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To Court Watchers, Law Is Theater

August 04, 1985|BOB SIPCHEN

Sam Ruscitti, 77, is a theater buff of sorts.

Every weekday morning, circumstances allowing, he catches RTD's 92 bus a couple of blocks from his home in the Atwater District of Los Angeles and rides to Hill Street, near the Music Center. But Ruscitti doesn't even pause to see what's playing at the Ahmanson Theatre or Mark Taper Forum.

Instead, he heads straight for the Los Angeles County Courthouse or the Criminal Courts building, where he watches raptly as stories of passion, greed, intrigue and murder unfold.

In the 10 years since Ruscitti retired from his career as a freight expediter and began frequenting Los Angeles courthouses, he's had front-row seats to cases that were turned into books and films and television miniseries. He's spent hours within chatting distance of celebrity litigants such as Carol Burnett and defendants such as Dan Rather and John DeLorean. The cast of criminal characters he's observed includes Leslie Van Houten, Bill and Emily Harris, the Hillside Strangler, the Alphabet Bomber, the Freeway Killer and the Bob's Big Boy Murderers.

While most people are content to satisfy an apparently universal fascination about what goes on in courtrooms by reading newspaper articles or watching the news, Ruscitti and those who share his avocation--"court watchers," they're called--prefer to be there, basking in the reflected glow of the legal footlights.

"I like drama, and where will you find more drama than in a courtroom?" Ruscitti asks.

Most of the dozen or so people whom bailiffs in the Orange County Courthouse identify as regular court watchers (several older retirees, a couple of middle-aged men and a few middle-aged women) are less than eager to talk to a reporter, even momentarily, about the way they spend their days.

However, Wally Green, an 82-year-old court watcher who lives in El Toro, talks to whomever he feels like--including defense attorneys and prosecutors if he thinks he has some worthwhile advice.

One of the first things Green tells people, sometimes, is that he once made a million dollars in a day. People tend to believe him.

Neatly dressed in white shoes, yellow pants and a sport shirt, Green ambles through the courthouse hallways with the assurance of Bob Hope on the fairways of Palm Springs (where, until a recent injury knocked golf out of his routine, Green maintained a little hideaway near his favorite course, he says).

Even before he gave up golf, however, Green had come to view courthouses in much the same way he viewed golf clubhouses--as clean, air-conditioned places to shoot the breeze and kill time.

"When I was a kid in San Francisco, 12 or 13 years old, I wanted to be a lawyer," Green recalled as he sat in his usual seat in the noisy third floor cafeteria of the courthouse on a warm afternoon.

"I graduated (with honors) from grammar school, you see. My teacher's son was a district attorney, and as a reward, she had him take me into his office and talk to me about the law. I still remember that building he worked in. It was really something."

Dropped Out of School

Green's legal aspirations didn't last long, though. One of nine children, he dropped out of high school to go to work for his brother-in-law, who operated fruit stands in Los Angeles.

Before long, Green began setting up stands of his own. The stands grew into markets: Wally's Market, Federal Ranch Market, Nickel Market--nine in all.

While his produce markets prospered, Green also had success in the real estate market, where he closed that particularly memorable deal that, he says, netted him a million dollars in a single afternoon. Soon thereafter, he retired.

"I couldn't take it," he said of that first retirement 20 years ago. So he went back to work as a beer distributor. He also worked as a stock trader before retiring for good 12 years ago.

"I had a lot of money. What the hell did I need to work for?" he asked in the gruff, bored-with-it-all tone that colors his conversations.

After Green's most recent retirement, he and his wife flew off on Shriners' trips to France, Italy and Switzerland. They treated themselves to seven vacations in Honolulu. But they needed something to fill the hours when they weren't traveling or putting around a golf course. "I had nothing to do," he said.

One day, "for no reason," they went to the courthouse near their home in Santa Monica and sat in on a trial. They went back the next day and the next, and before long they stumbled into the Lee Marvin-Michelle Triola Marvin "palimony" case. He can't explain why, exactly, but Green was hooked.

Studies Court Calendars

Most weekday mornings now, Green's wife drives him in their Cadillac Eldorado from their current home in Leisure World to the Orange County Courthouse. Green searches the court calendar for interesting cases and makes his choice.

"If a case isn't interesting, I'll sit for maybe an hour. Then I walk out. Sometimes I'll watch three or four cases in a day," he said.

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