This article is adapted from Remember the Time: Protecting Michael Jackson in His Final Days, by Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard, with Tanner Colby.
On Dec. 22, 2006, Michael Jackson’s private jet touched down at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas. Eighteen months earlier, Jackson had fled his native country, taking his three children and going into self-imposed exile, trying to escape the swarm of tabloid media coverage that had attended his 2005 trial on charges of child molestation. The trial exonerated Jackson of any wrongdoing, but he’d been devastated by the ordeal nonetheless—financially, physically, and emotionally—and hoped to find peace living overseas, first in the Middle Eastern kingdom of Bahrain and later in Ireland.
The singer likely would have stayed abroad for good, but mounting legal and financial problems forced him to return to the U.S., where an offer to perform as a headliner at a Vegas casino promised a steady income and a stable home for his family. World famous since the age of 10, Jackson had always relied on a personal security detail shadowing his every move, and upon his arrival in Vegas, the singer decided to replace the team that had served him overseas. The two men he hired for the new detail were Bill Whitfield, who’d previously served as head of security for Sean “P.Diddy” Combs, and Javon Beard, a trusted family member of one of Jackson’s associates.
For the next 2½ years, Whitfield and Beard worked as Jackson’s personal security team, stationed at his side almost 24 hours a day, often serving as the only gatekeepers between the outside world and the increasingly isolated King of Pop. In that time, they came to know a quiet man and a loving father very different from the figure depicted in the tabloids, and they were given a front-row seat for the unending parade of problems that had driven Jackson to live a life of seclusion behind the gates of his Las Vegas mansion.
Bill Whitfield: Prior to working for Mr. Jackson, my main job had always been handling external threats—stalkers, the paparazzi. That type of stuff I knew how to deal with. But what Mr. Jackson was really paranoid about, the thing he felt he needed most from us, was protection from the people who were already in his life. He wanted us there so he could hide his movements from his own lawyers and managers. He wanted us there to be a buffer between him and his own family. No one in his family was allowed past the front gate without advance notice, with the exception of Mrs. Jackson, his mother. If she showed up, we’d open up the gate and she’d go right on into the house. She could come unannounced. Everyone else needed an appointment, and that was a very delicate situation to handle.
We had fans that did drive-bys all the time. They’d come, circle the block, stop, look around, drive off. On this one particular day, would have been in early February, we saw a burgundy PT Cruiser going back and forth in front of the house. It had tinted windows, so we couldn’t see who it was. This car circled the block maybe four times and drove off. The next day, the same PT Cruiser came and pulled right up to the gate. Javon stayed in the trailer to watch the monitors. I went down to the gate to see what was what.
I got down there, and Mr. Jackson’s father, Joe Jackson, was getting out of the car. I stuck my hand through the gate to shake his and said, “How you doing, Mr. Jackson?”
He wouldn’t shake my hand. He just eyed me and said, “You’re probably one of those putting needles in my son’s arm.” I didn’t respond. He said, “I’m here to see Michael.”
I said, “OK,” left him there, and went back to the house to get Mr. Jackson. He was in his room, listening to music very loud. I knocked on the door and he came out, and I said, “Sir, your father’s outside.”
He said, “Does he have an appointment? Is he on the calendar?”
“I don’t believe so, sir.”
“No, no, no. I’m working. I cannot be disturbed when I’m being creative. Tell him he has to come back and make an appointment.”
I walked back out to the gate, thinking, Damn, I’ve got to go tell this man that he needs an appointment? To see his son? Uh-uh. I wasn’t doing that. I was gonna have to ad lib this one. I went down to the gate and told him that Mr. Jackson was busy, but if he came back tomorrow, I’d make sure to let his son know he wanted to visit. Then I held out my business card for him. He wouldn’t take it. He just went off on me. “I don’t need your damn number! If it wasn’t for me, none of you bastards would have a job! I’m the one started this shit!”
Once he started rapping all that? Our conversation was over. I walked off. He just stood there on the sidewalk, yelling at nobody in particular. Eventually he got in his little car and left. At that point, I started to wonder what kind of situation we’d walked into. I hadn’t signed up for this part, getting involved with family.
Javon Beard: Mr. Jackson and Elizabeth Taylor were old friends, and she was having a 75th birthday party at a resort out at Lake Las Vegas, this big, red-carpet affair. Her people had heard that Mr. Jackson was living here now, and they reached out to his manager to ask if he would attend. Of course Mr. Jackson wanted to go. So about two weeks out from the event, word came down to us, and things started to gear up.
First thing Mr. Jackson did was call Roberto Cavalli, the designer, to create a custom outfit for him for the party. Cavalli took an emergency flight out here. We picked him up from the MGM Grand, brought him to the house, and he and Mr. Jackson started designing this whole new thing for him just for the party.
Mr. Jackson was obsessing over every detail. He flew his hair-stylist and his makeup artist in too. Once we saw that? We knew he was really taking this seriously. We’d been working for him for over a month, and this was the first detail where he said, “Make sure you have on new suits.” Not just suits, new suits. “Clean the cars. Wax the cars. Make sure your shoes are shined like mirrors.” He never did that kind of thing before. This was the first time we’d be stepping out in public, where we knew that the paparazzi and the press were going to be there. So every day, Mr. Jackson was like, “You guys have to look great. I want everybody to look great.”
Whitfield: We hit the mall a few times, slipping in and out in disguises. Went to Tiffany’s, to Hallmark. He picked out some gifts, a birthday card. We’d hear him talking in the car about how amped he was. We were getting excited just being around him. It was the first time we’d really seen him like this.
Day of the party, he was in good spirits all day long. It was infectious. It spread to everybody in the house. “Hey, Mr. Jackson’s in a good mood!” Everybody was pumped. The whole atmosphere of the place changed. The security team, we were checking each other out, making sure we were all set. Suits pressed. Shoes shined. Even our weapons were polished. Shit, we looked good.
Beard: We were getting ready to walk out on the red carpet with Michael Jackson. It was surreal to us. We’re security, but we’re fans too. How could you not be? We were escorting the King of Pop to Elizabeth Taylor’s birthday party. This was top of the line. A-list.
Whitfield: We were ready to roll out, the cars were in the driveway, all set to go, and Mr. Jackson was taking forever to get ready. While we waited, I left to go and gas up one of the vehicles. I came back and they opened the gate for me and I pulled in on the right-hand side of the circular driveway. The gate was closing behind me. I was getting out of the car and the gate was just a couple feet from closing when all of a sudden—BAM!—there was this loud crash. I turned around to see this gray Mercedes SUV come smashing full speed into the gate. It started to wobble back open, like a garage door does when it can’t close. The Mercedes punched forward, scraping through the opening, and then it raced up the left side of the driveway. I was thinking this was some deranged person about to crash his car into the house. I pulled out my weapon and ran toward the car.
Beard: I was in the garage, waiting to lock up behind Mr. Jackson, who was on his way down. I heard the crash and looked up and saw Bill pull out his joint. The boss was coming through the garage door at that same moment. I screamed, “Mr. Jackson! No!” I grabbed him and pushed him back into the house and locked him inside. He was all freaked out, going, “What’s happening? Is everything okay?”