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Former Orange school trustee on trial in ketchup theft

April 14, 2009 |  3:56 pm

Rocco He was the ultimate dark-horse politician, a school board member who murmured about conspiracies, refused to talk with colleagues, wore coal-black sunglasses during night meetings and survived a recall attempt.

But former Orange school trustee Steve Rocco may finally have met his match in a half-full bottle of ketchup. Rocco is being tried for stealing a 14-ounce Heinz bottle from a dining area outside the cafeteria at Chapman University, a charge he claims is bogus because – in his calculations – the ketchup was worthless.

If Rocco made for an awkward and often mute politician when he served a four-year term on the school board in Orange, he seemed light, gregarious and engaged as his petty-theft trial opened today, jotting things down in a spiral notebook, asking detailed questions and laughing with his public defender.

Told he would have to adhere to courtroom etiquette and go without his standard knit beanie cap and dark glasses, Rocco showed up in a plaid shirt with a black tie and flip-up sunglasses and had a white bandage the size of a slice of bread affixed to his head.

Superior Court Judge Jacki C. Brown’s courtroom has become the latest stage for Rocco, a 58-year-old unemployed recluse known for espousing shadowy conspiracy theories about a powerful, secret cabal he calls the Partnership.

He made national headlines in 2004 when he won a school board seat in Orange, listing himself as a “teacher/writer” on the ballot.

Now a different panel will be asked to pass judgment on Rocco and decide whether he stole the 14-ounce, plastic squirt bottle of Heinz from a table at a dining area outside Argyros Forum in September and put it in a paper bag before speeding off on his bicycle. Or did he just take it, thinking it was trash and in need of recycling?

The case seems straightforward, if not a bit mundane and, well, cheap. According to prosecutors, the bottle had a value of $1.20 -- well below the $15 each juror is being paid a day for their civic service. The trial, expected to last four days, will cost thousands.

So while Deputy Dist. Atty. Lynda Fernandez asked jurors to “focus on the conduct of the defendant rather than the value of the item,” public defender Erica Gambale simply jingled two quarters and a dime in her palm.

“This is it, ladies and gentlemen, this is it: 60 cents,” she told jurors. “At best, half that ketchup was left.”

What jurors are unlikely to hear about is Rocco’s 1981 conviction for stealing a package of sausages and several rolls of film from an Albertson’s store.

 It was that incident that inspired his self-published autobiographical book, “R.O.C.C.O. Behind the Orange Curtain”, in which he alleges Orange County government is controlled by the supermarket chain, Smokecraft Sausage, Kodak and other business, political and educational interests.

Prosecutors tried to settle the ketchup case on the condition Rocco stay away from the Chapman campus, but he declined. Instead, he issued typewriter-composed subpoenas for more than 50 witnesses, including ex-sheriff Michael S. Carona, Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley, several newspaper reporters and an unspecified "Heinz representative.”

 A judge later tossed out those subpoenas.

Prosecutors said their intent has never been to create a courtroom circus, only to follow the letter of the law.

“We need to treat Mr. Rocco just like every other person in Orange County, where if they steal something we’re likely to press charges,” said Susan Kang Schroeder, spokeswoman for the Orange County District Attorney’s office. “We shouldn’t give him a break because he’s weird.”

If convicted of the misdemeanor, Rocco faces a maximum sentence of six months in jail but Schroeder said prosecutors will seek probation or an order that Rocco stay away from Chapman University. And so the trial goes on.

As the attorneys called campus security officers as witnesses, they were asked detailed questions about the sequence of events on the morning of Sept. 27, 2008 and the nature and placement of condiments on the campus.

Officer Josie Wright, fresh off a graveyard shift without a wink of sleep, testified that the ketchup bottle was not half-full, but perhaps three-quarters full.

Upon cross examination, Gambale questioned her:

“Do you purchase ketchup yourself?” Gambale asked.

“Yes,” Wright answered.

 “Heinz Ketchup?”


“So you’re aware that a bottle of Heinz Ketchup indicates that it needs to be refrigerated?”


Gambale later showed the jury photos of campus dining tables both with and without condiments on them.

Then, there was tense moment of courtroom drama when Fernandez, the prosecutor, asked security officer Jonathan Paschke why he had written in his report that the bottle was worth nothing.

He left the field blank, he admitted, only because “I did not know what the market value of that bottle of ketchup was.” The computer had filled in $0.00 as a default, he revealed, perhaps poking a hole in the defense’s case.

Chapman University Political Science Professor Fred Smoller, who has produced a 25-minute documentary film about Rocco’s unlikely foray into politics (which he calls a cautionary tale about the importance of voting), suggested the trial was just another example of Rocco making a mockery of an institution.

“He latches on to political systems, by getting into politics and now the judiciary,” said Smoller. “He’s sort of like one of the Marx Brothers. And now he’s getting the attention he so craves.”

-- Tony Barboza


Read more Rocco coverage in O.C. Weekly