The Killing Moon

The Onion Field
Joseph Wambaugh

A million years ago, okay, in the late-1970s, books by Joseph Wambaugh flew off the shelves of the local library where I worked part-time. Most of them, it seemed, got made into movies. Aside from being able to shelve the returned volumes blindfolded, I was never tempted by any title in either medium.

At some later point, I started reading crime fiction and the occasional true crime tale crept in. Despite what you might think from browsing around here, crime is still not a core interest of mine. And yet when Wambaugh’s first true crime book showed up on the sale shelf recently, I grabbed it. Call me fickle.

The Onion Field, which was made into a film that gave James Woods his first opportunity to play a full-bore psychopath and also starred pre-Cheers Ted Danson as a bagpipe-playing policeman, is the story of a cop killing. Actually, let me amend that statement. It’s three stories, one of which is a cop killing. The second tale recounts one man’s life in the aftermath of the murder. The third is a legal procedural told from a particular perspective that carries more than a hint of bias.

Tho I’d never thought about it, it makes sense that PD personnel photos look like mug shots.
Photo courtesy LA Police Museum

At the time this book was published (1973), Wambaugh was already well-known. Still on the job with the LAPD, he’d published The New Centurions a few years before and it became a bestseller. I’ve only second-hand reports to go by, but it seems he crafted a believable story with a level of detail only an insider could bring. It helped that the book was made into a film starring George C. Scott.  Wambaugh hit the big time fast.

The crime in this book took place about ten years before publication, at the very start of Wambaugh’s policing career. At this remove it’s easy to place it in a larger context–JFK would be assassinated later that year and the turmoil that would come to mark the 60s was just getting underway–but at the time it was shocking.

That shock registered all the way around. Police, public, prosecutors–even the perpetrators, or at least one of them–all seemed unable to comprehend the crime. Not its facts, mind you–it’s hard to ignore a body with five slugs in it oozing life–but in the motivation. The lethal randomness of the act cried out for an explanation that satisfied the need to know why this had happened.

The Onion Field
George Davison, 1890
Despite time and distance, a fair representation of the scene of the crime.

The simple answer is, no satisfactory explanation ever emerged. Though his forté is unvarnished presentation of the facts–and facts, buttressed by an at-times-novelistic level of detail, represent the strongest part of the book, at least for me–Wambaugh strives to provide an explanation. There’s a lot of mid-century armchair psychoanalyzing about broken homes, missing fathers and homosexuality, both latent and acted upon.

To be fair, the psychoanalyzing is never exhibited as such. It just keeps creeping in, an ever-present suggestion that there’s a right way to be and that something is off with these fellers, something apparent if only we’d been looking properly. One of the key interrogators is certain he understands the killers’ psychology to a fault. Me, I’m not so certain. What I was reminded of time and again were the criticisms leveled by Laing, Szasz and the rest against mainstream psychiatry at the time.

So what exactly happened in that onion field? When writing about mysteries I hate to give plots away but, in this case, the story has been covered widely. On routine patrol, two plainclothes LAPD officers, Ian Campbell and Karl Hettinger, pull over a suspicious-looking car one March Saturday night in Hollywood.

Jimmy Smith (l) and Gregory Powell (r),
The onion field killers.

The occupants of that car, Gregory Powell and Jimmy Smith, are a pair, though mistaken by all as a team. Both are recidivist small-time crooks whose careers/troubles began in their youths. Smith has been out of prison for all of two weeks. Powell is already established as a stick-up man, a game he quickly brings Smith into.

A man of tremendous ego, Powell fancies himself a  strategist/planner of no small talent, a master of disguise blessed with great courage and sexual appeal. He has a pregnant girlfriend to prove the latter although she eagerly enters into a quickie with Smith. I fancy myself a reasonably tolerant person but the behaviors of deviant populations often leave me wondering if I do live in a bubble.

The pull-over goes wrong. Powell gets Campbell’s gun, Smith disarms Hettinger and the foursome pile into the hood’s car and head north. Through the Cahuenga Pass, through the Valley, over the mountains and into the great Central Valley, headed toward Bakersfield. They pull off the road, Campbell is shot, Hettinger escapes and both Smith and Powell are quickly picked up.

James Wood and Franklyn Seales as
Powell and Smith.

What follows is a recap of the police work and first trial, one that results in a quick guilty verdict against the two.  If, like me, you’ve been watching cops and robbers on TV for decades, much will appear familiar although you may wonder why the usual consequences don’t ensue.

That’s because this trial occurs right in the middle of a string of Supreme Court cases that break, again and again, in favor of the defendants. By the end of the last trial–the sequence of trials represents, or at one time represented, the longest-running case in the state of California with a 45,000-page transcript–the courtroom action comes to resemble what we recognize as standard.

And what of the third tale, that of the man who didn’t die? In many ways, he got the worst of it. Haunted by thoughts that lead to depression and self-destructive actions, held up as an example of ‘what not to do’ by his department, he’s a lost soul who finds little solace in family, friends or the idea of a future.

John Savage and Ted Danson as officers Hettinger and Campbell.

Wambaugh possesses a workmanlike style. In what could have been a ‘new journalism’ tale the novelistic techniques are apparent and subject to fail. That might be because long stretches of courtroom dialog read as transcripts with physical details added. The bum notes are not easily dismissed, either. Wambaugh might have spoken with everyone we see in the book, but there is no way for him to know, let alone report, the final thoughts of the dead man.

The author himself appears in these pages. At least I think it’s him, as a young officer asking questions he’s encouraged to stop asking. Clearly, the tale hit a nerve, enough to warrant 400 pages or so.

Yet despite the length,  my overall impression remains focused on three words: lethal, random, unsatisfying.





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