Law in Popular Culture

Denied Parole After Fame from True-Crime Book, 'Onion Field' Killer of Police Officer Dies in Prison


Image courtesy of Random House.

Despite having committed a chilling crime, Gregory Ulas Powell might well have been granted parole were it not for a former Los Angeles police officer who became a best-selling author.

Instead Powell died, at age 79, in a California prison hospice on Sunday, the Associated Press reported.

Joseph Wambaugh’s true-crime book, The Onion Field, made it impossible to forget the kidnapping of two LAPD officers by Powell and his partner in crime after a routine 1963 traffic stop. Its portrayal of the eventual slaying of Officer Ian James Campbell and the terror experienced by Officer Karl Hettinger as he ran for his life across a seemingly endless expanse of earth toward a distant farmhouse near Bakersfield were responsible for keeping Powell in prison despite 11 parole hearings, one of the inmate’s lawyers often told Wambaugh.

“And I think he was right. The book kept Powell in prison. It just became so famous,” Wambaugh told the AP in a 2011 interview

Hettinger, who felt undeserved guilt for the rest of his life about not handling the incident differently, quit his LAPD job and went into nursery gardening. He died at age 59, in 1994.

Powell’s sidekick, Jimmy Lee Smith, was portrayed in the book as less culpable. He was paroled in 1982, but continued getting into trouble afterward. In 2007 he died of a heart attack while being held on a parole violation.

Powell originally was also scheduled for release that year, but his parole was revoked after a public outcry provoked in part by a television broadcast of the movie version of Wambaugh’s book, the Los Angeles Times (reg. req.) noted. James Woods starred as Powell.

Wambaugh talked with both men in prison while writing The Onion Field and told the AP the two were petty crooks who seemingly were unlikely to commit a violent crime until they reacted, foolishly and impulsively, to being stopped for making a U-turn.

When he asked Powell if he had any objections to the book, Wambaugh said, the inmate told him he had just one:

“He said, ‘I don’t think I’m nearly as physically unattractive as you seem to think I am,’ ” Wambaugh told the news agency. “That hurt his vanity.”

Related coverage:

CNN Justice (2010): “No parole for ‘Onion Field’ killer”

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