By Ed Meckle, Retired LAPD
This is a particularly moving story. You might have heard of The Onion Field, the movie or Joseph Wambaugh’s book. For those of you who don’t know, this incident was a game changer in law enforcement, as the reflection (see “kidnapping…”) link below will illustrate.
Some dates and incidents never leave us. March 10, 1963 is just such a date.
I was a uniformed sergeant working morning watch at 77th street division. The other sergeant on the watch is downtown or somewhere out of the division on business. The watch commander, an elderly lieutenant nearing retirement, just announced he is taking code 7(meal break) and left. I am doing what junior sergeants do: scut work—checking tickets, logs, reports, etc., etc. It is several hours past midnight on a Sunday morning after a typical Saturday night in the busiest division in the city. But things have since quieted down.
The drunks in the jail across the hall have finally gone to sleep and the sound of snoring can be faintly heard. The police radio is a quiet hum in the background. The reverie was broken with, “12A—”, officer involved shooting; 214 E. Manchester. Suspect down, request supervisor, code 2 (no lights, no siren, observe traffic laws, but get there quick).” On the way out I told the desk officer he had been promoted to temporary watch commander.
The scene was a small all night café, the only business open for blocks. A male, obviously deceased, lay in a supine position on the sidewalk, handgun nearby. The officers Art Flores and Rex Lucy, both good solid young “tigers,” tell me they were driving by the location and spotted a parked vehicle with a white towel covering the rear plate. They parked to obstruct the vehicles quick departure, looked through the café window and saw every officers “dream,” a stickup man, gun in hand, holding up the cashier.
They took up positions to avoid possible crossfire and confronted the bandit when he stepped out of the door, gun in hand.
He made a poor decision and immediately paid for it.
Procedure at that time was detectives were summoned, in this case Detective Headquarters Division (D.H.Q.) and the lab for photos/prints/schematics or whatever. The radio operator advised me “no one was available.” This had never happened to me before and I was puzzled. It took several hours to roust people out of bed to come to the scene.
Back at the station, after several calls, I found out everyone had gone to a farmer’s field in Kern County near Bakersfield to handle the kidnapping of two Hollywood officers and the murder of one. While investigating two robbery suspects, Officers Ian Campbell and Karl Hettinger had been taken at gun point to the field where Campbell was murdered. The suspects, Jimmy Lee Smith and Gregory Ulis Powell, panicked when Hettinger escaped into the darkness where he made his way to a farmhouse and raised the alarm. Powell drove off stranding Smith. While Powell was enroute back to LA, a California Highway Patrol (C.H.P.) unit heard the broadcast. The C.H.P. unit assumed correctly that Powell would head south. The C.H.P. unit drove at breakneck speed toward Interstate 5.
Now, I have no idea how many vehicles pass at any given point on Highway 5, every 24 hours but it is the main north/south artery for the state of California. As the C.H.P. unit entered 5 southbound, they found themselves directly behind Powell. Smith was arrested the next day in Bakersfield.
I did not know either Campbell or Hettinger (both former Marines) but it left a very deep and lasting impression on me and, of course, the department. As I said, some things don’t go away.
I was only 13 when the Onion Field incident occurred, but years later I read Wambaugh’s book. I remember one of my first training officers taking me to Carlos & Gower where the Hollywood officers were kidnapped. He told me never give up your gun. I thought of that lesson every time I drove by there.
A lesson learned the hard way. I recall seeing grisly pictures of the scene–for the shock value. I haven’t forgotten 40 years later.