NEW: Kenny Ortega described a weak and paranoid Michael Jackson six days before his death
NEW: Michael Jackson appeared revived in his last two days, Ortega testified
NEW: Michael Jackson's oldest nephew, Taj, resumes his testimony Thursday
Dr. Conrad Murray became Ortega's "lifeline" to getting Jackson to rehearsals
Kenny Ortega choked up with emotion as he read aloud an e-mail he wrote days before Michael Jackson’s death.
“He was like a lost boy,” Ortega read. “There still may be a chance he can rise to the occasion if we get him the help he needs.”
The director of Jackson’s comeback concerts testified for a third day Wednesday in the wrongful death trial of AEG Live, the promoter and producer of the This Is It tour.
“I’m not OK right now,” Ortega told the judge. “Can I have a second?”
Judge Yvette Palazuelos allowed Ortega to go alone into the jury room for several minutes before returning for more testimony.
It was one of several times that Ortega shed tears during testimony that described a weak and paranoid Michael Jackson six days before his death, but a revived Michael Jackson in his last two days. Jackson’s mother, who is suing AEG Live, also cried as she listened to Ortega.
The Jacksons contend that AEG Live executives hired, retained or supervised Dr. Conrad Murray, who admitted to police he was giving the singer nightly infusions of propofol. The coroner ruled Jackson’s June 25, 2009, death was the result of an overdose of the surgical anesthetic, which Murray said he was using to treat Jackson’s insomnia. Murray was convicted of involuntary manslaughter.
AEG Live lawyers argue Jackson chose and controlled Murray, and their executives had no way of knowing about the dangerous treatments he was giving Jackson in the privacy of the entertainer’s bedroom.
But, according to testimony and e-mails, AEG Live execs put Murray in charge of Jackson’s rehearsal schedule after Ortega complained that Jackson had been missing so many rehearsals that the tour was in danger.
Jackson lawyers argued that Murray was influenced by a conflict of interest – created by his arrangement with AEG Live – to continue dangerous propofol infusions to help Jackson rest for rehearsals. He was $1 million in debt and had abandoned his medical practice two months earlier to serve as Jackson’s personal physician for the tour. If he failed to get Jackson to rehearsals, the shows might be postponed or canceled and he would be out of a job, they argue.
Ortega: “I felt that we should stop”
After a poor rehearsal on June 13, 2009, and a missed rehearsal the next day, Ortega expressed his concern in an e-mail to AEG Live co-CEO Paul Gongaware: “Were you aware that MJ’s Doctor didn’t permit him to attend rehearsals yesterday? Are Randy and Frank (DiLeo, another Jackson manager) aware of this? Please have them stay on top of his health situation without invading MJ’s privacy. It might be a good idea to talk with his Doctor to make sure everything MJ requires is in place.”
The AEG Live executives later told him they met with Murray and put him in charge of getting Jackson to rehearsals, Ortega said. The director said he was told that if he needed to know whether Jackson was coming to a rehearsal, he should call the doctor. Ortega was given Murray’s cell phone number, which he said he programmed into his own phone.
After Jackson was a no-show for another week, Ortega had a 30-minute conversation with Murray.
“I was told he was creating the schedule and the schedule wasn’t working,” Ortega testified. “He was my lifeline, so to speak.” Ortega said he was venting his frustrations with Jackson and was “crying out.”
While Jackson showed up on June 19, “he appeared lost, cold, afraid,” Ortega said.
“I saw a Michael that frightened me, a Michael that was shivering and cold,” Ortega testified. “I thought there was something emotional going on, deeply emotional, and something physical going on. He seemed fragile.”
He persuaded Jackson not to go onstage that night because he was afraid he would hurt himself, he testified. Instead, Jackson agreed to watch the rehearsal with choreographer Travis Payne dancing his parts.
Jackson appeared paranoid and afraid, he said. “He was repeating for me not to quit or to leave him. He was afraid that I was going to quit or leave him.”
With just a dozen days left for rehearsals before the touring company moved to London for the opening, Ortega testified, he was worried “that all that we had worked for together, Michael and I – this dream, this desire – was going to fall away.”
Ortega testified that on June 19, he “felt that we should stop” the production, but he was “torn because I did not want to break Michael’s heart.”
Ortega sent a series of e-mails that night and the next morning to AEG Live executives warning that they needed professional help for Jackson.
“There are strong signs of paranoia, anxiety and obsessive-like behavior,” Ortega wrote. “I think the very best thing we can do is get a top psychiatrist in to evaluate him ASAP. It’s like there are two people there. One (deep inside) trying to hold on to what he was and still can be and not waiting us to quit him, the other in this weakened and troubled state.”
Ortega testified that he was called to a meeting with AEG Live CEO Randy Phillips, Jackson and Murray at Jackson’s home on June 20, hours after he sent those e-mails.
Murray angrily confronted him, Ortega testified. “He said I had no right to not let Michael rehearse, that Michael was physically and emotionally capable of handling all his responsibility as a performer and I should be a director and not an amateur doctor or psychologist. I should stick to my job and leave the rest to him.”
Jackson died while under Murray’s care five days later, in a bedroom just upstairs from the parlor where the meeting took place.
A much different Jackson appeared at the next scheduled rehearsal on June 23. “It was miraculous,” Ortega testified.
“I was overjoyed at his energy, his state of mind, his enthusiasm,” he said. “He had a metamorphosis. It was pretty extraordinary.”
Murray told investigators he stopped using propofol to induce Jackson’s sleep for the two previous nights – after 60 nights of it. Jackson lawyers contend that is why Jackson was revitalized.
Ortega said Jackson appeared to have gotten “real sleep, organic sleep.”
A sleep expert testified last month that someone can recover quickly from heavy use of propofol, which interrupts the normal sleep cycles. All of the symptoms that Ortega saw in Jackson on June 19 suggested Jackson had been deprived of real sleep for weeks, the expert said.
Jurors watched a video of “Earth Song,” the final song Jackson performed at the June 24 rehearsal – his last. “I love this piece,” Ortega said as he watched.
“Our boy is gone”
Ortega was standing on the Staples Center stage in Los Angeles the next day when he got a call from AEG Live Co-CEO Paul Gongaware telling him Jackson was dead.
“Our boy is gone” Gongaware told him, he said.
“I think I was in shock,” Ortega said. “I wanted to believe that it was some weirdo on the phone.”
Ortega, who had worked with Jackson on other tours and projects, testified Tuesday that he would have been less likely to agree to direct This Is It if he had known what happened the day Jackson was to appear in London to announce the tour.
AEG Live CEO Randy Phillips testified last month that he “slapped” and “screamed” at Jackson because he was “nerve-racked” on that day, March 5, 2009. Phillips recounted that it was “a miracle” that a “drunk and despondent” Jackson finally appeared at the London event. AEG was hosting thousands of Jackson fans and hundreds of journalists for the anticipated announcement, which was to be seen live around the world.
“I screamed at him so loud the walls were shaking,” Phillips wrote to AEG parent company CEO Tim Leiweke. “Tohme (Jackson’s manager) and I have dressed him, and they are finishing his hair, and then we are rushing to the O2. This is the scariest thing I have ever seen. He’s an emotionally paralyzed mess, filled with self-loathing and doubt now that it is show time. He is scared to death. Right now I just want to get through this press conference.”
AEG Live executives did not tell Ortega about the incident when they approached him days later to direct the show, he said. He would have been “less likely” to accept the job had he known, because of his concern about how the preparation for the tour would affect Jackson emotionally and physically, he said.
Taj Jackson, Michael Jackson’s oldest nephew, returns to the witness stand Thursday morning to continue his testimony begun last month.
The trial, which is in its 11th week, is expected to conclude sometime in August. The Jackson lawyers said they should call their last witness next week, which would be followed by AEG Live presenting its defense.