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Phil Halpin, 65; Prosecuted ‘Night Stalker,’ ‘Onion Field’ Cases

Times Staff Writer

Phil Halpin, the veteran Los Angeles County prosecutor who won murder convictions against “Night Stalker” Richard Ramirez and a slayer of a policeman in the retrial in what became known as the “Onion Field” killing, has died.

Halpin, who retired in 2001 after more than 36 years as a deputy district attorney, died Friday -- his 65th birthday -- in a hospice in Bend, Ore., according to a statement released by Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley. The cause of death was cancer.

“It was an honor to work with him,” Cooley said in a memo informing his staff of the death. “A great prosecutor has passed.”

California Lawyer magazine named Halpin one of the state’s “most effective prosecutors” in 1985 -- four years before the trial of his most famous case against self-styled Satanist Ramirez in 1989. The drifter had terrorized Los Angeles with his serial nighttime attacks during the summer of 1985, causing the sale of handguns to double and greatly increasing sales of locks and window bars.

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The seasoned Halpin seemed the logical choice to prosecute Ramirez, although he often verbally tangled with defense attorney Daniel Hernandez, whom he referred to as “a clown.”

Halpin “was one of the most brilliant trial lawyers the office has ever known,” fellow prosecutor Bruce Campbell said in a statement from the district attorney’s office late Friday. “Phil’s impatience with mediocrity did make more difficult his passage through a sometimes mediocre world.”

Halpin, in his opening statement at the Ramirez trial, methodically listed the gruesome details of the charges: 13 counts of murder and 30 others including attempted murder, burglary, robbery, rape and sodomy. After describing gory details such as one near-decapitation and pentagrams carved into victims, Halpin summarized with his characteristic understatement: “The essence of this case is burglaries and murders committed during the burglaries.”

On Sept. 21, 1989, Ramirez was found guilty on all 43 charges. Jurors subsequently handed down the death penalty. But when the news media congratulated Halpin, he deflected compliments with: “These things are not contests. It has not been fun.”

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Paul Philip Halpin was only 29 in 1967 when he was tapped to handle the retrial in the Onion Field case, which gained international fame in Joseph Wambaugh’s book, “The Onion Field.”

Wambaugh described the prosecutor in the book as someone who had “youthful good looks, a convincing baritone voice, was articulate and bright, a most promising trial lawyer.”

In that retrial, Halpin won a murder conviction against Jimmy Lee Smith, one of the two men accused of kidnapping Los Angeles Police Officers Ian Campbell and Karl Hettinger in Hollywood and taking them to an onion field south of Bakersfield, where Campbell was murdered.

However brusque he might be with inept opponents or colleagues, Halpin was known for his kindness to victims, their families and to support staff in his office. Alan Yochelson, who helped prosecute the Ramirez case, said Halpin had a unique ability to calm frightened surviving victims of the Night Stalker, reassuring them that Ramirez would never be back on the streets.

Educated at UCLA and its law school, Halpin passed the State Bar of California on June 9, 1964, and joined the district attorney’s office 10 days later.

Halpin is survived by two daughters, Deborah Loftus of Green Valley Lake, Calif., and Cydney Halpin of New York City.

The former prosecutor was to be cremated and no services were planned.


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