By Dan Whitcomb
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. (Reuters) - Police swarmed over pop superstar Michael Jackson's opulent Neverland Ranch near Santa Barbara in central California on Tuesday as part of an unspecified criminal investigation, officials said.
Police gave no details about the probe but cable channel Court TV, whose reporter was on the scene, quoted sources saying it stemmed from a new allegation of sexual abuse brought by a 12-year-old boy against the self-styled King of Pop.
Jackson, 45, has been dogged over the past 10 years by rumors and allegations stemming from his professed affection for young children. A former child star himself, Jackson has said he thinks of himself as "Peter Pan."
Nine years ago a 14-year-old boy reached an out-of-court agreement to settle a lawsuit accusing the singer of molesting him in 1992. No criminal charges were ever brought in that case and Jackson publicly denied any wrongdoing.
Sheriffs deputies and officials from the Santa Barbara District Attorney's office descended early on Tuesday morning on the Neverland ranch where Jackson has built theme-park rides, a zoo and a miniature train ride which he occasionally throws open to local children.
They said in a statement they went to "serve a search warrant as part of an ongoing criminal investigation."
Court TV said its reporter saw a convoy of vehicles entering the compound, including a forensic evidence gathering van. The search was still going on three hours later.
A spokesman for Jackson was not immediately available for comment and Jackson's whereabouts were not clear, but syndicated TV show Access Hollywood said Jackson was in Las Vegas shooting a music video with his own three children.
Tuesday's search warrant follows a tumultuous year for Jackson, whose talents as an entertainer have been eclipsed by his often bizarre behavior both on and off screen.
In February, he revealed in a British television documentary that he sometimes shared his Neverland bedroom with young boys. One boy, a 12-year-old cancer survivor called Gavin, spoke openly about his affection for Jackson and of enjoying sleepovers with the pop star at Neverland.
"Why can't you share your bed? The most loving thing you can do is share your bed with someone," Jackson said in the documentary. He strongly denied any sexual intent.
The frank revelations sparked calls for an investigation by California child welfare authorities at the Neverland ranch.
The search warrant was executed on the same day that a new greatest hits collection was released, featuring Jackson's latest single, "One More Chance."
CBS television has scheduled a special next week tracing his career from his Motown days as the lead singer of the Jackson 5 through his emergence as one of the recording industry's biggest stars.
In November last year, the former child-star stunned fans in Berlin by dangling his barefoot baby from a hotel window.
In June, Jackson settled a $12 million breach of contract lawsuit by his former top adviser, avoiding a trial that threatened to spill details of his financial empire and personal life into open court.
No charges have currently been filed against Jackson and authorities firmly declined to give any information about the current probe.
Lou Palumbo, a former police detective who now heads Elite Agency Ltd., a security firm that works with celebrities and provides protection to events like the Golden Globes, warned that someone could be targeting Jackson in the hope of making money.
"This could just be another allegation from someone that wants money from him," Palumbo told Reuters.