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Joseph Wambaugh on the ‘Onion Field’ [Updated]

March 11, 1963, Onion Field 
Photograph by Don Cormier / Los Angeles Times

March 11, 1963: Jimmy Lee Smith returns to the crime scene to reenact the “Onion Field” killing. From left, Sgt. Danny Galindo as Officer Karl Hettinger;  Sgt. G.H. Bates as Officer Ian Campbell;  Sgt. Pierce Brooks  as Gregory Powell and Smith.

Retired Police Lt. Max Hurlbut’s recent post on the “Onion Field” incident brought this response from Joseph Wambaugh:

What I basically said in my posting (sorry, but I don't know how to  handle computers and probably screwed up) is that I was perplexed by Max Hurlbut's opening line about "the rest of the story...not known to Joe Wambaugh."  Then he refers to the disarming and kidnap of Inglewood officers who survived their ordeal unharmed. 

Well, not only was it known to me but I mentioned it and other similar incidents in The Onion Field book.  My point was that the disarming and even brief kidnapping of local cops had happened several times and no officer had ever been harmed prior to the onion field killing.  That time when it went terribly wrong, the blame placed on Hettinger by  second guessing LAPD brass, who were not out there on that Hollywood street, was not only  wrongheaded, it was unforgivably ignorant and incredibly cruel. 

I'm sure that Max Hurlbut would agree that the overwhelming guilt inflicted on Karl Hettinger by the LAPD nearly drove him to suicide and probably led to his untimely death from cirrhosis.  

The weird part of Max's narrative had to do with the racial business involving black suspects, crime statistics, etc. The race of the suspects had nothing whatever to do with the reason that Powell and Hettinger [Update: Smith] were stopped.

Max describes Powell as being of mixed race and Smith as black.  Well, I can assure you that Jimmy Smith was the one of mixed race: white father, black mother.  And in fact, when Hettinger was rescued he described Smith as being "possibly Mexican American."  Look at  Smith's  photo and you will see why Hettinger was uncertain. 

As to Gregory Powell, I not only interviewed him but I met and spoke with his mother, father and brother.  I can assure your readers that he is as white as Conan O'Brien or even Max Hurlbut.  There is no race card to be played here.

Joe Wambaugh

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Comments (2)

Greetings Mr. Wambaugh. I just finished reading the Onion Field since the story became highlighted as a result of the recent parole hearing for Powell. The story is obviously a fascinating one although in the end a very sad one.

In my opinion, Lt. Hurlbut's "rest of the story" note does not refer to the fact that the Webb/Franzman (and similar events) occurred - which you noted and included in the Onion Field - but rather to the interesting fact that Hurlbut and other officers, including Officer Hettinger, discussed the details of that very incident on the very night that the Powell/Smith incident occurred. In fact, the discussion occurred merely a few hours before the Powell/Smith incident.

My initial thought when reading of Hurlbut's note of this was that it probably affected the reaction of Hettinger during the Powell/Smith incident. Given the inherent life-and-death nature of the incident which forces quick actions and decisions it seems probable to me that giving up the gun would be the first subconcious or conscious thought to enter the mind if anyone was in Hettinger's shoes at that moment. If this is true Hurlbut's "rest of the story" truly does make for a Paul Harvey moment.

I have a prison photo of Jimmy Smith taken in 2001. I donated a copy of it to the LAPD museum in memory of Ian Campbell. I'd like to give one to Joe Wambaugh if I could get a handle on him. Interested, Joe?


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