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 allegedly stealing a 14-ounce Heinz bottle from a dining area outside the cafeteria at Chapman University, a charge he claims is bogus because -- by his calculations -- the ketchup was worthless.
If Rocco made for an isolated and often-mute politician when he served a four-year term on the Orange Unified School District board, he seemed light, gregarious and engaged as his petty theft trial opened Tuesday in a Santa Ana courtroom.
Told he would have to adhere to courtroom etiquette and go without his standard knit cap and dark glasses, Rocco showed up in a plaid shirt with a black tie, flip-up sunglasses and, affixed to his head, a white bandage the size of a slice of bread.
Superior Court Judge Jacki C. Brown's courtroom has become the latest stage for Rocco, a 58-year-old unemployed Santa Ana recluse known for espousing shadowy theories about a powerful cabal he calls the Partnership.
He made national headlines in 2004 when he won a school board seat, 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 plastic squirt bottle of Heinz from a table at a dining area outside Argyros Forum last September and put it in a paper bag before speeding off on his bicycle. Or did he just take it, thinking it was trash?
The case seems straightforward, if not a bit mundane and, well, petty.
According to prosecutors, the bottle had a value of $1.20 -- well below the $15 each juror is being paid a day. 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. Sixty cents," she said, explaining that "at best, half that ketchup was left."
Prosecutors tried to settle the ketchup case on the condition that Rocco stay away from Chapman, but he declined. Instead, he issued typewriter-composed subpoenas for more than 50 witnesses, including former Sheriff Michael S. Carona, Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley, several newspaper reporters and an unspecified "Heinz representative."
A judge 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 shouldn't give him a break because he's weird," said Susan Kang Schroeder, spokeswoman for the Orange County district attorney's office
If convicted of the misdemeanor, Rocco faces a maximum of six months in jail, but Schroeder said prosecutors will seek probation or an order that Rocco stay away from Chapman.
And so the trial goes on.
"He latches on to political systems, by getting into politics and now the judiciary," said Chapman political science professor Fred Smoller, who once made a documentary film about Rocco's unlikely foray into politics. "He's sort of like one of the Marx Brothers. And now he's getting the attention he so craves."