The onion field
(Appeared in the Clermont Sun on 01/24/19)
On the evening of March 9, 1963, Los Angeles police officer Karl Hettinger and his partner Ian Campbell pulled over a 1946 Ford automobile occupied by two men in dark clothing and caps. The men were ex-convicts Gregory Ulas Powell and Jimmy Lee Smith. Before Hettinger and Campbell could react, Smith stuck a pistol in Officer Campbell’s back. He then ordered Hettinger to turn over his service pistol.
Hettinger, fearing for Campbell’s life handed his pistol to Powell. According to Hettinger, "I didn't want to give up my weapon, but my partner had a pistol in his back.” Hettinger also said Campbell asked for him to give up his pistol. Hettinger’s decision haunted him for the rest of his life. Smith and Powell forced the two police officers into the Ford and made Officer Campbell drive on Highway 99 towards Bakersfield, California. Powell told the officers he would release them once the men reached their destination.
Powell then ordered Campbell to pull over. He then forced the two officers to exit the car. The convicts marched Hettinger and Campbell into an onion field. Powell asked Campbell if he knew of the little Lindbergh law, which is relative to federal laws involving kidnapping.
Campbell replied he had heard of the law. Powell then shot Campbell in the mouth. Officer Hettinger then fled through the onion field. He said someone fired two shots at him. Hettinger than watched a man, believed to be Powell, shoot Campbell four more times into his body. Hettinger continued running through the onion field until he escaped to a farmhouse and called the Kern County Sheriff’s office for help.
Police captured Powell two hours later returning to Los Angeles while arresting Smith the next day at a Bakersfield rooming house. Both men were tried, convicted and sent to prison.
In 1985, Hettinger attended a parole hearing for Powell. Hettinger asked for parole to be denied. "I still get uneasy…I still can't sleep very well." Hettinger said he can still see their faces.
Hettinger never overcame the guilt he felt over his partner’s death or for leaving Campbell behind. The department relieved him of duty after he got into trouble for shoplifting. He would later find some success in politics before he died. Hettinger died on May 4, 1994 of liver cancer in Bakersfield. He was 59.
Officer Campbell was a United States Marine Corps veteran and is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale, California. In 2012, a Hollywood intersection at Carlos Avenue and Gower Street was renamed “Ian Campbell Square.”
Gregory Powell died on August 12, 2012, of prostate cancer in Vacaville, California. He was 79 and consistently denied parole. He never experienced freedom again. Jimmy Lee Smith created an angry media sensation in 1982 after he was paroled. He ended up back in the jail as he wasn’t able to stay away from drugs or trouble. He died on April 6, 2007, at the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic, California.
This classic crime was detailed in a book and movie titled “The Onion Field” by Joseph Wambaugh. The Los Angeles Police use this case as an example of how not to handle a hostage situation. Hettinger faced severe scrutiny for giving up his service weapon. The incident left Hettinger permanently scarred with guilt.
The late former Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates said the following about Hettinger. "He was a great police officer and a great man who pulled himself up out of having been involved in a great tragedy," he told the Associated Press.
"I think he always felt guilty because he ran," Gates added. "I could never understand it. If he had stayed, he'd have been dead." I can remember seeing the movie and reading the book many years ago. If in Hettinger’s shoes, I am not sure how I would have reacted had someone placed a gun in my partner’s back and threatened to kill him. It’s unlikely most of us can say how we would react if placed in a similar situation.
Marc is a longtime resident of Clermont County and an avid reader. He can be contacted through his website at www.themarcabe.com, through Facebook: www.facebook.com/themarcabe or his twitter account @themarcabe. And be sure to listen to his podcast at www.spreaker.com/show/the-marcabe.