- - Tuesday, January 21, 2020

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.”

Mr. Wambaugh ventured to the two prisons holding Powell and Smith and interviewed them.

“They were both sociopaths and longtime street crooks and they couldn’t con me as I knew everything except who fired the shot into Ian Campbell’s body after he was knocked down by the first shot,” Mr. Wambaugh said. “As he was running way and looking back, Karl Hettinger believes it was Smith, but he had too much integrity to say for sure. Powell always said it was Smith.”

Both criminals pointed fingers at each other. Mr. Wambaugh believes that Smith fired the second shot. The first shot, according to the coroner, may not have killed him, Mr. Wambaugh explained.  

 “Karl Hettinger didn’t want to talk to me, but I bribed him,” Mr. Wambaugh recalled. “He didn’t want to talk or think about it, but he was a gardener at that time, and he had a family to support.  

“He was fragile when I interviewed him. He didn’t understand getting fired, the humiliation, and his crying out for punishment. This was before the days of post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. People didn’t talk in those terms when it came to police officers.”

Mr. Wambaugh said he was concerned about Karl Hettinger’s reaction to the book.

“He said to me, ‘it didn’t make me feel bad.’ Those six words were the best book review I’ve ever gotten in my life,” Mr. Wambaugh said.

The kidnapping and the long ride to Bakersfield made this case unlike most cop killings, Mr. Wambaugh noted, as most cops are killed on the spot.

“It was never the kidnapping and murder of Ian Campbell that attracted me to the case, even though it was unique for a cop to be taken away and summarily executed,” Mr. Wambaugh said. “What attracted me was the aftermath and what happened to Karl Hettinger.

“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.”  

Although retired from writing books, Joseph Wambaugh hopes to have a TV series made based on his “Hollywood Station” series of novels. The novels offer stark realism, blunt language and abundant humor, which are natural for cable TV, it seems to me.  

“The thrust of my creativity as a writer has always been not to depict how the cop acts on the job, but how the job acts on the cop,” Mr. Wambaugh said.

• Paul Davis’ On Crime Column covers true crime, crime fiction, mysteries and thrillers.

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