SANTA MARIA, California — At one point on Tuesday outside the courthouse where the jury in Michael Jackson's child-molestation trial is deliberating, the typically peaceful throng of fans awaiting the verdict began a chant too obscene to print.
One fan held up a sign graphically explaining what part of the accuser's body Jackson did not touch, while simultaneously flipping the bird.
It seemed the mass of fans, some of whom had been coming out since the trial began 14 weeks ago, had finally grown unruly. But, as tends to be the case with all things surrounding Jackson, this scene was not quite what it seemed.
A few minutes earlier, a comedian from a late-night talk show posing as a reporter began interviewing fans (as real reporters often do), mocking them. When the Jackson supporters caught on, they knew exactly what to do.
"We do obscene chants so they can't use the footage," explained 20-year-old B.J. Hickman from Knoxville, Tennessee. "But we make sure there are no kids around first."
This motley crew of 150 or so might not look it to the casual observer, but they're a smart bunch. Smart, and extremely dedicated.
Some are locals, but most came from other parts of the world. Germany, France, Austria, Japan and England are just some of the countries represented.
By 8:30 a.m. each day, they gather behind a chain-link fence on the sidewalk in front of the courthouse, wearing homemade Jackson shirts, hats and jackets, and waving signs with slogans like "Tired of the Injustice: We Will Always Believe Michael" or "We Love Peter Pan." At 2:30, when the jury is dismissed, many rush some 20 miles south to Neverland to do the same thing outside Jackson's residence.
The singer's supporters range from teenagers on their way to school to an elderly woman who takes a $60 cab ride every day she decides to join the congregation. Many quit their jobs to be here, some got new night jobs in Santa Maria. For meals, they eat at the mall food court across the street, so as not to miss anything worth cheering about (a glimpse of a Jackson family member or a member of his legal team, for instance).
Seeing and occasionally getting autographs from Jackson has been a highlight of some of their long days, but it's not why they're here. In fact, the crowds are just as strong when Jackson's not expected.
They're also, it seems, not here to get on TV, the newspaper or MTVNews.com. Trying to get a fan to do an interview is actually quite a chore. Many don't speak English and of those who do, many are too bitter about the media. The fans claim the press has covered the trial unfairly.
"They gave a lot more attention to the prosecution's case than the defense's," 25-year-old Texan Rebecca Reza said. "And the family who testified all admitted to lying under oath. That's perjury. And no one's even called them out on that. Who's going to prosecute them?"
Most of the fans seem well versed in the case, getting their information from court transcripts on Michael Jackson fan Web sites.
"We want to be informed," Reza said. "We want to know what both sides are saying. We want to know what we are supporting and voice our opinions about it."
Reza drove 19 hours for Jackson's arraignment and then did it again last week to be here for the verdict, "to make sure everything was OK." If the verdict isn't handed down by Thursday, she's going to have to make a decision: Drive home and miss it or lose her job.
Using her week of vacation, Reza made the trek through Phoenix and Los Angeles, picking up friends and fellow Jackson fans along the way. She met them and others through Jackson fan clubs.
"I have a lot of friends from all over the world who I haven't seen in a couple years, since the concert in New York," Reza said, referring to Jackson's last concert, taped for a special just before the September 11 attacks (see "Michael Jackson Smooth At Tribute, But Wait Was Criminal"). "Every time Michael has an event or concert, we meet up."
Reza and her friends are sharing a room at a nearby hotel, where a lot of the fans have taken up residence. "They give us a good rate," she said. "They're good to the fans. They know us."
Every other day or so, the fans meet at night and make signs. They've also made armbands and wristbands that say "Truth and Justice." On the day the verdict is announced, they plan to change into all white "to symbolize innocence." "It's a lot of fun," Reza said. "It's good to have everyone together."
At the courthouse or at Neverland, the fans make up chants, play Jackson music and even dance. One fan printed out about 40 photos of a trip to a Jackson concert and assembled them on the ground. Another brought a box of doves to release, one for each count against Jackson. And then there's the older lady in the clown suit, who does puppet shows with a Jackson doll.
On Tuesday, about 20 fans learned a song about supporting Jackson that one of them had written. A local woman, Tracee Reynaud, marched to the site with a group of kids (in dress shirts and ties), singing and chanting their support for Jackson.
"They don't understand how big of a star he was, but they know about how much love this man has given," Reynaud said of the kids. "We let them know all the stuff the media keeps out, the positive stuff. Love is greater than hate. We didn't come here to bash anyone, we came here to lift up."
If the Jackson fans gathered in Santa Maria are their own community, then B.J. Hickman is their mayor. He's been at the courthouse every day and is often in the front row, leading chants. One Jackson fan site named him the fan of the year.
"I'm here because I love Michael Jackson and I want to support him," he said. "It's as simple as that. ... It's not like a cult."
Hickman quit working nine months ago and has been living off his savings. He's made dozens of friends at the courthouse and hangs out with them at night, going to movies or just listening to Jackson's music.
"We don't really have a routine because that's not how Jackson would want it," he said. "He's unpredictable and so are we."
MTV News will have live coverage from Santa Maria on-air, online and in Overdrive when a verdict is handed down.
For full coverage of the Michael Jackson case, see "Michael Jackson Accused."