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79-Year-Old “Onion Field” Murderer Dies in Prison

Almost fifty years ago, the country was shocked at the murder of a Los Angeles police officer as well as the attempted murder of his partner. On March 10th, 1963, Gregory Ulas Powell and Jimmy Lee Smith were driving through Hollywood, CA looking for a liquor store to rob. Powell had grown up in a difficult family in Michigan and spent most of his teenage and young adult years in and out of correctional facilities. Smith was a lifelong criminal and multiple parole violator. When two members of the LAPD noticed them making an illegal U-turn, they pulled them over. Rather than this being a simple traffic violation, Powell instead pulled out a gun and pointed it at the officers. He told his accomplice to take the police officers’ guns away and told them to get in the car. With the police car left on the side of the road, the two men and two officers drove to the freeway and did not stop until they had reached Bakersfield, a city over 100 miles away.

The kidnappers stopped the car between two onion fields in a remote part of the county and took them into the field. According to their statements, Powell and Smith first thought that they would let the police officers go. Powell, however, brought up the Little Lindbergh Law, which he thought meant that they could receive the death penalty for merely kidnapping police officers. The law actually states that the police officers have to be harmed during the kidnapping for it to be a capital offense. Based on their false understanding of this law, they decided they could not release their hostages. Powell shot one of the officers, Ian James Campbell, in the mouth. While he was on the ground still alive, either he or Smith shot him with four more rounds.

During the confusion and chaos of this incident, the other officer, Karl Hettinger, escaped. Smith and Powell shot at him as he ran away, but it was a dark and cloudy night and he was able to escape to a nearby farmhouse. He called for help and Powell and Smith were found and arrested. Six months later, they were found guilty of the murder of Ian Campbell and given the death sentence. In California, however, the death sentence was nullified by the Supreme Court temporally. When the retrial was concluded, Smith only received life in prison, but Powell was again sentenced to death.

The officer who escaped never was the same following this nightmare. He suffered from survivor’s guilt and his fellow officers held his partner’s death against him. In 1985, he stated that he still would get uneasy and did not sleep well. After being forced to leave the police department because of shoplifting, he was able to get his life back together and served as a Kern County supervisor. In regards to the criminals, Jimmy Lee Smith requested parole but was put back in jail after violating its terms numerous times. He died there in 2007. Powell died of prostate cancer on August 12, 2012 in Vacaville at a hospital that is part of the state prison system. He had requested to be freed on compassionate release since he had terminal cancer. This request, however, was denied and he was never released from prison. These events have been kept alive by the book, theOnion Field, as well as the film which was based on the book. Even though all of the characters in this true story have now passed away, the remaining family members will ensure that these events are not forgotten.