Jimmy Lee Smith, 76; Onion Field’ killer, chronic parole violator

Times Staff Writer

Jimmy Lee Smith, one of the notorious “Onion Field” killers, whose crime was documented in a best-selling book and a movie and who spent most of his life in and out of prison on repeated parole violations, has died. He was 76.

Smith died Friday of a heart attack in the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic, where he had been detained for yet another parole violation, according to Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department officials.

Smith led a life of petty crime and drug abuse, interrupted by the high-profile killing of Los Angeles Police Officer Ian Campbell in the early ‘60s.


Joseph Wambaugh’s 1973 book “The Onion Field” chronicled the case and was later made into a movie.

“Great. Wonderful,” former L.A. Police Chief Daryl Gates said when told of Smith’s death. “He was a hype and murderer, and we let him out of prison. He should have gone to his death in the gas chamber.”

The crime occurred in March 1963.

Campbell and his partner, Officer Karl Hettinger, stopped a car for making an illegal U-turn in Hollywood. Two stick-up men -- Smith, 32, on parole from Folsom State Prison, and Gregory Powell, 29 -- were in the vehicle.

Powell disarmed Campbell after pulling a gun on him. Threatening to kill Campbell, he forced Hettinger to give up his weapon.

Powell and Smith drove the two officers to an onion field in Kern County, where Powell shot Campbell once in the face.

One of the men fired four more shots into Campbell, killing him. Powell always said it was Smith, who denied it.

Hettinger began running through the field and escaped as Powell fired at him.

Hettinger said a cloud passing in front of the moon allowed him enough darkness to hide in some bushes. He then ran four miles to a farmhouse, where he called for help.

Powell was captured a couple of hours later, driving back to Los Angeles.

Smith was arrested the next day at a Bakersfield rooming house.

Smith and Powell were convicted of murder and sentenced to death. But in the 1970s, those sentences were reduced to life in prison after the California Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty.

Hettinger lived with crushing bouts of depression, feeling ashamed for having run from the scene. The feeling was seconded by Los Angeles Police Department higher-ups at the time, who treated him as a coward, outraging Wambaugh, then an LAPD vice officer.

Later in life, Hettinger rebounded somewhat, winning election as a Kern County supervisor in 1987. He died in 1994 of cirrhosis, at age 59.

“He never really escaped the onion field,” Wambaugh said in an interview Saturday. “Physically he survived, but emotionally he never recovered.”

Powell remains in prison. His latest bid for parole was denied in January.

Smith was paroled in 1982, despite public outrage.

“The state had no business allowing him out,” Gates said Saturday.

Wambaugh reported that when an old guard at Folsom prison chided Smith for returning there after killing Campbell, Smith replied, “I was born for the prison yard.”

“That’s probably the story of Jimmy Lee Smith,” Wambaugh said. “He started out behind the eight ball and ended up there.”

Throughout his life, Smith, a longtime drug abuser, displayed a chronic inability to adapt to life on the streets; he became a symbol for what many considered the state’s lax prison sentencing laws.

Smith was born in Texas and raised by his maternal great-aunt. At 16, he ran away to Los Angeles, where he was picked up for burglary and sent to Juvenile Hall.

In 1950 he was arrested for burglary, then again for narcotics possession.

In 1952, arrested again for burglary, he was convicted and sent to San Quentin State Prison. He was paroled, then violated parole.

According to a 1963 Los Angeles Times story, he had been arrested for narcotics possession in 1959 under the alias James Youngblood and told police afterward, “I’m here because I can’t adjust to everyday life outside. I need help badly.”

In February 1963, two weeks before he and Powell killed Campbell, Smith was again paroled. He then spent 19 years in prison for the killing before his release in 1982.

However, time in prison apparently did nothing to slake Smith’s thirst for dope.

Four months after that parole, he failed a drug test and was returned to prison.

After serving six months, he was paroled again, only to be rearrested in Long Beach on drug charges. He later pleaded guilty to two counts of selling heroin and was sentenced to five years in prison.

He was released in 1986, then arrested in Burbank in 1987 and convicted of driving while under the influence of a narcotic.

In 1989, on parole again, he was arrested for terrorizing a woman he held captive over a weekend in West Covina.

In 1990, yet again on parole, he was arrested in Van Nuys for threatening a man with a knife.

The pattern continued through the 1990s.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced in December that it was looking for him because of another parole violation.

In February, Los Angeles police arrested him for a parole violation on skid row, where he’d apparently been living on the street.

Wambaugh said Smith’s death took him back to the writing of “The Onion Field,” his first nonfiction book, for which he took a leave of absence from the LAPD.

“I don’t know how I feel about it yet,” he said. “I just keep thinking there’s only one left” from that night in the onion field.


Times researcher John Jackson contributed to this report.