29 Aug 12

The last “Onion Field” perpetrator now dead!

In 1963, I was a high-school senior living in the Chicago suburb of Wheaton, and I well remember the dreadful event that would later be canonized in Joseph Wambaugh’s classic 1973 record, “The Onion Field.” Waumbaugh was uniquely qualified to comment, as he himself had once been an officer with the LAPD. Today, he is seventy-five.

Late on 9 March 63 (Saturday), two LAPD officers, Ian Campbell and Karl Hettinger, were outflanked during a traffic-stop and ultimately disarmed and kidnaped by two desperate armed robbers, Gregory Powell and Jimmy Lee Smith. Powell and Smith were both in their early thirties at the time, but Powell, a career violent criminal even then, was by far the more dangerous of the two. Smith was a local, homeless no-good, an idle drifter, mostly just tagging along.

The two officers were taken at gunpoint to a (then) isolated farm field in Kern County, near Bakersfield (the “onion field”). There is little doubt Powell, at least, intended to murder both officers. He succeeded in Campbell’s case. Campbell was precipitously shot in the face by Powell and died more or less instantly. As he lay on the ground, he was shot four more times in the upper torso. To this day, it is not clear which of the two perpetrators fired those four shots, nor when they were fired.

Hettinger immediately broke loose and ran, dodging Powell’s bullets. He successfully eluded his captors and ultimately reached a farmhouse and safety. He was uninjured.

The two suspects were located and arrested within a day. Both were tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. Both death sentences were later reduced to life imprisonment after lengthy re-trials. Lead investigator was Pierce R Brooks, whom I met years later, after he authored the first widely-circulated book on individual police tactics, “Officer Down, Code Three,” a classic, even today, and I still quote from it often! Pierce and I lectured, side by side, at the Traffic Institute at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL in the early 1980s. He was a wonderful mentor and friend and greatly influenced me and the way I teach . He died in 1998 at the age of seventy-five.

Karl Hettinger, though he lived through the incident, was thereafter a tortured soul until his untimely death at age fifty-nine in 1994. Forced to testify multiple times, he painfully recounted details of that fateful night, over and over again. As a result, his mental health suffered severely. He was also forced, because of multiple shoplifting charges, to resign from the Department. Like Mark Reno at the Little Big Horn, who became the scape-goat for Custer’s debacle, Hettinger was unfairly blamed by many for Campbell’s death. No LAPD officer in 1963 had ever received any training in kidnap procedure, and, when Hettinger precipitously ran away after his partner was shot, he only did what I’m sure I would have done! In 1963, LAPD officers, including Campbell and Hettinger, did not carry back-up guns. Today, the wise among us do!

Judge Mark Brandler was the trial judge who presided over the initial Powell and Smith prosecution. It was a great personal disappointment to him that later legal entanglements and maneuvering prevented the death penalty from being carried out, as he had ordered.

After death-penalty verdicts were official, Judge Brandler received a three-page, hand written letter from Smith, begging for “mercy and compassion.” Smith wrote that he had a great fear of a “grim and ghastly death” in California’s (at the time) gas chamber. In denying Powell and Smith’s motions for a new trial, nor a reduction from death to life-imprisonment, Judge Brandler told Smith, “The state’s method of execution is less grim and ghastly than the brutal and sadistic way in which you murdered Officer Campbell.”

Then, before imposing the death-penalty, he told Powell and Smith, “You kidnaped two police officers, and you forced Officer Campbell, under threat of death, to drive to an onion field in Kern County, the spot you selected to execute both officers. Only a miracle saved the life of Officer Hettinger, for he too, was slated to be another target of your brutality. The evidence in this case overwhelmingly justifies verdicts of death returned by the jury.”

Jimmy Lee Smith was paroled in 1986, but quickly reverted to type, returning to his previous existence as a lonely, perpetually unemployed street-vagrant. He repeatedly violated parole and was re-arrested on unrelated charges, mostly drugs, multiple times. Back in prison, he died of natural causes (heart attack) in 2007, at the age of seventy-six. On several occasions while incarcerated, he said of himself, “… I was born to be in prison.”

Powell became eligible for parol in 2010, but was repeatedly denied, partially because of passionate testimony on the part of Ian Campbell’s daughter. Powell claimed to be a “changed man,” and indicated he “wanted to die outside of prison.” The Parol Board was unmoved! Late in the evening of 12 Aug 12 (Sunday), Powell finally succumbed to prostate cancer in a prison hospice, having spent the last fifty years of his life continuously incarcerated. When he died, he was seventy-nine. When he murdered Campbell, he was just thirty.

Except for a brief time while simultaneously on death row, Powell and Smith had no contact with each other while in the CA Prison System.

At Campbell’s funeral, his family arranged for bagpipes to play, as Campbell was himself a bagpipe enthusiast. Bagpipe funerals, in honor of |Campbell, have since become a tradition with LAPD, and many other departments.

The 1979 film version of Wambaugh’s book starred a young Ted Danson, playing the role of Ian Campbell. It was Danson’s first major movie role and launched his Hollywood career.

When I became a police officer in WI in 1971, fresh out of the Marine Corps and back from Vietnam, the Onion Field was a hot topic of discussion, even two years before Wambaugh’s book was published. I surely remember thoughts of the incident haunting me many times as I was out on patrol.

All four main Onion Field characters, so meticulously and painstakingly described by Wambaugh in his book, are now dead. That chapter in police/criminal history has finally come to a close!

Whether in the police business or not, you have to be alert, prepared, and always have a plan. The world has not improved since 1963! The Onion Field Incident is now just a milestone, among so many others. We forget important lessons, learned at such great cost, at our peril!

“Opportunity knocks, but seldom nags!”