'Onion Field' killer denied compassionate release

'Onion Field' killer denied compassionate release »Play Video
This undated file photo provided by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation shows convicted killer Gregory Powell.

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — A man convicted of a murder that was chronicled in the novel and movie "The Onion Field" is now near the end of his life.  But, Tuesday a state prison parole board refused to give their stamp of approval to a "compassionate release" from prison.

The infamous crime happened in Kern County and involved Karl Hettinger, who eventually served as a Kern County Supervisor. Two suspects were arrested, Gregory Powell, who is now 77 years old, and Jimmy Lee Smith, who died several years ago. 

Hettinger was the Los Angeles Police officer who survived the brutal crime that took the life of his partner, Ian Campbell in 1963.  That was nearly 50 years ago, but former Kern County Sheriff Carl Sparks said the crime and its ripple effects are still significant.

"It's the worst possible thing that can happen to a cop," Sparks told Eyewitness News.  "I mean, he gives up his gun and his partner is killed.  And you can't have a worse situation for a law enforcement officer."

Friends say Hettinger was never the same.

Hettinger and Campbell had pulled over a car in Hollywood, but Smith and Powell managed to get Campbell's gun away from him.  They threatened to kill Campbell and forced Hettinger to give up his weapon.

That action by Hettinger haunted him the rest of his life, say his friends.

"The Los Angeles Police Department didn't stand behind him," Sparks said.  "They made a training video out of it, and showed what you're not supposed to do."

Smith and Campbell drove the two officers north toward Bakersfield, and pulled over into an onion field north of the Grapevine.  That's where Campbell was shot and killed, but Hettinger managed to get away.

"They chased Karl most of the night, trying to kill him," Sparks remembers.  Kern County sheriff officers joined the search for the two suspects after Hettinger made it to a house and called for help.

Sparks joined the Kern County Sheriff's Department the following year.  He says officers in the department at that time didn't talk much about what happened.

Hettinger eventually left the LAPD, and in a strange twist of events, ended up back in Kern County where he landed a job. 

The "Onion Field" case was made into a best-selling book by Joseph  Wambaugh in 1973, and came out as a movie in '79.

Karl Hettinger was eventually first appointed, and then elected to the Kern County Board of Supervisors.  But questions about his handling of a land development project later helped end his political career.

Carl Sparks says it was all too much for him.

"I knew Karl had a drinking problem,' the former sheriff said.  "I watched a friend die at 59 years old."  Hettinger died of cirrhosis in 1994.

"He was a gentle man," former Kern County Supervisor Mary K. Shell said Tuesday.  "The onion field was devastating to him."  She worked on the board with Hettinger.  She had no comment on whether Powell should get released from prison.

Former Kern County Supervisor Trice Harvey agreed the onion field incident affected "Karl's short life."  Harvey didn't think Powell deserved compassion, since he thinks Powell showed no compassion to the two police officers back in 1963.

Both Powell and Smith were convicted of murder and sentenced to death, but that was later reduced to life in prison.  Smith died in 2007 at the age of 76.

It turns out Powell didn't ask to get out of prison.  "He does not want release," California Corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton told Eyewitness News.  She said the process for "compassionate release" was started under a specific law.

That's triggered when prison doctors determine an inmate has less than six months to live.  The latest steps had started several weeks ago for Powell.  Now 77 years old, he suffers with terminal prostate cancer.

On Tuesday, the process had brought the issue to the state corrections Board of Parole Hearings.  After a vote, they declined to refer the "recall of commitment" on to the next phase in the process.

The board's reasons include that "Powell's  release would pose a public safety risk due to a history of noncompliance and lack of cooperation with prison rules," and that he himself doesn't want to get out of prison.

Thornton said Powell will now stay behind bars until he dies.

Former Kern Sheriff Carl Sparks didn't like the idea that Powell could be released, though he noted Powell's age and medical problems, and that releasing him would save the prison system money.

"I think he needs to rot where he is," Sparks said, and then he gave it some more thought.  "I think he needs to rot in hell, myself.   But, I mean, that's my personal opinion."