Jimmy Lee Smith, one of the “Onion Field” murderers died while being held at a California detention center on a parole violation. Smith was 76. For those younger cops out there who have never heard of the infamous Onion Field case or may not know all the details, let me fill you in.
Back in 1963, two armed robbers, Jimmy Lee Smith and Gregory Powell kidnapped two LAPD officers who had the audacity to pull this dynamic duo over for a traffic infraction (an illegal U-turn and a burned out tail light) late one evening in Hollywood, California. Without getting into the tactical mistakes made (and there were a few), Officer Ian Campbell, 31 years old at the time, was killed; executed actually by a shot to the face and left to die in a ditch bordering an onion field out near Bakersfield, California, about 75 miles from LA.
The other officer, Karl Hettinger, age 28 at the time, managed to escape despite being fired upon repeatedly during his flight. He ran four miles to a farmhouse to summon help.
Through information supplied by Hettinger, both Powell and Smith were eventually captured, tried, convicted of murder and sentenced to death for the killing of Officer Campbell. However, in their infinite wisdom, the California judiciary deemed the death penalty much too harsh for such a crime and re-sentenced both killers to life imprisonment. Unfortunately, out on the Left Coast, life in prison really doesn’t mean life in prison because Jimmy Lee was paroled in 1982 in spite of the fact that he was actually on parole when he and Powell murdered Officer Campbell.
Parole was not an unknown life style for Smith. In fact, Smith spent the rest of those 25 years shuffling in and out of the revolving California-prison-system door until he finally took the old dirt nap recently.
As for Powell, his life sentence, for the present at least, is still being served; but only for the fact that the bleeding heart liberals who run California’s parole system, the one’s who gave Jimmy Lee Smith his walking papers back in 1982, haven’t felt the urge to release him…yet.
As for Karl Hettinger, he died a few years ago. He was only 59. He not only had to withstand the horror of watching his partner get executed by the deadly duo of Powell and Smith, but was encouraged by the powers-that-be at the LAPD back in the 60s to relive the horror almost daily by standing up at roll calls and lecturing on how his “mistake” allowed him and his partner to be taken hostage and his partner killed. The intervening years brought numerous trials and appeals, all taking their emotional toll on Karl as he dutifully testified at each and every one.
One of the last “classes” Karl Hettinger gave before he died was to the thousands of officers who attended the Calibre Press Street Survival Seminar that I had the pleasure and honor of teaching for over 12 years from 1989 to 2000. But this time the lecture and testimony was Karl’s choice.
For the first time since the 1963 kidnapping and murder, he accompanied Calibre Press co-founder Denny Anderson to the original onion field out near Bakersfield for a private filming and spoke at length about the incident and the trauma that the ordeal brought to his life. In his own quiet, yet compelling way, he not only recalled the incident in great detail, but the strategies he used to cope with the trauma the incident caused him in the years that followed.
In listening to his recitation and watching his face on film during the blocks of instruction I presented on Critical Incident Aftermath, I couldn’t help but feel the pain Karl endured throughout the three decades that passed since the incident. In a way, Karl himself was serving his own life sentence; indeed 31 years in an emotional prison without walls, living every day with the memories of that night back on March 6, 1963. 31 years for what some officers might conclude was a tactical error based on a lack of training more than anything else.
Jimmy Smith got to do his time in spurts for murdering a police officer, his outside time spent using and dealing drugs, and his inside time in the joint complete with three squares, a warm cot, and all the other amenities the California penal system has to offer. He got to enjoy 17 more years on God’s green earth than Karl did. And a hell of lot more years than Ian Campbell did.
So while Gregory Powell spends his days under the watchful eye of the California penal system, which supervises his diet and ensures that his incarceration is replete with adequate exercise, recreation and reading material, we have to wonder…..was justice really served?
About the author
Dave Grossi is a retired police lieutenant and force training commander from upstate New York now residing in southwest Florida. An FBI National Academy graduate, Dave holds a degree in Police Administration from the State University of New York as well as Basic and Advanced certifications in Critical Incident Stress Debriefing from the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation.