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|| News Item: Posted 2005-04-30

Two weeks in Santa Maria: Covering the Jacko trial
By Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Photo by Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Photo by Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

MJ gives the victory sign as he arrives at the courthouse.
Last month I got a call from my boss, he was checking to see if I would be interested in going down to Southern California to help out with the Michael Jackson trial. The photographer that we had down there had been working the trial for months and was in desperate need of a break.

Being a team player, I agreed to cover it for two weeks at the end of April. I really like to experience a variety of things and am generally interested in covering just about anything. I thought at the very least it would be humorous and maybe I would be there when something wacky happened like the time he showed up wearing his pajamas. Perhaps he would bring that monkey of his. The possibilities were limitless.

In the weeks leading up to my departure, I told friends about the upcoming trip and nearly every single one of them winced and said, "dude, I'm sorry." This was beginning to worry me a little and I started to second guess my decision. It wasn't until my elderly landlady showed great interest in my trip that I started to feel good about it again.

She thought it was the opportunity of a lifetime, something to tell my grandkids about and wanted me to tell her all about it upon my return. Well, I'll probably never have grandkids, but I will be certain to share every gory detail with her.

I packed up the rent-a-car and made my three and a half hour drive down to Santa Maria the day before I was to start working. I pulled into town right before 2:30 PM and made my way over to the courthouse to get my credentials.

Just as I arrived, a group of people lining the chain link fence surrounding the courthouse parking lot starting screaming and yelling, Michael was coming out. He made his slow walk down the cement path under his trusty umbrella and flanked by his hefty bodyguards to his awaiting black SUV.

The fans, all ten of them, were going absolutely nuts. Jacko got into the first of two SUV's and away they went, off to the freeway with a three-motorcycle police escort.

Once Jackson had cleared the parking lot, I was able to step past the barriers and into the media tent city, better known as the "campus" to pick up my credentials. The campus consists of two long rows of white 10' X 10' tents that sit in what is normally used as the courthouse parking lot. Between the two tent rows, there are two "unilateral" still photo pens.

From these pens, you look straight down a wide cement walkway to the courthouse entrance. From this vantage point you have a relatively clean shot of Jackson walking into and out of the court. Aside from the two unilateral pens, there are three pool spots that are rotated between seven agencies, Getty Images, WireImage, AP, Santa Maria Times, Reuters, AFP and EPA.

You get a true sense of how freakish MJ is when you work the inside pool position. In this spot you are about two-three feet from MJ as he walks through the metal detector into the courtroom and you get to see up close and personal his translucent white skin, caved in face, the lipstick, eyeliner, penciled in eyebrows and those pseudo military outfits.

Photo by Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Photo by Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Still photographers shoot MJ as he walks to his SUV as he leaves court.
If that wasn't enough, I zoomed in on picture I had taken of him and he has some weird mesh on his head, almost like cheesecloth. I guess it is something to do with hair plugs or maybe it's a wig, hard to tell. It's scary as hell to be that close to him.

Anyway, here is how a typical day pans out for a unilateral photographer. We arrive around 7:30 AM, On the average, there are about seven or eight of us on any given day. The fans, all ten of them (on a good day), start straggling in right around the same time.

The leader of the fan pack, a Baby Huey lookin' young man with a southern drawl named B.J. Hickman, quit his job in Tennessee and moved to Santa Maria to support his hero. He is the most boisterous of the fans and has been coming to the courthouse since day one of the trial. B.J. and the other friends stand on step ladders outside the chain link fence holding signs, shouting their feelings about Michael's innocence and heckling the TV news correspondents.

Right around 8:15 AM, Jackson's mini motorcade rolls into the barricaded parking lot. B.J. and his cronies lose control and begin the yelling and high-pitched squealing. The SUV's stop and the big bodyguards prepare for Michael's descent from the vehicle. The umbrella toting guard hops out of the front seat, gives a quick scan of the surroundings, hits the button on the umbrella and "poof" it is up.

Michael emerges from the vehicle and begins the 30 second walk to the court entrance. About ten steps into the walk, he turns and waves to B.J. and the fan posse. They flip out. He continues down the path, another ten steps, he turns and gives the "victory" sign. The screams are deafening. Ten more steps a quick turn, a final quick wave, and he's out of our sight. The show is over, that was a solid 30-40 seconds of shooting, time to file.

We all rush over to our circle of camping chairs, pull out our laptops, cover our heads with our jackets and begin the task of picking the best Michael waving photo of the day. We struggle in Photoshop to fix the three stop difference between Jackson's umbrella shaded face and his sunlit waving hand. B.J. continues to scream his lungs out "INNOCENT! MICHAEL! INNN-OOO-CENT! WOOO!" until a sheriff deputy finally silences him.

Photo by Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Photo by Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Scary Michael without his sunglasses on.
Fifteen minutes later, most of us have filed our pictures and the fans have dispersed. Whew, 8:45AM, I'm beat, what a morning.

Now, we wait. We have over five hours until court adjourns and can't really leave just in case something out of the ordinary might happen like MJ overdoses or leaves unexpectedly. So, we sit and wait. It feels like time is standing still. It's painful. Thankfully, we have Wi-Fi and we can check our email, surf the web and pass the time bothering people on instant messenger.

I'm sure my friends are sick of me messaging them for hours on end. It is flat out boring! Although, it is in your best interest to stay awake and not nod off. If you do happen to drift off, you run the risk of having a goofy fun pix of you drooling posted on, so sleep is not an option.

All this sitting around and Internet surfing eventually makes you hungry. As midday approaches, people start talking about having lunch delivered. Deciding on what to have for lunch is made easy thanks to a website launched by a brilliant-minded freelance photographer from Brooks Institute of Photography.

The website was thrown together in about an hour and is packed with informative reviews of local restaurants contributed by journalists covering the MJ trial.

The site has been featured in a number of local and national stories, giving it such acclaim that area restaurant owners are emailing the webmaster begging to be reviewed and featured on the site.

Shortly after lunch, the fans start to reappear in anticipation of Michael's 2:30PM departure. The photographers begin to position themselves on their stepladders in the pens and soon the two black SUV's are pulled into position.

In a repeat of the morning's performance, Michael walks out of the court shielded by his little black umbrella and surrounded by his security staff. Shutters click away as we try to capture any slight gesture or reaction from the troubled pop star. Most days he just shuffles along gives a quick wave and then into the car and away he goes. Another 40 seconds of picture taking to round out the long day.

Our photos look identical to the ones that we sent earlier in the day, but we send them anyway. After filing, we pack up our camping chairs and head out. As I drive to my hotel, I wonder if tomorrow will be any different. Maybe something wild will happen.

Maybe Jacko's hair will catch on fire like in that Pepsi commercial he did years ago or he'll bring that monkey to accompany him on his 40-second walk to the court.

I'm guessing that none of that will happen and it will be another long day like today. Watch out, I have instant messenger and I know how to use it.

(Justin Sullivan is a staff photographer for Getty Images, based in the Bay Area.)

Related Links:
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