Attorney Fernando Leone hosted a press conference in his Santa Ana office on Feb. 18, but the man of the hour was Orange Unified School District (OUSD) trustee Steve Rocco, who revealed that Albertsons Supermarket tried to murder him 20 years ago. The alleged plot by the seemingly innocuous doubler of grocery coupons began in 1980, when police arrested Rocco at a Santa Ana Albertsons and booked him on shoplifting charges. It's an incident Rocco detailed extensively—really, really, really extensively—in his 1992 book, ROCCOBehindtheOrangeCurtain:SecretChronicles&PublicRecordAccountsofCorruption,Murder&ScandalofCorporate&PoliticalCalifornia.
Besides the Weekly,the only media outlets represented at the press conference were Pasadena-based public radio station KPCC, whose Orange County reporter Rob Schmitz left halfway through the event, and TheOrangeCountyRegister,whose hapless cub reporter seemed mystified as to how Rocco's views on Albertsons had anything to do with Orange school politics.
She obviously wasn't paying attention.
Wearing his trademark blue-wool watch cap and dark sunglasses, Rocco appeared cheerful, even charming. This was quite unlike his Dec. 9 swearing-in ceremony at OUSD's headquarters, where Rocco coldly called himself the “anti-corruption candidate” and enigmatically vowed to battle The Partnership in his new role as a high-school educator.
Though he'd walked in trailed by a surprise witness, Rocco began by officially putting to rest press accounts in OCWeeklythat he's actually the deceased performance artist Andy Kaufman. “You look more like Andy Kaufman than I do,” he said before expressing admiration for the dead comedian. “You have to respect someone who rises to the top of his field yet still keeps his day job washing dishes.”
Then Rocco spent nearly an hour detailing his years-long legal battle to prove that the evidence—four rolls of Kodak film and a SmokeCraft sausage—used against him in his 1981 trial were false. He described how the jury in his first trial failed to reach a verdict and how the original judge recused himself from a second trial because he had “reasonable doubts” about Rocco's culpability. Rocco says he prepared for the second trial by writing to Kodak Co. in an effort to prove that the film used as evidence against him had expiration dates that proved they couldn't have been on the shelf at the supermarket in Santa Ana the day he was arrested.
Rocco's problems with Albertsons didn't end with his shoplifting conviction. He alleged that his 1982 arrest for stealing records from a local library was also arranged by the supermarket. Rocco said police took hundreds of records from his home and returned all but four. “Just like I was arrested for four rolls of film, I was arrested for four records,” he explained. “This was a plan to destroy my appeal.”
But Rocco's most startling revelations about his alleged victimization at the hands of Albertsons concerned his involvement in a March 25, 1987, vehicular incident that morning. Rocco was bicycling to court when he says he was struck by a truck. The male truck driver took him to the hospital but left with his bike. Rocco later found the bike in the back of the truck, and after a scary encounter with a man wielding a power saw, he retrieved his property.
Rocco says he soon discovered the entire accident was part of a murder plot orchestrated by Albertsons.
That discovery came when he met Evan Harris, Rocco's mysterious Tony Cliftonesque sidekick at the Feb. 18 press conference. Harris then unleashed a bombshell: he was hired to spy on Rocco by a lawyer—who was the same man who tried to murder Rocco with his truck.
“At the time, I was a student at Santa Ana College taking paralegal classes,” Harris said. “I was looking for employment in Orange County, dropping off rsums, and one day, I was in the courtroom, and there was a bulletin board. I saw an ad for a legal assistant.” Harris said he met with a lawyer who told him “there was a lot of money to be made, especially if I did investigative work on Mr. Rocco.”
Harris said he followed Rocco to the Orange Coast College swap meet and “did kind of a surveillance thing.” The lawyer had told him Rocco was selling bootleg records, but Harris claimed he saw no evidence to support this. “I saw no criminal activity of any kind,” he said. “But [the lawyer] kind of insisted I go back and keep trying. He said that he worked for Albertsons and that there was a lot of money to be made.”
At this point, Leone interrupted Harris.
“What do you know about the contract to run over Steve?” he asked.
“Well, after a while, I was suspicious about the whole thing,” Harris responded. “I wasn't comfortable. . . . Mr. Rocco was trying to contact me at this time. He showed me a lot of paperwork on [the lawyer] that [showed] he was arrested for hit and run. I never went back. This is 20 years ago now.”
“How do you know [the lawyer] meant to kill Rocco in that hit-and-run incident?” Leone asked.
Harris looked confused. “When I met with Mr. Rocco, he had papers on the hit and run,” he finally said.
“Those are big allegations,” Leone declared. “Are you going to leave us hanging there, Steve?”
“Yes, I'll leave you hanging there,” Rocco said. “Next time, I'll go into The Partnership.”
The only question came from a clearly befuddled Registerreporter, who reminded Rocco she was here to cover a press conference called by a school official.
“How does all this play into your role at OUSD?” she asked.
“There's no difference to me between my role as an educator at OUSD and fighting The Partnership,” Rocco responded. “It's the same thing.”
Award-winning investigative journalist Nick Schou is Editor of OC Weekly. He is the author of Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb (Nation Books 2006), which provided the basis for the 2014 Focus Features release starring Jeremy Renner and the L.A. Times-bestseller Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love’s Quest to bring Peace, Love and Acid to the World, (Thomas Dunne 2009). He is also the author of The Weed Runners (2013) and Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood (2016).