Death in the Onion Field: Sixty Years Later
It was a routine traffic stop that plainclothes officers Ian Campbell and Karl Hettinger did not need to make.
The officers were playing a hunch, a daily occurrence in law enforcement. It was a hunch that was about to go lethally wrong.
Parked in an unmarked Plymouth near the corner of Gower Street and Carlos Avenue in Hollywood on March 9, 1963, the officers’ attention had been captured by the two occupants of a passing 1946 Ford Coupe with Nevada license plates.
The driver of the maroon Ford, Greg Powell, and his passenger, Jimmy Lee Smith, were wearing matching black leather jackets and snap-brim leather caps. Officers Campbell and Hettinger, ages 31 and 28, respectively, were five-year police veterans; both had served in the Marines. But, it didn’t require any special training to recognize something suspicious was happening.
“We should check these two,” Campbell said as he guided the Plymouth up behind the Ford. Campbell turned on his red dashboard light and both cars came to a halt on Gower. “Let’s be careful,” Hettinger said as the two officers emerged from their car.
Powell, 30, and Smith, 32, were hardened, bush league criminals who were, in fact, cruising the neighborhood in search of a liquor store to rob. Both were armed.
When Powell was asked to step out of the car, he quickly drew his weapon and overpowered an unsuspecting Officer Cambell. With Powell’s weapon jammed next to his spine, Campbell instructed his partner to surrender his revolver to Smith. At first, Hettinger was reluctant, but Campbell insisted: “He’s got a gun in my back. Give him your gun.”
Hettinger turned the pistol over to Smith and the four stood motionless next to the Coupe for a period of time. Powell and Smith had the upper hand and didn’t know how to play it. Traffic was passing on Gower, but no one noticed the life-threatening drama.
Finally, Powell assumed control. He ordered both policemen into the Coupe and told Campbell to drive. They were heading over to farmland near Bakersfield where Powell indicated he would let the officers loose on a country road. Campbell and Hettinger could then have a long hike back to Los Angeles.
Except Powell never had any intention of allowing the officers to go free.
In Powell’s twisted mind, he and Smith had no choice. Powell incorrectly believed the two had violated the Little Lindbergh Law: it was his understanding that kidnapping a police officer was a capital offense which meant an automatic death penalty. Actually, the law, which came about after aviator Charles Lindbergh’s son was kidnapped, only applied to cases involving ransom or serious bodily harm.
When the four had traveled about 75 miles from LA into Kern County, just south of Bakersfield, Powell had Campbell pull the Coupe to a stop on a deserted country road in an onion field.
The four alighted from the car and stood facing each other. It was cold and dark, the moon partially blotted out by clouds.
Powell said to Campbell: “We told you we were going to let you guys go, but have you ever heard of the Little Lindbergh Law?”
Campbell replied “yes.” Before he had a chance to explain why the law didn’t apply to these circumstances, Powell shot him in the face.
At some point, four more shells were pumped into Campbell’s chest, probably by Smith. Hettinger, in the chaos, fled the scene and miraculously found a farmhouse about four miles away.
Quite predictably, the inept criminals were not able to evade capture for long: within 24 hours, both were in custody and both were telling improbable yarns designed to lessen their personal roles in the tragedy.
Also quite predictably, the two gamed the judicial system. They had multiple trials which featured lengthy procedural tactics (at one, Smith was represented by Irving Kanarek who later served as an attorney for Charles Manson). Smith eventually was paroled but continued to be in and out of jail for the rest of his life. Both died in custody — Smith, age 76, in April 2007 and Powell in August 2012 when he was 79.
More than one thousand mourners turned out for Campbell’s graveside service. Because the slain officer was an avid bagpipe player, a lone piper played during the memorial — since then, it has become a tradition to play Amazing Grace on the pipes at every service for a Los Angeles policeman killed in the line of duty.
As a result of Campbell’s death, Los Angeles police officers were instructed not to “make deals with vicious criminals.”
Hettinger’s life following his partner’s murder was a decent into despondence. No one really knew much about PTSD in those days, but Hettinger found out about it firsthand.
He was ostracized by some of his fellow officers for surrendering his weapon to Smith — Hettinger’s guilt overwhelmed him and work offered no solace. For years, he repeatedly had to relive the events testifying at the Powell/Smith trials. As madness continued to tighten its grip on him, Hettinger began engaging in open shoplifting: he was caught and had to resign from the force.
Hettinger spent his remaining years working as a gardener. Ironically, he wound up being employed by a company located near the Kern County onion field.
He was just 59 when he passed away in May 1994.
As sensationally as the media focused on the onion field incident in the early 60’s, the matter would have probably blown over with the passage of time had it not been for a 26-year old Los Angeles policeman who was working the night Campbell and Hettinger were kidnapped.
That policeman was named Joseph Wambaugh and he had already written two popular “cop novels.” He followed the onion field case closely from his position inside the department. The sad plight of Hettinger was the prime reason Wambaugh decided to tell the story in a “factual novel.”
Wambaugh said this to NPR: “I was put on earth to write The Onion Field. That’s how I felt about it. It was such an emotional experience for me. I took a six-month leave of absence from the police department to write that book. I read 40,000 pages of court transcripts. I interviewed about 63 people and wrote the book in three months.”
The Onion Field became a best seller in 1973. Six years later, Wambaugh scripted a film version which starred James Woods. The novel is still available from Amazon and the film is currently streaming. Both remain highly relevant — as well as powerful and provoking works of art.