Monday, February 27, 2023

A Look Back At Joseph Wambaugh's Classic True Crime Book, 'The Onion Field '

Back in January of 2020, I published my On Crime column in the Washington Times on Joseph Wambaugh’s classic true crime book, The Onion Field. 

The book covers the kidnapping of two Los Angeles police officers and the murder of one of the officers in an onion field. The book also covers the aftermath of the murder.

As Joseph Wambaugh (seen in the above photo), now 86, noted in the column three years ago, “This case remains significant because the Karl Hettinger experience had a lot to do with bringing post-traumatic stress disorder to the fore as it concerns police officers.”   

You can read the column via the below link or the below text:

A look back at Joseph Wambaugh's 'The Onion Field' - Washington Times

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?

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