Wednesday, January 22, 2020

My Washington Times On Crime Column: A Look Back At Joseph Wambaugh's 'The Onion Field'

The Washington Times ran my On Crime column that offered a look back at Joseph Wambaugh’s classic true crime book, The Onion Field. 

Joseph Wambaugh, a former LAPD detective sergeant and the author of classic police novels such as “The New Centurions,” “The Blue Knight” and “The Choir Boys,” turns 83 on Jan. 22.

Mr. Wambaugh has also written classic true crime books such as “Echoes in the Darkness” and “The Blooding,” but he said he was born to write one true crime book in particular, “The Onion Field.”

Mr. Wambaugh had published two novels prior to “The Onion Field.” Still a working cop, he took a three-month leave of absence to write “The Onion Field.” He read thousands of pages of court transcripts, and he interviewed more than 60 people involved with the case.

The 1973 book tells the tragic true story of an LAPD officer named Ian Campbell who was murdered in an onion field in 1963, as well as the sad aftermath of Karl Hettinger, his surviving partner who suffered psychologically from the ordeal. The book also covers the arrest, trial and conviction of Gregory Powell and Jimmy Smith, the two criminals who kidnapped and murdered the young officer.

The two plainclothes officers pulled over Powell and Smith, who were committing armed robberies. Powell got the drop on Ian Campbell and placed a gun in his back. He ordered Karl Hettinger to hand over his gun, and the officer did so reluctantly. The two criminals then drove the two officers to an onion field in Bakersfield, where Ian Campbell was shot and killed. Karl Hettinger escaped by running through the onion field.

The LAPD brass released a memorandum that essentially branded Hettinger a coward for giving up his gun. They made him attend roll calls and repeatedly tell his story to the assembled cops. 

I asked Mr. Wambaugh what compelled him to write a non-fiction book about the case?

“This case always fascinated me because I was on the job when it happened,” Joseph Wambaugh told me. “I’d seen Karl Hettinger around police headquarters, and he looked like such a sad guy. When he got fired from the police department for shoplifting, I thought it must have some relationship to the kidnapping. So I had it in the back of mind and after my success with the first two books, I started talking to people and I was off and running with it.”

You can read the rest of the column below or via the below link:

Note: Below are photos of Karl Hettinger, Ian Campbell and Jimmy Smith and Gregory Powell:

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