SACRAMENTO -- The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) announced today that inmate Gregory U. Powell, whose murder of a Los Angeles police officer was chronicled in the 1973 best-selling book "The Onion Field" and a movie of the same name, died August 12, 2012, of natural causes in the California Medical Facility in Vacaville.
Powell, 79, committed to CDCR on November 14, 1963 from Los Angeles County, was serving a life sentence for the 1963 kidnapping of two Los Angeles Police Department officers, one of whom he murdered. Powell and his partner, Jimmy Lee Smith, had been pulled over by the two plain-clothes officers on March 9, 1963, for making an illegal U-turn. The two armed men disarmed the officers and drove them to an onion field near Bakersfield.
Powell fatally shot Officer Ian Campbell, but Officer Karl Hettinger managed to escape to a farmhouse about four miles away.
Powell was arrested the night of the murder, and Smith, the following day.
Powell and Smith were convicted of murder and sentenced to death, but appeals and a retrial stretched on for more than a decade. Their death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment after California's death penalty was ruled unconstitutional in 1972.
Smith was paroled in 1982, but he frequently was returned to prison on drug-related parole violations before dying of an apparent heart attack in a county jail in 2007 after being picked up for yet another parole violation.
Powell, like Smith, had been scheduled for release in 1982, but an outpouring of public opposition, including a 31,500-signature petition, led the parole board to rescind his release. He continued to come up for parole, but was denied each time – the 11th and last time on January 27, 2010. He was considered for compassionate release, which he opposed and the Board of Parole Hearings denied, on October 18, 2011.