DEBORAH DANNELLY'S MOST cherished possession is a black fedora signed on the brim in silver ink by Michael Jackson. It is displayed in a glass case in her bedroom in the simple Corpus Christi home that she, age 48, shares with her two cats, two dogs, and two parents. Clarification: The house is simple; her bedroom is not. Every inch of wall and shelf space is dedicated to Jackson, the self-crowned King of Pop, in the form of posters, publicity photos, snapshots, framed album covers, 45s, LPs, CDs, DVDs, videotapes, souvenir Pepsi cans and bottles, ticket stubs and all-access passes from the concerts and special events she has attended, commemorative chocolate bars from Michael and Lisa Marie Presley's wedding, key chains, puzzles, four miniature Michael dolls with as many miniature changes of clothes, stuffed toy replicas of animals in Michael's menagerie, a Michael marionette commissioned by Jackson himself, and a two-foot-tall Rock & Roll Elmo doll that sings the Jackson 5's early hit "ABC." There is even a Michael pillow on the bed.
Dannelly bristles at the use of the word "shrine" to describe her room. "It's a collection," she said, cocking her head. "If someone is collecting Beanie Babies, you wouldn't say they've created a shrine to Ty. So if I have a collection of Michael Jackson memorabilia, it's not a shrine. Being a fan for so long, it documents my growing up, different eras I went through, some of the wonderful times that I have had relating to Michael."
These are the times, however, that try fans' souls. On November 18, a day the faithful had long anticipated as the release date of Jackson's latest greatest-hits collection, Number Ones, the Santa Barbara County sheriff's and district attorney's offices served a search warrant on Jackson's Neverland Ranch amid new allegations of child molestation against the singer. The raid was massive; the Associated Press reported that so many investigators converged at the ranch that the county had to equip the force with portable toilets. But it was nothing compared with the circus that ensued, beginning with a press conference the next day that the beaming district attorney, Thomas Sneddon, conducted like a birthday party, followed by Jackson's arrest and sad-clown mug shot, rumors of love letters and slipped Mickeys, and the defense team's claim of vendettas and shakedowns. Despite the glossy Hard Copy sheen, not one bit of it was pretty, but neither was it unexpected. Jackson's popularity has been in perpetual wane since Sneddon looked into similar charges in 1993, an investigation that ended only when that alleged victim, the recipient of a reported $20 million settlement from Jackson, refused to cooperate. By the end of 2003, a year in which Jackson's behavior grew so strange that even the word "eccentric" no longer fit—the baby-dangling, the accusations of racism against Sony Music, the documentary TV declaration that sharing his bed with young boys was perfectly natural—his fan base had been winnowed down to the diehards.
Deborah Dannelly is one of those. She is the president of the Michael Jackson Fan Club, a 15,000-member international organization that is as close to an official fan club as Jackson has. And no matter how unsettling the charges have been and may become, her faith won't be shaken. Shortly after the raid, Dannelly established a fan club offshoot called Fan Watch, billed on the MJFC Web site as "a new fan club project to ensure the fair treatment of Michael in the media and trial." She assembled a handful of Texas lawyers and investigators to work pro bono for the Fan Watch team, which she has charged with doing whatever is necessary to make sure Jackson isn't railroaded, including checking into the backgrounds of the DA and the alleged victim's family. One Saturday in December, two days before Jackson was scheduled to be formally charged, she let me watch her direct the troops from her war room-office-sewing den as Fan Watch prepared a bombshell it hoped might change the course of the investigation. "Let me tell you something about real Michael Jackson fans," she said. "We are loyal, and we are livid. This is not the first time we've been down this road, and we're not just going to sit back and take it."
DANNELLY CANNOT REMEMBER a time when Michael didn't matter to her. She was raised an Army brat, born in Venezuela, then bounced from Ohio to Spain. She was in Cincinnati when she first saw the Jackson 5 on television: "I am three years older than Michael, and it was so cool to see kids my own age dancing and singing and showing up on TV. Michael, of course, stood out because he was so little and cute and always dressed so neat with those cute little hats." In a sense, she grew up with Michael. "It's like he's always been there," she said, "more a family member than a celebrity," and as he went from lead singer to solo performer to worldwide icon, she started a family, built a career as a legal assistant, and went through her own ups and downs. She had surgery for a brain aneurysm in 1983 and lost her husband, a country radio deejay, to cancer in 1994. "That was particularly hard, because that was when Michael was going through the first allegations."
She joined her first Jackson fan club in 1991 and by 1997 was the assistant to the president of the official fan club. When Jackson opted not to renew that club's contract in 1999, his company, MJJ Productions, asked Dannelly if she would set up her own independent club to fill the void. "I told his camp that I'd do this," she said, "but only if I could give it one hundred percent. I actually thought about it for three months before I decided I could really give it as much as Michael deserved."
It turned out that Michael would get quite a lot. Starting from scratch, Dannelly built her MJFC