You've got a friend in me
It's billed as the most sensational trial since OJ Simpson's, but even if convicted of child abuse, one man will stand by Michael Jackson - Dr Firpo Carr. In LA, the Jackson family's 'spiritual advisor' explains how the star is the victim of a racist plot
By Robert Chalmers
11 July 2004
Even before I turned on the television news that morning and heard a private detective alleging that Michael Jackson's genitals have "a kind of tie-dyed appearance", I tell Dr Firpo Carr, I had been starting to wonder just quite how good a job he, Jackson's "spiritual adviser", had been doing. It's a minor detail in the context of a cuttings file that has included, within the same paragraph, terms like "12-year-old boy", "masturbation" and "fellatio"; and yet, taken as a whole, this is surely the kind of vocabulary that Carr, a lexicographer and man of God, is most eager to discourage.
"Well, the first thing I would say," the doctor replies, "is that, if you hear things through the media, be suspect about them."
"Like that magazine story about ritual cleansing in sheep's blood, and the quotations from voodoo death rites Michael Jackson supposedly commissioned in Switzerland in 2000?"
"Yes," says Carr.
"How did it go? 'David Geffen - be gone!' 'Steven Spielberg - be gone!'"
"Yes. Though that is not a pattern of behaviour I recognise," says Carr. "Michael has always had an eye for the unusual. Michael is a joker."
This year promises to be one of the least amusing of the singer's turbulent life. In January he was arraigned on 10 counts, including child molestation, administering an intoxicating agent to a minor, conspiracy to commit child abduction, false imprisonment and extortion. On 30 April he pleaded not guilty to all charges, each of which is punishable by three to eight years in prison. The case has uncomfortable echoes of the Jordie Chandler affair, settled out of court in January 1994. Jackson, who denied allegations that he had sexually molested Chandler when the boy was 13, paid $22m (£12m) to the child and his family. The singer is currently free, on $3m (£1.6m) bail. A trial date has been provisionally set for September.
Santa Barbara prosecutors have imposed a so-called "gagging order" aimed at suppressing details of the latest charges, which concern a boy of Hispanic origin, 12 at the time of the offences which allegedly occurred early last year at Neverland, Jackson's 2,700-acre ranch at Los Olivos, north of Los Angeles. The ruling seems, if anything, to have heightened the interest of the US media, though the Jackson family - notoriously uncoordinated under most circumstances - has closed ranks around its most famous member, seeking to pursue a strategy of dignified silence.
Dr Carr, meanwhile, has become a familiar figure on US news networks. Though he used to be introduced as Jackson's "spiritual adviser", he now prefers to be called a "family friend". A devout but controversial member of the Jehovah's Witnesses, the faith in which Jackson was raised, Carr has travelled to court with the singer's parents Joseph and Katherine, and is especially close to Michael's brother Randy (they shared a flat for a year in the mid-1990s) and eldest sister Rebbie, who first introduced him to the family, 10 years ago.
Diversity has been the keynote of Firpo Carr's career. "I've been called everything from a visionary, to a prophet, to a holy man," says Carr, a former computer engineer with IBM and systems analyst at the LAPD, and the author of books such as Are Gays Really 'Gay'? - a bold thesis whose chapter-headings include: "Benjamite Buggery" and "What Constitutes a Cure?" Earlier this year Firpo turned up in Bahrain wearing a thobe tunic, giving joint lectures on comparative religion with Michael Jackson's brother Jermaine, an orthodox Muslim.
I'd been dealing with Dr Carr via his office in LA - premises, he'd said, which were "not suitable" for a meeting. Instead he agreed to talk in my hotel room in West Hollywood.
I'd expected a soberly dressed zealot carrying a pile of Watchtowers (the Jehovah Witness's proselytising magazine) but Carr arrives in jeans, a loose-fitting Tahitian shirt and a Walkman. Firpo - who is 50, but looks 10 years younger - is bright, engaging, and good-humoured. As you might expect from a collector of historic dictionaries, there's a slight preciousness about his language - he's fond of phrases like "if you will", and prefers "refrain", or "cease" in places where, for most people, a simple "stop" would do.
How well does he know the notorious recluse?
Carr describes his contacts with Jackson as limited but intense, and "sufficient to be able to speak authoritatively on his character".
Their conversations began shortly after the star's arrest last year, he says. Then, at one private audience, in February: "Michael suddenly said: 'I love you.' And I said - because I felt I had to - 'I love you too.' And then, with what some people might think was arrogance, but which I interpret as innocence, Michael said: 'I love you more.' I was like - OK, Michael has spoken. When you are with Michael Jackson," Carr adds, "he is so spiritual.
"Michael," he recalls, "pointed at me, almost in anger. Then he said: 'You are the prophet.'"
As with the OJ Simpson trial, whose drama it threatens to eclipse, the Michael Jackson case seems likely to throw up a cast of captivating minor characters. Carr, who already gets hailed by strangers, is well-placed to become Jackson's Kato Kaelin.
Carr admits that certain sections of the US media, notably talk radio, don't take him seriously. It could be to do with his first name (inspired by "The Wild Bull of the Pampas", Argentinian heavyweight Luis Firpo) which is more A Night at the Opera than Twelve Angry Men. There's also a tendency for Jackson's incrementally bizarre behaviour (whether he's dangling his baby over a balcony, leaping on the bonnet of an SUV outside the courthouse, or boasting about taking his new-born daughter home in a towel, with her placenta) to undermine not just his own credibility, but that of his apologists. This is especially true of Michael Jackson and Elizabeth Taylor who - with each successive crisis, and cosmetic operation - become increasingly ardent in their mutual support, and less and less easy to tell apart. One US satirist has a routine in which Firpo Carr explains that Jackson once considered a face transplant, but pulled out after Liza Minnelli, his preferred donor, withheld consent: "Because Liza is still using her face - sort of."
Carr's enemies focus on his doctorate, a qualification in Computing Information Systems from the Californian branch of the Pacific Western University, based in Hawaii, an on-line institution widely critiqued as a "diploma-mill". But when I called the relevant universities to check on his previous degrees (the first, also in computing, from the University of San Francisco, the second a Master's in management from the University of Redlands, California) both confirmed his CV as genuine. So did his former employers, including the LAPD. Carr currently works part-time for a satellite campus of the University of Phoenix, lecturing in Comparative Religion.
What I can't understand, given his loyalty to Michael Jackson, is why Carr has apparently ignored an open letter the singer released in March, which is essentially a desperate plea to Firpo - he is mentioned by name - to shut up.
"Michael sent me a letter to say, hey - for the record - don't represent me," Carr says. "But then he cleared me to speak. And his mom and dad, and the family, are like: 'Oh, please, get out there and speak for us. They are slaughtering him in the press.'"
Firpo perseveres, "out of love. I am outraged at what is happening to Michael, because I believe there is a racist component in all of this."
Carr cites the unease Jackson generated when he started having his security handled by the Nation of Islam. "Nobody complained when Howard Hughes was protected by Mormons," he argues. "Even though the Book of Mormon teaches that a dark-skinned man will have to turn white to enter heaven."
"Michael Jackson should have no worries there, then."
"Michael's a light-skinned black man," says Carr, good-naturedly.
"He's a man who has changed colour," I argue. One of his own doctors has confirmed that he used the bleaching agent, Benoquin.
"Michael has vitiligo. I've seen it. OK, he tried to bleach his skin, to even it out. It's outlandish to me that people suggest Michael Jackson is * trying to be white. In any case," Carr asks, in an amiably ironic tone, "who would want to be white?"
How would it have been, asks Carr - referring to the November 2003 raid on Neverland - "if 70 black officers had invaded Graceland, and taken Elvis to have his genitals photographed? [As Jackson's were, during the Chandler investigation, which resulted in no criminal charges.] The black community is very upset. The feeling is: if you can get to Michael, you can get to any of us. We have to rally around."
Jackson wasn't arrested because he's black, but because he's accused of assaulting young boys; Presley would have been treated no differently.
"I beg to differ, because Elvis slept with an underaged girl," says Carr, arguing that Presley's relationship with his wife Priscilla, which began when she was 14, suggests that he was dating her "in the Biblical sense".
"But had Presley done what Jackson is accused of doing, you wouldn't blame the police for arresting him."
"I just want people to be treated equally - black or white. Michael was manhandled when he was arrested, we are told."
"He claimed that he was handcuffed too tightly, and shut in a room 'decorated with doo-doo'."
"Right," Carr says. "Human faeces. [Country singer] Glen Campbell knees his booking sergeant - knees him - and that's OK. Because Glen Campbell's a good old boy. But what happens if you are Magic Johnson, or Michael Jordan, or Michael Jackson? You're all still niggers."
"Does Jackson himself feel that?"
"I know he does."
"That he is being treated like a nigger?"
"He said that to you?"
"I won't repeat exactly what he said. But he is convinced that, with the people who are out to get him - the authorities - there is a racial element to it. OK, if Michael was guilty, fine. But let's treat suspects equally."
When the Mexican waiter comes in with coffee, Carr chats in Spanish. Back in his mother tongue, his conversation is punctuated with thoughts about the derivation of modern vocabulary, with reference to Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic. He served an unusual apprenticeship for academic life, growing up in Nickerson Gardens, the largest and most formidable housing project in Watts, South Central LA, on a street now in the heartland of the notorious gang, the Bloods.
Firpo is the second youngest in a family of five boys and four girls.
"I am the only one of my brothers who has not been incarcerated," he says. "I am the only one who hasn't been shot or stabbed."
Howard, his eldest brother, was murdered when Carr was 18.
"My other brothers were pimps and drug pushers," he says. "When I was a boy they would bring their 'ho's' as they called them, into the house. Dad would tell Mom: 'Hey, they're just going through a phase.' I can remember thinking: 'What kind of phase is this?'"
"What other crimes," I ask, "did your brothers commit?"
"Shootings, gambling, armed robbery."
Like Michael Jackson, who was taken by his mother to the Kingdom Hall in Gary, Indiana, when he was five, Firpo was raised as a Jehovah's Witness. (As late as 1984, Jackson, whose Thriller was then the bestselling album ever, was going door to door in LA in a large hat and preposterous beard distributing Watchtower; he officially left the religion in 1987.) Carr was invited to the Jackson family home after Rebbie Jackson read his book: Jehovah's Witnesses: the African-American Enigma, which portrays an organisation where black members represent 30 per cent of foot-soldiers, but almost none are generals. Carr still worships as a Witness, though his faith has not banished temptation: he recently moved in with his fifth wife; they have a one-bedroom flat in the Marina del Rey area of Los Angeles.
I ask him why a man with two respectable degrees should feel the need to get a PhD on-line. Firpo says his doctorate is wrongly maligned, and required new research. I suspect he wanted an instantly recognisable badge of academic distinction, to mark his transition from the very bad place he came out of.
He has one daughter, Daniell, from his second marriage; he tells me how he let her stay at Neverland as a teenager. (All allegations of impropriety by Jackson involve boys.)
What puzzles me, I tell Carr, is how he feels so certain that Jackson is innocent. Over the past 12 years, the distinguished Vanity Fair reporter, Maureen Orth, has become Sherlock Holmes to Jackson's Moriarty. If her exhaustive investigations, collected in her new book The Importance of Being Famous, have demonstrated anything, it is that Jackson has paid off several boys or their families, and that exactly what occurs when his young guests sleep in his heavily alarmed bedroom is never revealed to outsiders.
"Michael is the quintessence of innocence," says Carr. "If Jesus were here today, given how much he loved children, then - if the authorities had wanted to get him on something - probably they would have charged Jesus Christ as well."
"With child molestation?"
"You're saying you think Jesus Christ could have found himself facing the charges that Michael Jackson does today?"
"Which implies that good and evil are at play in this case, in your opinion?"
"They are. Michael has done so much good. I have examined the facts. They don't add up. Which means there are sinister forces at work. I am against sinister forces. I will battle evil. I will step up."
"Imagine this isn't about Michael Jackson. Imagine you or I went on ABC and mentioned that we share beds with 12-year-old boys. What conclusion would people draw then?"
"But it is Michael Jackson. And he never said he slept with them. He said he shared his bed. That's like me saying I share my ice-cream. We are not eating from the same spoon at the same time. Why wouldn't he let them share his bed, and he sleep on the floor?"
"But what he said to Martin Bashir, in Living With Michael Jackson was, to be precise, 'I have slept in a bed with many children.'"
"Right. Now here's what he means by that. Just as, on that programme, he was hugging one boy; it is my understanding that you can sit on a bed with a child in your arms, and fall asleep. He is not talking about under the covers, overnight. He means on top of the bed; on the edge of the bed..."
And so we go on, in a reprise of the weird three-legged waltz that has passed for debate over the Jackson affair on US television, and promises to continue when the case gets to court.
Carr suggests there were only two alleged cases of abuse - Chandler, and the current Latino boy - 10 years apart. Actually there have been far more reports of people being paid off, as Randy Taraborrelli has mentioned in his enormous, broadly sympathetic, biography of Jackson. ("Do you know how many children are going to psychiatrists because of Michael?" his sister LaToya asked at a 1993 press conference where she said she had seen cancelled cheques made out to boys. "So many, many children.")
"The NBC show Dateline," I remind Carr, "publicly referred to five alleged cases. And one of Orth's Vanity Fair articles contains the line: 'Michael Jackson has paid out to lawyers, voodoo chiefs, and the families of his "special friends" all over the world.' That's the kind of sentence that would have me sprinting to my attorney's office."
"That may happen, down the line," he replies.
Orth famously described the singer giving children soft-drinks cans filled with white wine ("Jesus Juice") or red wine ("Jesus Blood"), and referred to one 13-year-old who got so drunk he was sick. The child, Carr points out, has subsequently contradicted this claim. ("The boy denied it," Orth told me, "but I had two sources on that. The child said it didn't happen that way. My sources said it did. We stand by it.")
Even if we accept Carr's belief that Jackson has become an innocent target for corrupt and litigious parents, it was hardly prudent, following the Chandler case, to continue inviting boys for sleepovers.
"You've spoken to Jackson," I say to Carr, "have you never suggested it might be an idea to rethink the way he organises his social life?"
"Anyone who said that to him would be summarily dismissed."
We break for lunch. I ask Firpo, who has remained genial and relaxed throughout, to show me the project where he grew up, in Watts. We drive round the highly intimidating, effectively segregated black neighbourhood and at one point make the mistake of getting out of the car.
"Hey, motherfucker," a youth shouts to Carr, approaching us with a homicidal look. "While your grandfather was rowing that slave ship, his grandfather [pointing at me] was sitting on the deck - drinking whisky, drinking cognac, drinking wine. You have Satan at your shoulder, brother."
"Are you getting paid by the Jacksons?" I ask Carr, as we head off towards Marina del Rey, where Satan can breathe a little more easily.
"No. Not a cent. These are my friends you * are talking about. I go out to bat for them. I never said that Michael has used the best judgment. Or that he is not strange to people. But from what I have seen, he is not a child molester. You don't go to jail for having light skin and long hair."
We stop off at Carr's office. It's a lock-up the size of a small garage that he rents for $50 (£27) a week. He opens the steel door to reveal hundreds of books, mostly Bibles, dictionaries and bound copies of the Watchtower. As I'm treacherously scanning the shelves for Hustler ("Well you won't find that here, Robert") I do notice one secular work: Taraborrelli's Jackson biography, with a promotional sticker which reads: "More Luscious Sleaze! More Great Dirt!" There's a desk with a computer, printer and telephone. Carr sits down to check his e-mails.
The concrete unit has no windows, and the temperature is unbearable. "How do you work in this heat?" I ask, to which he responds, with a typically genteel Firpoism: "I disrobe."
He takes a clay jar off one shelf, opens it and removes his prize possession: a reproduction of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Carr translates a phrase, then begins addressing the question of whether the Greek wording of Isaiah 40:22 implies the Earth was already perceived as a rotating sphere. When we leave, he has to have two goes at closing the door, which is blocked by an old bicycle. This is not a man who is brazenly on the make.
"Why are you doing this?" I ask him. "Do you just like publicity? Do you want to get on every show you can?"
"That's not true. I turned down Inside Edition yesterday."
Firpo is working on a screenplay based on the life of Jerome Fisher, a medic from an all-black unit sent in to remove rotting cadavers at Dachau while, as Fisher claims in Carr's book Germany's Black Holocaust, white personnel were held back. Since he's a would-be film writer, I assume - perhaps ungenerously - that he believes international television exposure can do him no harm. He's certainly driven by a dedication to civil rights, and seems genuinely persuaded that Jackson's arrest is the result of endemic racism in the police and judiciary.
Firpo's world view isn't an easy one to sum up, incorporating as it does a range of vigorous opinions that more orthodox thinkers would struggle to hold simultaneously. For instance he explains that homosexuality is "a spiritual evil" which directly caused the collapse of the Roman Empire, but is comfortable defending the familiar television images of Jackson hugging a 12-year-old boy. He is a tireless scourge of racists, and yet certain passages in Germany's Black Holocaust recall some of the less-convivial views of the Nation of Islam, especially where Jewish history is concerned. At one point, when he's talking about racism on television, I mention the football commentator Ron Atkinson's recent dismissal, and tell Carr how his language contrasted with his magnificently Daltonian instincts as a manager. I'd expected the author of Wicked Words, Poisoned Minds: Racism in the Dictionary to go apoplectic, but he says Big Ron should possibly have been judged on his deeds as much as his words.
Although he insists that he left the police voluntarily, Carr admits that his rapport with the department may not have been improved by his attempt to sue the LAPD for harassment in 2000, after he was asked to produce ID in a mainly white area of the city where he says his sole offence was "driving while black".
When he appeared in court, Carr was flanked by Randy Jackson and Muslim activist Najee Ali, a former convict who runs a charity in South Central. The case was thrown out but an unflattering account of the proceedings was posted on the Web by Carr's main enemy, Jerry Bergman, a former Witness. Bergman, like Carr, is a versatile author: his publications include Understanding Poisons, Are Wisdom Teeth Vestiges of Evolution? and The Do-Do Bird."
"Why is he posting all this stuff about you?"
"Because he is a low life," says Carr, "and he thinks I am the Antichrist."
Bergman, whose website has a somewhat hysterical tone, does make one interesting point in relation to Carr's defence of Jackson: as a Jehovah's Witness, Carr is not supposed to frequent people who, like Jackson, have been disfellowshipped. To quote the exact translation of the relevant verse of 1 Corinthians I found in my hotel Bible, it is his duty, faced with "the wicked man", to "quit mixing with him".
That said, the singer told an interviewer as recently as 2001 that he still considers himself a member of the faith. Is Jackson still a Witness?
"Not officially," says Carr. "Although he subscribes to many of the beliefs."
The Watchtower often refers to 1 Corinthians 6:9, which says that "neither fornicators, nor adulterers, nor effeminate men, nor abusers of themselves with mankind" will be allowed into the Kingdom of Heaven. This has implications for Carr personally if Jackson is - as he has been reported - a man who has been addicted to Demerol (a medication similar to morphine), drunk to excess and been in and out of rehab.
His contact with a man of Jackson's reputation, Firpo says, is "one of the reasons I am considered a rebel".
So he has heard of Demerol.
"Well, that's a painkiller and Michael got addicted to it, like a zillion other people."
"Would it bother you if he drank to excess?"
"Yes. As far as I know he will have a social drink. I've never seen him drunk."
"Face down on the floor of an airliner in Frankfurt," I say, quoting from one article. "That's not very social."
"All I can say is I've never seen him drunk."
The life Michael Jackson enjoys - remote, cocooned and apparently immune from the normal restraints of the world - is of a kind associated with eccentrics from a bygone age of Hollywood, such as Howard Hughes. There are even aspects of Jackson's recent past - his flamboyance, his reckless disregard for public disquiet at his conduct with young boys, and a general perception that, were he to be sent to prison, he would be too fragile to survive - which recall the life of Oscar Wilde. The Irish writer, in his later years, was fond of drawing comparisons between himself and Christ, like Carr does with Jackson. "The only difference between me and Jesus Christ," Wilde remarked, shortly before his conviction on indecency charges in 1895, "is that I never found 12 men who didn't believe in me."
"Not that you would want to carry a comparison between the creators of Bad and De Profundis too far..."
"No," says Carr, who is not a big fan of Wilde. "Michael has not been convicted of anything."
But just say that Jackson is guilty, I ask Carr, as we're driving back towards Hollywood, and he eventually admits it.
"I would be devastated that he could have done such a horrific thing."
"Would you speak to him again?"
"I would say: 'You have a very serious sickness. You have to get help. And I hope, as God is my witness, that you reassess who you are.'"
Jackson has a formidable legal team which includes OJ Simpson attorney Johnnie Cochran, and the trial process is unlikely to be swift.
"If convicted," says Maureen Orth, "he will appeal and appeal. But they are never going to make an exception for a case that is so high profile. If he's found guilty, I don't see how he's going to avoid going to jail."
How does Carr think Jackson would manage in prison?
"Well, they wouldn't like him because he is a child molester - at least," he adds, "that is how they would see him. They wouldn't like him because he is a freak - again, that's how they would view him. And they wouldn't like him because he's, er..." Carr seems to forget where he was. "Oh, yeah. He's a star."
Forced to exist in a world without children, the singer said at the end of Bashir's grotesque documentary: "I would jump off the balcony immediately. I'm done, I'm done." His current predicament lends a disturbing resonance to that remark, and to another moment in the same broadcast where he insisted he never wants to grow old. Should Jackson be convicted, suicide, Carr admits, "is a worry".
It's early evening by the time Dr Carr drops me back at the Hyatt. Watching his tail lights disappear into the traffic down Sunset Boulevard, I'm struck by the thought that he may be the one man in LA whose faith in Jackson is absolutely unshakeable. I suspect that the singer's conviction on every charge would simply alter Carr's mission from one of protecting his reputation to rehabilitating it, and that Jackson - like Christ - is a figure he will never stop defending. This is a crusade that will never be over, even if the Santa Barbara jury does return a verdict which proves that Michael Jackson, like Oscar Wilde at the Old Bailey, has found his 12th unbeliever. *