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Gregory Powell, 'Onion Field' killer, dies at 79

Gregory Powell and Jimmy Lee Smith killed an LAPD officer in an onion field near Bakersfield in 1963. The story was made famous in Joseph Wambaugh's book. Powell spent the rest of his life in prison.

August 14, 2012|By Elaine Woo, Los Angeles Times
  • Los Angeles police detectives escort Jimmy Lee Smith, left, and Gregory Powell as they head for arraignment in the 1963 killing of Officer Ian Campbell.
Los Angeles police detectives escort Jimmy Lee Smith, left, and Gregory… (Los Angeles Times )

Gregory Ulas Powell, one of the notorious "Onion Field" murderers whose 1963 slaying of a Los Angeles police officer shattered the image of the invincible cop and changed police practices, has died. He was 79.

Powell, who served 49 years of a life sentence, died Sunday at California Medical Facility in Vacaville, part of the state prison system, according to Lt. Andre Gonzales, a spokesman for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. He had prostate cancer.

On March 10, 1963, Powell and accomplice Jimmy Lee Smith kidnapped two police officers in Hollywood and drove them to an onion field outside Bakersfield, where they killed Officer Ian James Campbell. The other officer, Karl Hettinger, escaped.

Smith and Powell were convicted and given the death penalty, a sentence that was commuted to life in prison after capital punishment was briefly outlawed in California. Powell was denied parole 11 times, most recently in January 2010, when he told a panel of the California Board of Prison Terms that he had terminal cancer and wanted to be freed before he died. In October 2011, the board denied his request for compassionate release.

Described by Joseph Wambaugh in the 1973 bestseller "The Onion Field" as an "institutional man," Powell, who was born Aug. 2, 1933, grew up in a dysfunctional family in Michigan. His music teacher-father was often away earning a living and his mother was a sickly woman, leaving Powell to take care of three younger siblings. Temperamental and sexually confused, he spent most of his youth and young adult years in and out of correctional facilities.

He and Smith, who also had a long criminal record, were driving through Hollywood looking for a liquor store to rob when they were pulled over on Gower Street by the two officers. What began as a routine traffic stop quickly turned into a nightmare. Powell pulled a gun on Campbell and ordered Smith to take the officer's gun away. After Powell threatened to kill Campbell, Hettinger surrendered his service revolver.

Abandoning the police car by the side of the road, the ex-cons forced the officers into their maroon Ford coupe and sped off toward the freeway, not stopping until they reached a desolate spot in Kern County between two onion fields.

According to Wambaugh's re-creation of that night, Powell had considered letting the officers go but changed his mind because of an erroneous assumption. "We told you we were going to let you go," Powell told Campbell, "but have you ever heard of the Little Lindbergh Law?"

Powell believed that kidnapping the officers was automatically a capital offense under that law. He did not know that the Little Lindbergh Law calls for the death penalty only if the kidnap victim is harmed during the crime.

So Powell shot Campbell in the mouth. Then either he or Smith shot four more rounds into the officer as he writhed on the ground, killing him.

In the chaos of those moments, Hettinger fled. Bullets flew in his direction, but it was a cloudy night with only intermittent glimmers of moonlight. While the kidnappers — now murderers — fumbled for a flashlight and more bullets, Hettinger ran several miles to a farmhouse, where he called for help.

Powell was captured within a few hours; Smith was apprehended the next day.

Six months after the killing, both men were found guilty and sentenced to death, but the state Supreme Court nullified the verdicts. Retrials brought a life sentence for Smith but another death sentence for Powell.

In 1967 Powell attempted to escape from San Quentin's death row with three other convicted murderers but was foiled when a guard spotted him outside his cell.

His sentence was dropped to life after the state's death penalty law was ruled unconstitutional in 1972. (It was later reinstated.) He became eligible for parole several years later and was described as an exemplary prisoner.

In 1982, both Smith and Powell were scheduled for release, but only Smith got out. Powell's parole was revoked after a public outcry spurred in part by a television broadcast of the movie "The Onion Field," in which Powell was portrayed by actor James Woods.

In 1986, in one of the final decisions issued under Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird, the California Supreme Court overturned the parole board, once again opening the way for Powell to be freed. When Bird and two other liberal justices were ousted in a recall election, his hopes for release were quashed by the court's new conservative majority, which upheld the board's decision to keep the killer in prison.

Smith died in 2007 in a Los Angeles jail, where he was being held after one of many parole violations.

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