Publication Date: November 26, 2008
On March 9, 1963, two men on a burglary spree were stopped as a result of a routine traffic offense by two plainclothes LAPD officers in an unmarked car. The men took the officers, both former Marines, to a field and executed one of them. The Onion Field is an in-depth analysis of the case by Joseph Wambaugh, an LAPD officer himself at the time.
I have long been a fan of Wambaugh’s fictional stories of the life in the Hollywood Station of the LAPD. The Onion Field is a detailed look at the tragic case of the execution-style murder of officer Ian Campbell and the escape of officer Karl Hettinger and his eventual emotional decay due to a defined lack of victim support. Wambaugh details how the killers Gregory Powell and Jimmy Smith used the time after their horrific crime to learn to work the system and manipulate the lawyers in the case.
Wambaugh’s retelling of the night of March 9, 1963 is vivid and horrifying. He chronicles the kidnapping, executing and Hettinger’s escape and pursuit by the killers. Powell and Smith were stopped due to the lack of a light over their license plate and Powell managed to take Cambell hostage forcing Hettinger to submit his gun. Wambaugh paints the killers as sociopaths that thought they were clever and who took delight in the killing of their victim. That they were able to tie up the legal system for seven years was more a game than a goal.
The Onion Field is a story of stops, starts and redirection. There’s no license for creativity in nonfiction so that an author must follow the leads and Wambaugh does so beautifully. The Onion Field has been compared to Truman Capote’s masterpiece “In Cold Blood” and the comparison is apt. Capote clearly felt a kinship with his subject matter that shined in his narrative and Wambaugh’s work shares that spirit. There’s no doubt he felt a closeness with the case and a kinship with Hettinger. He was an LAPD officer at the time of the crime and was a former Marine himself. Hettinger was demonized by his peers and initially blamed for the death of Campbell. Wambaugh’s narrative clears Hettinger, showing that he could have in no way stopped the crime, but the survivor’s guilt and criticism from his peers destroyed him as did the several years of appeals in which he had to time and again recount a story he approached with shame and guilt. Hettinger was forced to leave the LAPD three years after the fateful night as a result of an allegation of shoplifting.
The takeaway from The Onion Field is that two cruel men killed two young officers with their lives ahead of them in that Bakersfield onion field. Hettinger’s death came many years later, but he was lost that night. The ability of the men to learn and play the system was a travesty.
The Onion Field is an expert and through a piece of nonfiction. Wambaugh’s nonfiction is somber but direct, as fitting the subject matter. The Onion Field is perhaps one of the best crafted and interesting works of true crime I’ve read. It holds a place with the classics of the genre. If you’re looking for a compelling and engrossing Friday read, The Onion Field is the book for you.
Read an excerpt and buy The Onion Field by Joseph Wambaugh on