The Onion Field At 50: 'This is About the Tragedy of Police Work'

Protect and Serve
Protect and Serve | Photo: kevindean | Flickr: Creative Commons License

How long, like a dull echo, does a killing reverberate? For a murder outside Bakersfield in a Kern County onion field, it's fifty years. The crime still reaches into the lives of police officers here, into the way they are trained, into their family's shrouded fears, and into our imagination.

On the night of March 9, 1963, two thugs who had partnered in a series of robberies and in a complicated sexual arrangement were stopped by LAPD officers Ian Campbell and Karl Hettinger near the corner of Carlos Avenue and Gower Street in Hollywood. According to retired LAPD Lieutenant Max Hurlbut (who saw them before their shift began), Officers Campbell and Hettinger had been detailed that evening to work up suspects in a string of crimes against gays.

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Perhaps because Gregory Powell and Jimmy Smith were hard-looking young men out late, perhaps because one of them looked African American or Latino, or perhaps for no reason at all except police officers have reasons that cannot be explored, the two men were stopped. Perhaps because the officers' training was faulty, perhaps because they were half-thinking with common prejudices about gays and mixed race entanglements, or perhaps for no reason at all, Officer Campbell walked up to the stopped car, his partner remaining by the patrol unit.

Powell kept a gun on the floor of the car (according to Hurlbut's account). Smith kept a gun in a paper bag between them. Powell, apparently, had learned a useful distraction. He had learned how to follow the standard commands of a vehicle stop, keeping his hands in sight but sliding his gun into reach on the car mat until, In opening the car door with his left hand, he could reach the butt of his gun with his right.

Stepping up and out of the car, gun in hand, Powell confronted Campbell, spun him around, and made him partly a shield. Powell then told Smith to get Officer Hettinger's gun. There was a moment or two of hesitation until, in most accounts, Campbell pleaded with Hettinger to disarm himself. He did.

Powell and Smith drove the two officers about 100 miles to an onion field. Powell, who knew so much, who had learned how to get a gun into his hand even with an officer watching, didn't know much about California law. Powell thought that kidnapping in California meant an automatic death sentence. Perhaps because he thought he could escape the gas chamber if there were no witnesses, perhaps because he was a kind of monster, or for no reason, Powell shot Campbell in the mouth and then he, and perhaps Smith, shot Powell four more times. In the dark (although the moon was full that night), in the haze over the field, Officer Hettinger escaped, ran four miles to a farmhouse, and reported the crimes.

Powell was arrested that night by a CHP officer, who might have been killed except that Powell's trick with his foot failed him. The following day, in a flophouse in Bakersfield, Smith was arrested. Both were tried for murder. Both were convicted and given death sentences. Both gained second trials, eventually leading to a life sentence for Smith and confirmation of his original sentence for Powell. His subsequent appeals eventually led the state Supreme Court to declare California's death penalty unconstitutional. Powell's sentence was reduced to life imprisonment.

Powell and Smith became eligible for parole in the 1980s. Smith was released; Powell was not, although the state Supreme Court ultimately ruled otherwise. But the parole controversy infuriated enough voters to turn out the court majority, including Justice Rose Bird, in the next election. The new majority re-affirmed Powell's life sentence.

Smith, homeless, was in and out of county jail for parole violations and drug abuse until he died in 2007 at the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic. He was 76. Powell, who was repeatedly denied parole, died in 2012 at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville. He was 79.

Campbell's death left a young family fatherless. Hettinger's escape returned him to the LAPD. Perhaps because he did not save his partner or die with him or perhaps because the department found no way to care, Hettinger endured ostracism and resigned after a series of shoplifting incidents probably tied to emotional trauma. He was appointed to the Kern County Board of Supervisors in 1987 and served as a board member until 1992. He died in 1994 at age 59.

The LAPD reacted to Hettinger's decision to give up his gun with a rigid rule: No officer may voluntarily disarm him/herself. The LAPD and departments nationally changed the way officers are trained to conduct a vehicle stop, surely the cause of many saved lives.

Signs marking Ian Campbell Square were placed alongside the Hollywood Freeway last week on the 50th anniversary of Campbell's death. His daughter, who was three in 1963, attended. The signs went up on both sides of the Gower Street overpass, not very far from intersection where Campbell and Hettinger were kidnapped.

"This is about the tragedy of police work," LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said at the dedication of an exhibit about the kidnappings and murder at the LAPD History Museum in Highland Park last Friday.

It's about that, and perhaps about many other things that continue to resonate in the imagination of the city.

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles twice each week at KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

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