Crime & Justice

'Onion Field' killer Gregory Powell dies in prison of cancer at age 79; see archival photos

Photo of Jimmy Lee Smith (left), and Gregory Ulas Powell (right), 1963. Both were then suspects in the
Photo of Jimmy Lee Smith (left), and Gregory Ulas Powell (right), 1963. Both were then suspects in the "Onion Field" murder of an LAPD officer.
Los Angeles Public Library

Gregory Powell, known as one of the kidnappers whose case was made famous in the 1973 best-selling novel "The Onion Field" and a later film, has died at age 79.

Powell and his partner Jimmy Lee Smith abducted a pair of L.A. police officers in 1963, Ian Campbell and Karl Hettinger, after the officers pulled them over on a Hollywood street. The kidnappers drove the officers to an onion field in Bakersfield where they killed Campbell, shooting him in the face; Hettinger escaped to a farmhouse four miles away.

Powell died of natural causes on Sunday, according to officials. He was still in prison in Vacaville, sick with prostate cancer and serving a life sentence, after being denied parole most recently in 2010.

The Los Angeles Police Protective League issued a statement by their president, Tyler Izen, in response to Powell's death.

LAPD officers have never forgotten the horrific crime committed by Gregory Powell and Jimmy Lee Smith. Gregory Powell was a cold-blooded murderer who avoided the death penalty, but he won't escape God's judgement. While Officer Ian Campbell can never be brought back, nor the damage and heartache caused by Powell and Smith be undone, justice was upheld when the parole board denied Powell’s request for compassionate release and ensured he drew his last breath while confined behind prison bars.

Powell and Smith had been involved in a string of robberies; one of them pulled a gun on the cops when they were pulled over for making an illegal U-turn. They forced the officers to surrender their weapons before kidnapping them.

Powell was arrested the night of the murder, while Smith was arrested the following day. They were convicted of murder and sentenced to death, but after more than a decade of appeals and a retrial, their death sentences were commuted to life in prison after California's death penalty was ruled unconstitutional in 1972 (before later being reinstated).

His partner Smith died of an apparent heart attack in a county jail in 2007 at age 76. He'd been paroled in 1982, but returned to prison repeatedly for drug-related parole violations.

Powell had been scheduled for release in 1982, but public opposition led the parole board to rescind that release, with 2010's denial being his 11th. He was also considered for compassionate release in 2011 due to his illness, but he opposed it and the parole board denied it.

Joseph Wambaugh, writer of both a book and movie on the onion field incident, told KPCC that neither Powell nor Smith deserved parole.

"He was a sociopath, as was Jimmy Lee Smith, and there are no third acts for sociopaths. By that I mean: they don’t change. There's no resolution to their lives. They remain the same for their entire lives — that goes with the territory of that particular disorder," he said.

Wambaugh, who visited Powell and Smith in prison and corresponded with them through mail extensively throughout his writing of "The Onion Field" in the '70s, recalled the last time he interacted with Powell:

"When the book came out, I sent each of them a copy, and the only criticism Powell had of the book was that he quibbled with my physical portrayal of him. He thought he was better looking than I portrayed him," Wambaugh said.

The intersection of Carlos Avenue and Gower Street in Hollywood was renamed by the city just last week in honor of Campbell, the officer killed by Powell and Smith. Campbell was 31 years old when he was killed.

This story has been updated.