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Joseph Wambaugh: 'Onion Field' killer a 'conscienceless sociopath'

August 13, 2012 | 10:30 am

Click for more photosThis post has been corrected. See note at the bottom for details.

Joseph Wambaugh, who chronicled the killing of a Los Angeles police officer in a Kern County onion field, said there are "no third acts" for Gregory Ulas Powell, the hardened, small-time criminal who earned infamy half a century ago.

Powell died Sunday in a state prison medical facility, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation confirmed Monday. He was the last of the protagonists in the dramatic killing that stamped a deep, lasting impression on the Los Angeles Police Department.

"There are no third acts for the conscienceless sociopath," said Joseph Wambaugh, who wrote the acclaimed book "The Onion Field." "Now there is nobody left alive from that tragic nighttime encounter that ended in an onion field, where Ian Campbell died and from which Karl Hettinger never really escaped."

PHOTOS: Gregory Powell, one of 'Onion Field' cop killers, dies at 79

On the night of March 9, 1963, Campbell and Hettinger, plainclothes vice officers, were on duty in Hollywood when Powell drove past with his sidekick Jimmy Smith in the passenger seat -- "two gaunt young men with their leather jackets and snap-brim caps," Wambaugh wrote in his book. "They would have aroused suspicion of almost any policeman in Hollywood that night."

Powell and Smith had been out looking for a store to rob. A broken light on their car gave the officers reason to pull them over. When Campbell, a 31-year-old father, ordered Powell out of the car, Powell pulled a revolver from his pocket, spun behind the officer, and stuck the gun in his back. He ordered Smith to disarm Hettinger, who hesitated to give up his gun but did so when Campbell pleaded with him. The officers were forced into the car and Campbell drove about 100 miles north to an isolated onion field near Bakersfield.

Believing -- wrongly it turned out -- that they already had committed a capital offense by kidnapping the officers, Powell decided to kill them and shot Campbell at close range in the face. Campbell suffered four more gunshots, although it is not clear which of the men fired those shots. Hettinger broke free and fled several miles until finding help at a farmhouse. Police arrested Powell hours later as he tried to return to Los Angeles and took Smith into custody the next day.

FULL OBITUARY: Gregory Powell

Powell was convicted and sentenced to die, but then won a new trial. A second jury decided on the same fate and, again, Powell received a reprieve when the state's Supreme Court banned the death penalty in 1972. (It was later reinstated.) His sentence was reduced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

He never tasted freedom. Last year, with Powell suffering from prostate cancer, the state parole board rejected a final bid for release. No one spoke on Powell's behalf during the hearing. Smith, his partner that night, died several years ago after a life spent in and out of prison.

[For the Record, 12:25 p.m. Aug. 13: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said police arrested Campbell hours after the shooting. Powell was arrested.]


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Photo: Gregory Powell is shown in a photo from last week. Credit: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation