I was thinking that what I had done was pretty cool. But that was just the tip of the iceberg.

The next morning, my phone rang at 8:00 am (much earlier than I like to wake up), and my editor was telling me about a press conference that I had to get to with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff and the District Attorney. On my way out there, I got another frantic call, telling me to get back out to the airport. MJ was allegedly flying in.

After a little snooping at the airport, I found out that Jackson flies into just two places. The only problem: those two places are at opposite ends of the airport. So, I did what any ambitious journalist would do, and I flipped a coin. Turns out, it didn't really matter, because he never came in that day.

The highlight of the 8-hour stakeout had to be the interview I gave the woman from Celebrity Justice. She kept asking me if this was just like a cat and mouse game. She was hurting for content …bad.

The funniest thing that I witnessed that day was the silent battle between the crews from Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood. At one point, the producer from ET started yelling into his cell phone, and when he finished, they all hopped into the van and sped off.

Photo by Jon Austria

Photo by Jon Austria

Max tries to shoot Michael Jackson through a fence.
The Access people were standing there looking around bewildered, so they all hopped into the van and sped off. Then, 5 minutes later the ET people came back to the exact same spot. Their plan to get rid of Access had worked. After witnessing things like this, I am convinced that some of these producers would sell their soul to get the story.

The rest of media circus was impressive, too. As dusk fell, we all thought that we had Jackson. A plane had landed with a tail number that allegedly matched his. I think that things went something like this: Reporter A calls Editor B and tells him that a plane just landed with the tail number. Editor B sends the info up to one of the many news helicopters. Said news chopper reports the tail number. Said report gets back to Photographer C, and he thinks that he's got THE plane.

Are you confused? So was I? TV cameramen were yelling and running around. Reporters were screaming into their phones. It was the paparazzi at its finest.

Anyways, the next morning I reported to the Sheriff's Headquarters where Jack-O was supposed to turn himself in sometime that day. After about 5 hours of waiting there, I got another call. Can you guess where they wanted me to go? That's right, the airport!

This time, however, we got a bit luckier. With a horde of media staked outside the airport fences, Jackson's plane landed at about 11:30. Photographers and videographers perched themselves atop cars and trucks, all in hopes to nail the shot. Unfortunately, the plane pulled halfway into the hangar, so that Jackson could leave the plane unseen.

Then, with a rush of excitement, the hangar doors slid open and a police-car led motorcade peeled out. Journalists scattered. Vans started up. People sprinted after the line of cars. I hopped into the bed of my truck
Photo by Max Morse

Photo by Max Morse

Sgt. Chris Pappas addresses the media.
with my 400, and told my friend Jon Austria (he was also my driver for the day) to follow them. Even though we lost them, it was still fun to ride down the freeway in the bed of my truck. I just figured that the cops weren't worried about me.

Once back at the station, things heated up. Pool photographers nailed the shot of Jackson being unloaded, while many more captured him waving a peace sign as he exited after paying the $3 million bail. Jackson's attorney, Mark Geragos, and Sergeant Chris Pappas both held press conferences outside the jailhouse to a throng of media. Everyone from MTV News to the LA Times was there.

The funniest thing, though, was the number of ex-convicts being released that stuck around to watch the show. However, at one point it was tough to tell who the real scum was: the con's or the TV crews.

After the dust settled, and I got to take a breath, I realized how crazy things had really been. The only thing on my mind now is Jackson's arraignment on January 9th in Santa Barbara. If it goes anything like last week, this town will be turned upside down.

(Max Morse is a student at Brooks Institute of Photography. He interned last summer for Rich Pilling at Major League Baseball and assisted Dave Black with coordinating the photo operation at the World Gymnastics Meet. Max won an assignment from Reuters for his work documenting a dilapidated old home for the "Our House" project at the Eddie Adams Workshop.)

Related Links:
Max Morse's member page

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