The Great Ketchup Caper Trial, Day One

The Orange County Superior Courthouse's courtroom C-47 had a standing room only crowd this morning, as the much anticipated case of the People versus Steve Rocco finally went before a judge. Rocco, in case you don't already know, is the former Orange Unified School district trustee who was arrested last September for allegedly stealing a bottle of ketchup from a Chapman University cafeteria. After refusing to plead guilty, Rocco now faces trial for petty theft of a condiment valued, according to trial paperwork, at $1.20.

To Rocco, the arrest was just the latest proof that he's been targeted for decades by a vast, all-powerful conspiracy called the "Partnership," which consists of corporate entities like Kodak Corp., Smokecraft Sausage, and Alberston's, and which secretly controls Orange County government. He first came across the insidious cabal in 1981, when Santa Ana police arrested him for shoplifting several rolls of Kodak Film and a Smokecraft sausage from an Albertsons supermarket.  After being elected to the school board in 2004 by voters apparently impressed with his lack of union affiliation and self-description as an "educator," Rocco refused to vote on anything to do with education and used his time during board meetings to accuse fellow board members of being part of the Partnership.

I was at the courtroom to both cover the trial and because Rocco sent me a subpoena, along with about 50 other people, including several next-door neighbors, former Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona, an unnamed representative of Heinz Company--part of Rocco's defense apparently involves his belief that unrefrigerated ketchup is actually "garbage."  I didn't see Carona there, nor the phantom Heinz employee, but I did talk to several other supposed witnesses, all of whom were nowhere near the scene of the crime. The witness who was closest to the cafeteria, Fred Smoller, a Chapman University political science professor who produced a documentary about an effort by parents to recall Rocco, actually played an unwitting role in Rocco's arrest. Rocco had stopped by the campus several times to harass Smoller, so he'd warned campus security to be on the lookout for a tall skinny guy with a funny hat and a bike.

After two hours of legal wrangling, while attorneys for the witnesses tried to have Rocco's subpoenas quashed, Smoller and everyone else was impatient to get back to their busy lives. "I'm going to have to cancel my classes today," he said, adding that he wished prosecutors hadn't pressed charges against Rocco. Paraphrasing Woody Allen in the film Bananas, Smoller concluded, "This case is a travesty of a mockery of a sham of a mockery of a travesty."

The rest of today's court session will likely be consumed by back and forth between Rocco, who is acting as his own attorney, and lawyers for the supposed witnesses, over whether any of them (us) will have to actually testify. Jury selection is scheduled for tomorrow morning, and the case could last from anywhere from two days to a week, depending on just how insane our justice system really is.

For previous coverage of Rocco and the Partnership, visit Navel Gazing's Rocco Loco archives here.


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