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.
Suddenly, Rocco strides into the courtroom, wearing a tie, green pants, no socks and loose loafers. He’s clutching a soiled cap in one hand and a large notebook in another. He’s got sunglasses clipped to his spectacles (flipped up for indoor use) and a large bandage on his head. “Hey, Nick,” he says. “How’re you doing? My notebook is bigger than yours.”
After a brief exchange in front of the judge, all of the witnesses are ordered to wait in the hallway while he considers whether to allow us to leave for the day.
I use the time to find out how the rest of Rocco’s witnesses ended up on the list. “I live across the street from him,” explains Jesse Ochoa, a boxing instructor with platinum-blond hair. One time, Ochoa recalls, “He was trying to hide a shopping cart in my bushes. He told me, ‘You know what? I don’t like Mexicans. You’re all illegal.’ I’m a U.S. citizen. The last time I saw him, he gave me the finger and said, ‘Merry Christmas.’ Is there nothing we can do to stop him?”
Wes Poutsma served on the school board with Rocco, who once put his hand in front of Poutsma’s face while jabbing his finger at another board member during one of his rants against the Partnership. When Poutsma pushed Rocco’s hand away, Rocco tried to have him arrested for assault and battery.
Phil Martinez, whom Rocco defeated in his school-board race, says Rocco believes he and one of his supporters, Mike Furlop, tried to kill him. “My only crime is running against him,” Martinez says.
“I kicked him out of my garage sale because I didn’t like him, and a few weeks later, I apparently tried to run him over with my vehicle,” adds Furlop. “I wasn’t even in town that day.” Furlop says he plans to file a restraining order against Rocco—and that I will go to hell because I work for OC Weekly, which contains “smut” that endangers children.
Kathy Moran, an aide to Orange County Supervisor John Moorlach, says Rocco sent her a subpoena because he thinks she knows the identity of various Partnership members. She can’t believe prosecutors are trying to jail him for a bottle of ketchup when they pass on prosecuting more serious crimes. “Someone broke into my car and stole my property and my cell phone and used the phone for a week, so they could have found out who it was,” she says. “But they said, ‘Nah, we don’t deal with stuff like that.’ So I don’t understand this case.
“I’m taking today off as vacation time,” she adds. “I don’t think the county taxpayers should have to pay for this.”
A tedious hour or so later, prosecutor Lynda Fernandez informs the beleaguered group of witnesses in the hallway that they can leave the courthouse as long as they promise to show up again if called to testify. Meanwhile, back in the courtroom, the lawyers try to convince Judge John L. Flynn to quash Rocco’s summonses. Rocco temporarily derails that effort by forcing Flynn to recuse himself because of his ties to Chapman University, but later that afternoon, Judge Jacki Brown (no relation to the Quentin Tarantino movie) quashes every one of his subpoenas, thus making it very difficult for Rocco to prove he was set up by the Partnership.
* * *
I first met Rocco more than a decade ago, when a friend of mine who often visited the Santa Ana swap meet told me he’d met this guy named Rocco who had a stand in which he displayed rented albums from the local library that seemed to be offered for sale, but he refused to let anyone touch them. Rocco had read some of my stories on CIA covert operations and, my friend added, wanted to meet me and give me a copy of his own exposé of nefarious government activities. A week later, Rocco dropped by my office, refused to shake my hand and angrily handed over the tome, then left as quickly as he came. R.O.C.C.O. Behind the Orange Curtain, his self-published 1992 book, bills itself as a compendium of “secret chronicles and public-record accounts of corruption, murder and scandal of corporate and political California.” In his author’s bio, Rocco describes himself as “formerly, an ex-writing teacher” who has also written at least two other works, Raven In the Shafts (which “delivers where Catcher In the Rye only hinted”) and 1975: The Year Vietnam Ended (“a tumultuous look at an era that changed the world”). The book’s cover features a white, stick-like human figure, waving his arms above his head and wilting in the brutal glare of a sunrise that looks strangely similar to the Japanese imperial flag of war. Above that illustration, in italics, is the uncredited aphorism “Ignorance can be expensive.”
The book is illustrated throughout with solar-system motifs—a planet (presumably Earth) rising above a desolate moonscape and a moon rising above a mountain, partially blocked by seagulls. Although it is supposed to be Rocco’s biography, much of the text simply documents quotidian daily rituals such as recording the temperature and wind direction. On July 20, 1980, for example, the day Santa Ana police arrested Rocco trying to leave a Santa Ana Albertsons supermarket with four rolls of Kodak film and a sausage he hadn’t paid for, the temperature was “to peak at 78 degrees,” but that when he awoke at 8:54 a.m., it was “pleasantly mild.”
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.
Suddenly, Brown discovers she is dealing with a man who once described himself (on the cover of his own book, no less) as “America’s premier legal technician.” Rocco interrupts Brown and tells her that in his expert legal mind, all these questions about whether he is capable of realizing how “unwise” and “ill-advised” his decision to act as his own attorney are proof that she has already made up her mind about the case, and therefore she needs to recuse herself. “I don’t feel I can get a fair trial,” Rocco explains. “I would like you to recuse yourself and leave and get another judge.” Brown refuses to grant Rocco’s request because he hasn’t put it in writing or cited any legal framework for her disqualification.
Rocco scratches his head for a few moments, then tells Brown he’s had a change of heart: Maybe acting as his own attorney isn’t such a great idea after all. “I’m confident [Bell] can do a good job,” Rocco tells the judge. “If she wants to represent me, I’m fine with that.” Perhaps the fact that Bell could objectively be described as “cute” played a role in Rocco’s decision to keep her around. Or maybe Rocco’s not really crazy, and he realized that, unlike him, Bell is a competent attorney and his best shot at beating the rap and defeating the Partnership’s latest attempt to silence, discredit and assassinate him.
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Either way, Bell doesn’t have the slightest idea what the hell to do with Rocco now that he’s her client, so the judge agrees to delay his trial until next month, allowing Bell to wade through Rocco’s elaborate defense strategy involving the Partnership’s plot—and maybe subpoena me again. Who knows? At press time, the Great Ketchup Caper, also known as the biggest waste of resources in the history of our county’s justice system, was scheduled to resume on April 9.
Portions of this story previously appeared on OC Weekly’s Navel Gazing blog.