The Onion Field is a 1973 nonfiction book by Joseph Wambaugh, a sergeant for the Los Angeles Police Department, chronicling the kidnapping of two plainclothes LAPD officers by a pair of criminals during a traffic stop and the subsequent murder of one of the officers.
On the night of March 9, 1963, LAPD officers Ian Campbell (age 31) and Karl Hettinger (age 28), both former Marines, were riding in an unmarked "felony" car. They pulled over a 1946 Ford coupe containing two suspicious-looking men at the corner of Carlos Avenue and Gower Street in Hollywood. The two men, Gregory Ulas Powell (age 30) and Jimmy Lee Smith (a.k.a. "Jimmy Youngblood," age 32), had recently committed a string of robberies, and "each had a pistol tucked into his trousers." Powell, the driver, pulled a gun on Campbell, who "calmly told his partner, 'He has a gun in my back. Give him your gun.'" The two officers were then forced into Powell's car and, within 30 seconds after the traffic stop began, were driven north from Los Angeles on Route 99, to an onion field near Bakersfield, where Campbell was fatally shot. Hettinger was able to escape, running nearly four miles to reach a farmhouse.
The killing occurred primarily because Powell assumed that the kidnapping of the officers alone already constituted a capital crime under the state's Little Lindbergh Law. However, Powell's interpretation was incorrect. Under the Little Lindbergh Law kidnapping became a capital crime only if the victim were harmed or if a ransom were demanded. (Today, kidnapping in California, where there is bodily harm short of death, is punishable either by imprisonment for 25 years to life, or by life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
In April 1982, following the release from prison of Powell's accomplice, Jimmy Lee Smith, Valerie Campbell, daughter of the slain Officer Ian Campbell, contacted John Mancino, founder of Citizens for Truth, an organization that had recently led a successful petition effort to rescind the parole date of convicted assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, killer of presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy.
Mancino drafted a petition to have Powell's scheduled release rescinded and with Valerie Campbell's help collected 31,500 signatures in three-and-a-half weeks, which were submitted to the California Board of Prison Terms, along with several thousand letters. The parole board then held a hearing and eventually rescinded Powell's release date.
Following this, Powell's attorney was successful in convincing Solano County Superior Court Judge, Ellis Randall, to order Powell's release from prison in ten days, ruling that Citizens for Truth's public outcry was the sole reason Powell's release was rescinded, which at the time was legally improper. Valerie Campbell then joined Citizens for Truth's representatives, John Mancino and Dr. Howard Garber, along with the group's attorneys, in filing a legal brief in the First District Court of Appeals in San Francisco, demanding that Powell remain in prison.
The group prevailed both at the appeals court and the California Supreme Court, thereby leading to Powell's spending the rest of his life in prison, where he died in 2012.
On August 10, 2012, the intersection of Carlos Avenue and Gower Street in Hollywood, the site of the officers' abduction, was named “Ian Campbell Square” in honor of the slain officer.
Additionally, a section of the Hollywood Freeway (California State Route 101) in Hollywood, from Hollywood Boulevard to Highland Avenue, was designated the “Ian J. Campbell Memorial Freeway."
Though Hettinger was able to escape, he felt scorned by his fellow officers and officials at the Los Angeles Police Department and suffered severe emotional trauma for both the initial incident and the following treatment. Eventually a police training video was made using his experience as an example of what not to do when stopping and approaching a vehicle.
Hettinger was forced to resign from the LAPD in 1966, after being accused of shoplifting. Years later, Hettinger was elected to serve as a Supervisor for Kern County, California, where he served multiple consecutive terms. He died of liver disease in 1994, at the age of 59.
Powell was arrested on the night of the murder, after being spotted driving a stolen vehicle by California Highway Patrol officers. The following day, Smith was apprehended as well. The lead LAPD investigator on the case was Sergeant Pierce Brooks. Both suspects were convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Ultimately, they received life sentences. For each, the lower court sentence followed a second trial and several appeals. Their death sentences were vacated when the California Supreme Court ruled in California v. Anderson (1972) that California's death penalty was cruel and unusual punishment.
At a parole board hearing on January 27, 2010, Powell was denied parole. In a January 21, 2010 letter to state corrections officials, Los Angeles Police Union President Paul Weber urged the board to deny parole, calling Powell a "vicious murderer who has not yet paid his debt to society."
On October 18, 2011, the California State Parole Board denied compassionate release for Powell, who had been diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer. The board stated that Powell did not wish to be released from prison and was likely to be uncooperative if paroled. Powell died on August 12, 2012, at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville. He was 79 years old.
Smith was initially released in 1982 but returned to prison several additional times on drug-related parole violations. In December 2006, he failed to report to his parole officer, and a warrant was issued for his arrest. In February 2007, a man matching Smith's description was detained by police in Los Angeles' Skid Row area and eventually identified as Smith. He was arrested, charged with violating his parole, and sent to the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic, California. On April 7, 2007, while in that facility, he died of an apparent heart attack at age 76.
The book was adapted into an 1979 film of the same name directed by Harold Becker. It starred John Savage as Karl Hettinger, James Woods as Gregory Powell, Franklyn Seales as Jimmy Smith, and Ted Danson (in his film debut) as Ian Campbell.
TNT's Southland season 5, episode 9 ("Chaos"; airdate April 10, 2013) portrayed a reimagined version of the events that took place in The Onion Field.
The Adam-12 episode "Killing Ground" was based on this incident. Officers Pete Malloy and Jim Reed are kidnapped by two armed robbers on the run. The only difference is Malloy and Reed are able to escape and turn the tables on their captors.
1. Modern first editions - a set on Flickr
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4. "Onion Field Killer's Death Brings Closure for LAPD, Chief Says". Los Angeles Times. August 13, 2012. Retrieved April 22, 2016.
5. Oliver, Myrna (December 9, 2002). "John W. Powers, 90; Legendary Officer in LAPD for 31 Years". Los Angeles Times.
6. Malnic, Eric (May 5, 1994). "Karl Hettinger; Survived 1963 'Onion Field' Attack". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved January 28, 2013.
7. Krajicek, David J. (March 25, 2008). "The Justice Story: Murder in the Onion Field". Special to The News.
8. Associated Press (October 18, 2011). "'Onion Field' Killer Will Not Be Released". Associated Press.
9. Associated Press (August 13, 2012). "'Onion Field' Killer Dies in Calif. Prison". ABC.
10. Quinones, Sam (April 7, 2007). "Jimmy Lee Smith, infamous 'Onion Field' cop killer, dead at 76". Los Angeles Times.
11. The Onion Field on IMDb.
12. Sepinwall, Alan (April 11, 2013). "Review: 'Southland' - 'Chaos': The onion field". Hitfix.
13. "SouthLAnd S5E9 "Chaos" review". SouthLand First. April 12, 2013.