Saturday, April 30, 2011

An Echo in the Onion Field

Anyone who read Joseph Wambaugh’s book or saw the film based on it is unlikely to ever forget it. March 9, 1963, two plainclothes LA police officers made what they thought was a routine traffic stop when one of the suspects, Gregory Powell, put a gun to the back of Ian Campbell, one of the officers, and ordered his partner Carl Hettinger to disarm. Powell and his accomplice, Jimmy Smith, took the two officers hostage and drove them to an onion field far outside the city where Powell shot Campbell to death. Officer Hettinger managed to escape.

Horrible as the events of that night were, LAPD’s treatment of Officer Hettinger was even worse. They attempted to make him an example of exactly what an officer should not do in a hostage situation. Hettinger was later fired from LAPD after being arrested for shoplifting. Anyone who has taken a single course in freshman psych could see that he was a deeply wounded individual who needed support and understanding rather than persecution and contempt from his comrades. Hettinger ultimately drank himself into an early grave. This whole episode appalled and intrigued a young vice cop called Joseph Wambaugh, who later wrote the account. Jimmy Smith was parolled from prison in 1982 and lived another 10 years without once managing to stay out of prison more than 12 months at a time. He was a man destined to “do life on the installment plan.” This past March 9 marked the 48th anniversary of Powell’s arrest. He is still incarcerated and is unlikely to ever be paroled.

I sometimes wondered what could cause a person to become such a cold-blooded murderer as Gregory Powell turned out to be, and in reading Wambaugh’s book, I got a partial answer. In the process of interviewing Powell, J W learned that in the first 30 years of Powell’s life he spent 17 of them incarcerated in one institution or another. He also learned that at 13, Powell was raped by a priest (my opinion, any adult who has sexual relations with a 13-year-old is committing rape, regardless of whether or not it is forcible). At this point, I’d like to point out that I do not believe Powell deserves a pass because of his early experience, nor am I alleging that all priests or clergy are child molesters. I would like to say that I wish the priest who molested Powell had spent the last 48 years sharing his cell.

1 comment:


One of those sliding door moments i fear where you ask yourself what would i have donemy recollection of the book is that the officer followed conventional wisdom by co operating. The way he was treated was scandelous and an example of why the people who want to be in charge are seldom suited for it.