Louise Palanker and Ron Zonen
A chance meeting at the 2005 Michael Jackson trial in Santa Maria brought Louise Palanker, a witness, and Ron Zonen, a prosecutor, together. Three years later they were married. (Zonen family photo)

My husband and I did not meet cute, like in a carpool, in the rain, spilling coffee and accidentally playing each other’s golf balls. We met crazy. Like in the movie Speed where by the time the bus slows down you realize you’re in love.

But for us the bus was the Michael Jackson trial in Santa Maria. My future husband was the prosecutor. I was a witness.

It’s not even normal crazy. It’s next-level crazy.

Is there a short version of this story? I don’t think so but let me give it a try.

Jamie Masada, the owner of The Laugh Factory, was running a comedy camp for low-income kids who wish to learn standup. That’s where I met the Arvizo family. Wonderful kids.

That Christmas, Fritz Coleman wanted to help his children better understand and appreciate their privilege by bringing gifts to a family in need. I suggested the Arvizos, and off we went.

Not long after that visit, 11-year-old Gavin Arvizo was stricken with a very serious and deadly cancer. For more than a year, he fought hard for his life.

During this time, everyone involved with The Laugh Factory pulled hard for him. He was visited and called by his favorite comedians. Masada threw benefits to raise money. We had blood drives.

Someone introduced Gavin to Michael Jackson.

Louise Palanker

The author testifies in the 2005 Michael Jackson trial. (Vicki Ellen Behringer illustration)

I should have been more concerned but I thought Gavin was going to die. My thinking was, “Let him go to Neverland. Michael Jackson doesn’t molest the sick kids. They provide a smoke screen for the kid he’s dating that year.”

My thinking was flawed. Gavin survived. And when Jackson decided to make a documentary proving to the world how normal he really is … he wanted to also showcase how he writes songs in trees, buys every appalling tchotchke in Las Vegas and cures kids of cancer.

So the Arvizos were driven up to Neverland in Los Olivos for the shoot.

At that point, Gavin was beginning to thrive. He was out of his wheelchair, his hair had grown in and he was eagerly leaping back into his childhood.

The documentary airs. And, it’s a shitstorm for Team Jackson. The Arvizos are now of keen interest to the news media and so they are quickly herded into Neverland and told there are “killers” after them.

For weeks, Gavin and his little brother are sleeping with Jackson while his mom and sister are in a guest cottage. What happened next? I wasn’t there but I am going to believe this kid who I love over the grown man giving wine and vodka to a 12-year-old cancer patient.

I’m cutting out many key points but now here comes the trial and a subpoena for me. I had given money to this family so that Gavin’s father could take time off work to be with him in the hospital. That money was squandered by the father, supporting the defense theory of the case that the family were shakedown artists.

Yes, the dad was shady. That does not un-molest the kid.

Furthermore, Jackson doesn’t have access to kids from healthy families because I don’t think you would let your kids spend the night in his room, even on a 1% chance that he’s a child molester. Your kid is staying with you. Once again, he’s a grown man.

Ron Zonen

Then-Santa Barbara County prosecutor Ron Zonen makes his closing argument at the Michael Jackson trial. (Vicki Ellen Behringer illustration)

My sister, Amy, drove me to Santa Maria for the 2015 trial. The courthouse is a complete circus, swarming with news media from around the world. We’re picked up at the hotel by a Santa Barbara County sheriff’s deputy who drives us in serpentine fashion to a secret entrance, and we are kept in a holding area with fellow witnesses awaiting our turns to testify.

I spent that first day sitting next to a private jet flight attendant who giggled to me about how Jackson would spend hours on flights in the restroom with a child.

Stunned, I said, “Are you going to say that on the stand?”

“If they ask me,” was her reply.

They did and she didn’t.

Near the end of the day I was ushered downstairs, through the metal detectors and into the courtroom, packed with keenly interested media, spectators, lawyers and the jury. They’ve been there together all day looking at each other. Now I’m the new thing to look at and they are staring. I stand in the witness box and promise to tell the truth.

I do have a lot more to tell you about my testimony, which spilled into the next day. It was entirely overwhelming with Jackson’s top lawyer, Tom Mesereau, belligerently attempting to trip me up and intimidate me for hours.

During a break, the courtroom emptied. I was alone with the bailiff, then-District Attorney Tom Sneddon and Mesereau when we began to hear wild screams emanating from the lobby. (It turned out to be a fan fainting in the women’s restroom.)

I looked at Mesereau and said, “What did you do to her?” He didn’t crack a smile.

Santa Maria courtroom

The author drew on her own observations of the Michael Jackson trial. (Louise Palanker illustration)

But, I know, I promised that today we’re talking about how I met my husband. When I walked into that courtroom, I did not know much about criminal law or even the difference between civil and criminal cases.

So, assuming you are where I was then, a DA is not a defense attorney. I know, right!? A DA is a district attorney, and my future husband was a deputy district attorney. Or maybe a senior deputy district attorney. Something like that but he was in the DA’s office, which means he was a prosecutor.

Most criminal cases are assigned one prosecutor. However, with the world’s eyes on this case and with a big team of lawyers on the Jackson side, Santa Barbara County placed three prosecutors on the case, including Sneddon, the actual district attorney. On his team were Gordon Auchincloss and Ron Zonen.

Much of my experience feels like a blurry dream but I do remember that it was raining and, following my testimony, Zonen walked me back up to the waiting area and sat with me until crowds dispersed. He then walked me and my cousin, Trish, under his umbrella to the sheriff’s deputy’s car. I was a bit of a mess but I did pick up on the gallantry.

The trial dragged on for months and Jackson was ultimately found not guilty. Since then, two courageous young men have come forward to tell their truths in the documentary Leaving Neverland.

No, they were not ready to support Gavin during the trial. In fact, one of them lied on the stand. But victims reveal on their own timelines.

Gavin is well and thriving, and he keeps his private life very private. He has never sold or told his story, and he endeavors only to live a healthy and productive life.

I stayed in touch with the handsome prosecutor who walked me to the car. It turns out he was single! Two years later we were dating. Three years later we were married. We danced at Gavin’s wedding. He danced at ours.

After I testified and I was walking up the courtroom aisle, I turned to a sketch artist and said, “Make me pretty.” She did!

Following this chaotic experience, in a fit of cathartic self expression, I did my own courtroom sketch. And since I’m sure it’s difficult to differentiate them, mine is the first one, then Vicki’s.

Fritz Coleman and I were both called to testify at the Jackson trial. For even more fun, we now do the questioning on our podcast, Media Path.

Louise Palanker is a co-founder of Premiere Radio Networks, the author of a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel called Journals, a comedian, a filmmaker (click here to view her documentary, Family Band: The Cowsills Story), a teacher and a mentor. She also co-hosts the podcast Media Path with Fritz Coleman, and teaches a free stand-up comedy class for teens at the Jewish Federation of Greater Santa Barbara. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.