Local News

Monday, Aug 13 2012 09:50 AM

'Onion Field' killer dies in prison


“Onion Field” killer Gregory Powell, who achieved notoriety and a life sentence in the fatal shooting of a Los Angeles police officer during a kidnapping, died Sunday of natural causes, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Powell, 79, was denied parole each of the 11 times he became eligible for it, the last time being Jan. 27, 2010, a CDCR news release said. Powell had terminal prostate cancer and was denied compassionate release in October of last year.

He died in the California Medical Facility in Vacaville.

In the March 9, 1963 incident that led to his incarceration, Powell and his partner, Jimmy Lee Smith, had been pulled over by two plain-clothes officers for making an illegal U-turn, according to the Associated Press. The two armed men disarmed the officers and drove them to an onion field near Bakersfield.

Wrongly believing that they had violated the federal kidnapping statute known as the "Lindbergh Law," and faced the death penalty if captured, Powell shot Officer Ian Campbell in the face, killing him, the AP reported.

Officer Karl Hettinger, however, ran as Powell fired at him and managed to escape to a farmhouse about four miles away, the CDCR news release said. Powell was arrested the night of the murder, and Smith the following day in a Bakersfield rooming house.

Both men were convicted of murder and sentenced to death, but appeals and a retrial stretched on for more than a decade, and their death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment after California's death penalty was ruled unconstitutional in 1972.

The case became the subject of the 1973 best-selling novel “The Onion Field” by Joseph Wambaugh, which was made into a movie in 1979.

Smith was paroled in 1982, the news release said, but he frequently was returned to prison on drug-related parole violations before dying of an apparent heart attack in a county jail in 2007 after being picked up for yet another parole violation.

Hettinger was haunted by that night and shunned by his colleagues, the AP reported. He left the force, went into the nursery business and later became a Kern County supervisor. He died in 1994 at age 59.

The two California Highway Patrol officers from Bakersfield who captured Powell told The Californian in July 2002 they weren’t interested in attending a parole hearing for Powell that was scheduled at the time.

“I’d only go if they’d let me shoot him,” Merv Crist told the newspaper. “He just cost taxpayers lots of money.”

Bill Odom, the other officer, told The Californian, “(Powell) should have been executed 35 years ago.”

Crist died in September 2002, and Odom died two months later.

Los Angeles city officials last week dedicated the intersection of Carlos and Gower as "Ian Campbell Square," named for the officer who died, the AP reported.