The Onion Field

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This article is about Joseph Wambaugh's book, and the events it describes. For the film adaptation, see The Onion Field (film).
The Onion Field
The Onion Field.jpg
1st edition
Author Joseph Wambaugh
Cover artist Paul Bacon[1]
Country United States
Language English
Genre Detective novel
Publisher Delacorte Press
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardcover)
Pages 427 pp
ISBN 9780440066927

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 an evening traffic stop and the subsequent murder of Officer Ian James Campbell. It was one of the most influential murder cases in U.S. history, as it forced the Los Angeles Police Department and other large municipalities to change some of their police tactics in the field.


On the night of March 9, 1963, LAPD officers Ian Campbell and Karl Hettinger pulled over a car containing two suspicious-looking men on a Hollywood street.[2] The two men, Gregory Ulas Powell and Jimmy Lee Smith (a.k.a. "Jimmy Youngblood"), had recently committed a string of robberies. Powell, the driver, pulled a gun on Campbell and ordered Hettinger to surrender his gun to Smith. The two officers were then forced into Powell's car and driven north from Los Angeles to an onion field near Bakersfield where Campbell was fatally shot. Hettinger was able to escape, running nearly four miles to reach a farmhouse.[2] 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 was 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.)


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-imprisonment sentences. The lower sentence followed a second trial for each and several appeals. Their death sentences were vacated when the California Supreme Court ruled in 1972 in California v. Anderson that California's death penalty was cruel and unusual punishment.

Though Hettinger was able to escape, he felt scorned by his fellow officers and officials at the Los Angeles Police Department[3] 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 appointed to serve as a Kern County Supervisor for Bakersfield, California, where he served multiple consecutive terms. He died of a liver disease in 1994 at the age of 59.[4]

Smith was initially released in 1982, but returned to prison several 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's Skid Row area and eventually identified as Smith. He was arrested and 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.[5]

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.[6] Powell died on August 12, 2012, at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville. He was 79 years old.[7]

Film adaptation[edit]

The book was adapted into an 1979 film of the same name directed by Harold Becker. It starred John Savage, James Woods, Franklyn Seales and Ted Danson.[8]

On April 10, 2013, TNT's Southland episode "Chaos" portrayed a reimagined version of the events that took place in The Onion Field.


  1. ^ Modern first editions - a set on Flickr
  2. ^ a b "'Onion Field' killer dead at 76". Archived from the original on 2007-04-10. Retrieved 2007-04-08. 
  3. ^ Oliver, Myrna (December 9, 2002). "John W. Powers, 90; Legendary Officer in LAPD for 31 Years". Los Angeles Times. 
  4. ^ Eric Malnik, Los Angeles Times, May 5, 1994 ( (accessed January 28, 2013)
  5. ^ Quinones, Sam (April 7, 2007). Jimmy Lee Smith, infamous 'Onion Field' cop killer, dead at 76. Los Angeles Times.
  6. ^ Associated Press (October 18, 2011). 'Onion Field' Killer Will Not Be Released. Los Angeles Times.
  7. ^ Associated Press (August 13, 2012). 'Onion Field' Killer Dies in Calif. PrisonABC.
  8. ^ The Onion Field at the Internet Movie Database.

For original newspaper articles, see:

External links[edit]