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'Onion Field' Survivor Lashes Out at Bird, High Court

June 27, 1985|NANCY SKELTON | Times Staff Writer

BAKERSFIELD — The former Los Angeles police officer who survived the celebrated "onion field" attack launched a two-pronged campaign Wednesday to oust California Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and to put himself on the Kern County Board of Supervisors.

Karl Hettinger--whose partner, Ian Campbell, was murdered by ex-convicts Gregory Ulas Powell and Jimmy Lee Smith on a dark stretch of land 30 miles south of here in March, 1963--drew loud applause from a band of supporters Wednesday when he chastised the state Supreme Court from the steps of the Kern County Courthouse, accusing the justices of being ready to free Powell on parole.

Later, Hettinger acknowledged that he could not prove the accusation.

All in all, it was a day mixed with political rhetoric, high emotion and chilling recollection for Hettinger, who is 50 years old now, and not yet fully recovered, he says, from the nightmare that began March 10, 1963, with a routine police stop in Hollywood and ended with his life being shattered professionally and psychologically for several years.

"I still get uneasy . . . I still can't sleep very well," he said, his voice breaking from time to time, his fists clenched, his eyes watering. "I can still see their faces . . . I want to stop him (Powell) from getting back on the street. . . . I know this man."

It was the first time in 22 years that the former policeman had spoken publicly of the episode in the onion field, subject of Joseph Wambaugh's best-selling book and a movie of the same name. At a courthouse press conference at noon, he attracted a large contingent of reporters, most expecting to hear first-hand recollections of the killing and an attack on the court, but not an announcement of Hettinger's own political ambitions.

During the press conference Hettinger said he would seek a gubernatorial appointment to the 4th District supervisor's seat if incumbent Republican Trice Harvey makes a successful bid for the state Assembly next year.

Hettinger's attack on Bird and the court was prompted, he said, by a "strong feeling" that the justices are about to free Powell, who now awaits a parole date at the California Medical Facility at Vacaville.

Powell was sentenced to death, but the sentence was changed to life imprisonment in 1972, when the state Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the death penalty law in effect at that time. (Bird was not a member of that court.) Powell subsequently became eligible for parole.

In April, the high court agreed to hear a petition by Powell that claims the state Parole Board acted illegally in canceling his scheduled release date in June, 1982. Bird was not one of the four justices who voted to give Powell that hearing.

Asked what evidence he had that the court is "apparently very close to releasing" Powell, Hettinger said he had none except that "with the composition of the court I strongly suspect they will rule for him."

After the episode and trials that resulted in the convictions of Powell and Smith, Hettinger committed a series of shopliftings and was forced to resign from the Los Angeles Police Department.

A psychiatrist was to report that Hettinger's shoplifting was the result of an unconscious need to be punished. Hettinger was unemployed for a time, and then worked as a gardener in Los Angeles until a friend offered him a job as a greenhouse manager in Bakersfield, about nine years after the killings. He went to work as an aide to Supervisor Harvey in 1977.

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