The Bizarre Case of the People vs. ex-Orange School District Trustee Steve Rocco

More Than 57 Varieties of Strange:
The bizarre case of the people vs. ex-Orange Unified School District trustee Steve Rocco

It’s June 12, 2007, and since Steve Rocco hasn’t answered my persistent knocking on the metal security gate that protects his front door, I’m about to pin my phone number on a scrap of paper next to the Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison album that Rocco has rigged to the wire. That’s when I hear Rocco’s voice behind me and turn to see him hovering there, dried blood caked all over his face.

“How’d you hear about this?” Rocco asks, pointing at the blood, his eyes wide.

“Uh, don’t you remember me?” I answer, somewhat surprised he doesn’t seem to recognize me. I had interviewed Rocco numerous times in the past few years since his election to the Orange Unified School District board, thanks to voters who were impressed with his lack of teachers’-union affiliation and self-description as an “educator.” Mostly, we had met at the law office of Fernando Leone, an attorney Rocco, who lives with his elderly mother, had hired to handle his family’s estate.

Our meetings had to do with something Rocco calls the “Partnership,” a secretive cabal consisting of corporate entities such as Kodak Corp., Smokecraft Sausage and Albertsons, which Rocco claims is the real power behind Orange County government. He first came across the Partnership in 1980, when Santa Ana police arrested him for shoplifting several rolls of Kodak Film and a Smokecraft Sausage from an Albertsons supermarket. During his four-year stint on the school board, Rocco refused to vote on anything to do with education and used his time during meetings to accuse fellow board members of being part of the Partnership, which he claimed tried to have him assassinated on numerous occasions (see “The Rocco Horror Picture Show,” Nov. 12, 2004).

Which brings us back to the blood on Rocco’s face. “Yeah, I know who you are,” Rocco says. “But how did you hear about this?” He tells me that just moments ago, he was riding his bicycle on the campus of Santa Ana College when he was attacked by gang members on the payroll of Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido; one of them threw an apple at his head. “They tried to kill me,” he states. “My ass is grass.”

*     *     *

Fast-forward almost two years to the morning of March 18, 2009, when I find myself standing in the Orange County Superior Courthouse, called as a defense witness by Rocco, whom the district attorney’s office has charged with stealing a bottle of Heinz ketchup from a Chapman University cafeteria on Sept. 27, 2008. According to paperwork Rocco filed in the case, he wants me to explain how I just happened to drop by his house right after the alleged attempt on his life.

He has issued some 50 subpoenas. On the list are his next-door neighbors, several other reporters, former Orange County sheriff/convicted felon Mike Carona, and Rocco’s former colleagues on the Orange school board. Like me, none of these people was anywhere near the cafeteria where police arrested Rocco with a half-empty bottle of ketchup with a street value, according to trial paperwork, of $1.20. The witness closest to the scene of the alleged crime is Fred Smoller, a Chapman political-science professor who produced a documentary about an unsuccessful recall drive against Rocco by Orange parents. Rocco had dropped by the university campus numerous times trying to talk to Smoller, so the professor alerted campus security to watch out for a tall, skinny guy with a funny hat and a bike. That’s how the security guards spotted Rocco allegedly placing the ketchup bottle in his backpack and made a citizen’s arrest, which led Orange police to cite Rocco for petty theft. When Rocco refused to plead guilty, the DA added another charge: illegal possession of an item of value. Rocco responded by serving subpoenas. Which explains the crowd of people now gathered in the courtroom, including Smoller, who tells me that the case against Rocco is a “travesty of a mockery of a sham of a mockery of a travesty,” with apologies to Woody Allen in the film Bananas.

Lawyers representing some of the public officials and journalists (including me) Rocco has asked to testify have also shown up in court, armed with motions to quash his summons. My attorney, Thomas Peistrup, who has seen some wacky cases in his day—he worked several lawsuits stemming from the film Borat—is perplexed. “I don’t understand why they are pursuing this so vigorously,” he says.

A few other lawyers are whispering that Rocco has asked for a Heinz representative to testify. Part of Rocco’s defense is that unrefrigerated ketchup is “garbage” and that he was thus “recycling” the bottle, not stealing it.

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