By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
But the book also exposed, for the first time, the Partnership conspiracy Rocco believes led to his 1981 shoplifting conviction. Among other things, the book claims that the son of a high-ranking Albertsons executive is the “largest drug dealer in the West” and that the company is complicit in murder. Just whose murder isn’t exactly clear, but years later, after Rocco won his seat on the school board, he elaborated in a series of press conferences held at the office of his then-estate attorney, Leone. (Like me, Leone also had to show up in court for Rocco’s ketchup trial because Rocco served him with a subpoena. “I try to get out, but he keeps pulling me back!” Leone told me in court, with apologies to The Godfather: Part III.) In those press conferences, Rocco claimed that ever since his shoplifting conviction, Albertsons had been plotting his demise. He even brought a witness: a mystery man named Evan Harris, who claimed the grocery chain had hired him to spy on Rocco through an attorney with ties to the Mexican drug cartels, a man who, coincidentally, Rocco says tried to run over him with his truck on March 25, 1987 (see “Albertsons Wants Me Dead,” Feb. 24, 2005).
Included in Rocco’s recent defense brief is a letter from Heinz North America stating that the bottle of ketchup he allegedly stole was produced on July 29, 2008. “We recommend that Heinz Ketchup in the plastic bottle be used within 15 months from the date of production,” the letter states. “Once opened, the product should be refrigerated to maintain the best quality.”
The brief also includes a rambling, four-page, sworn declaration by Harris asserting Rocco’s innocence of the ketchup theft. “I have never seen Mr. Rocco use condiments: sugar, salt, pepper, ketchup, etc.,” he states. “I have never seen Mr. Rocco steal anything. . . . Mr. Rocco was unlawfully convicted [of shoplifting in 1981]. . . . Murders, drug running, public corruption, kidnappings occurred (etc.). . . . It’s been a long, long COVER-UP.”
The brief also includes numerous pages of typewritten details on people Rocco believes belong to the Partnership, including Smoller, whom Rocco asserts is actually a hit man masquerading as an academic. “On page two, he says I was hired by Chapman University to kill him,” Smoller says. “And that I followed him into a men’s room. It’s bizarre. He’s a true schizophrenic. Part of his brain is in reality, and part of it is not. This is a sad tale, and I’m hoping it ends quietly. Quite frankly, this trial is wonderful for him because it allows him to avoid his inner demons, but this is not the proper venue to deal with [Rocco’s] problem. He is a mentally deficient individual. The court is taking the position that by treating him harshly, it will change his behavior, but this is exactly what he wants.”
* * *
On Day Two of the Great Ketchup Caper trial, Judge Brown declares that she has doubts about Rocco’s mental competence. She appoints a public defender, Michele Bell (no relation to the bilingual Beatles ballad) to meet with Rocco and determine if she feels he is capable of being his own attorney.
“Rocco was really upset about that,” DA Fernandez tells me on the morning of Day Three. “He really wants to represent himself.”
A few moments later, Rocco himself strides into the courtroom, dressed in the same outfit he was wearing on the first day of trial: green pants, loose black loafers, a big bandage on his head and sunglasses clipped to his eyeglasses, flipped up for indoors. A few minutes later, Bell arrives. As she sits down, Rocco leans back in his chair. “I know you’ve probably heard this a thousand times,” he says, “but, you know that Beatles album, Rubber Soul?”
At just after 9:30 a.m., Bell tells Brown that Rocco is not a nutbar and that he still wants to be his own lawyer.
Not convinced Rocco realizes what he is getting himself into, Brown asks him a series of questions aimed at seeing if he knows just how crazy his decision to represent himself really is. “It is almost always unwise for defendants to represent themselves,” Brown says. “You may very well do or say something that actually proves the prosecutor’s case. Do you understand that?”
“May I ask you a question?” Rocco answers in a distinctly non-crazy tone of voice.
“First, you must answer my questions,” Brown says.
“Yes,” says Rocco, still not sounding crazy.
“I will require you to follow all of the technical rules of law, even though you are not trained in the law,” Brown continues. “Do you understand that?”
“Yes,” Rocco replies.
“The prosecutor, Lynda Fernandez, has a lot of training and practice,” Brown warns, adding that Rocco doesn’t and that the trial would therefore “not likely be a very fair contest.” Brown continues her line of questioning for several minutes, each question a variation on the same theme: Don’t do it, for God’s sake, Rocco; you’d be crazy to represent yourself. Call it a Catch-22 Q&A: If Rocco answers by saying he knew what he was doing was crazy, he’d be admitting he was nuts, and if he says he doesn’t think what he was doing was nuts, that’d also be tantamount to confessing craziness.