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Police oppose parole for 'Onion Field' slayer [Updated]

January 22, 2010 |  6:00 am
Gregory Powell’s crime, and its complex aftermath, were chronicled a generation ago in Joseph Wambaugh’s bestselling book “The Onion Field.”

Now, as the public’s recollection of the incident begins to fade, the union that represents nearly 10,000 Los Angeles police officers says it is determined to remind people of the March 1963 kidnapping and execution of LAPD Officer Ian Campbell.

Powell, who was convicted of the crime along with an accomplice, is scheduled for a parole hearing Jan. 27.

In a Thursday letter to state corrections officials, L.A. 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."

Powell, 75, received the death penalty for the crime. However, the sentence was later commuted to life in prison with the possibility parole when California briefly outlawed capital punishment.

Weber insists that Powell should be forced to serve the maximum sentence and recounts details of the crime in his letter.

Officer Campbell and his partner Karl Hettinger had stopped a car carrying Powell and accomplice Jimmy Lee Smith as they searched for  a liquor store to rob. During the stop, Powell pulled a gun, stuck it in Campbell’s back, disarmed the officer and forced Hettinger to give up his weapon too. Then they drove north.

“Near Bakersfield, Powell spotted a gravel road and ordered Campbell to pull off the freeway," Weber wrote. “After crossing a series of dirt roads, Officers Campbell and Hettinger were ordered out of the car into a vast field, where they stood still with their arms in the air. Then Powell asked Campbell, ‘Have you ever heard of the Little Lindbergh Law?’ and shot him.”

Hettinger began running through the field and escaped as Powell fired at him. As luck would have it, a cloud blotted out the moon, allowing the fleeing officer to take cover in bushes before he ran four miles to a farmhouse and summoned help.

Powell was captured a short time later driving back to Los Angeles. Smith was arrested the next day in a Bakersfield rooming house. He died in 2007.

Powell's question about the Little Lindbergh Law revealed the basis for the killing. Powell believed, mistakenly, that the law made it a capital offense to kidnap the officers.

Weber said of Hettinger: "The incident haunted him the rest of his life."

[Updated at 7:47 a.m.: A previous version of this post incorrectly identified Gregory Powell as Gary Powell.]

-- Andrew Blankstein

For historical coverage of the "Onion Field" killing, see the Daily Mirror blog.