Sunday, July 27, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Phil Halpin, prosecuted L.A. serial murderer

Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — Phil Halpin, the veteran Los Angeles County prosecutor who won murder convictions against "Night Stalker" Richard Ramirez and the slayers of a policeman in what became known as the "Onion Field" killing, has died.

Mr. 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 District Attorney Steve Cooley. The cause of death was not given.

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

The California Lawyer magazine named Mr. 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 sale of handguns to double and greatly increasing sales of locks and window bars.

The seasoned Mr. 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."

Mr. 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, Mr. 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 news media congratulated Mr. Halpin, he deflected compliments with: "These things are not contests. It has not been fun."

Mr. Halpin was only 29 in 1967 when he was tapped to handle the retrial of the Onion Field case, which gained fame in Joseph Wambaugh's book, "The Onion Field."

In that trial, Mr. Halpin won murder convictions against Jimmy Lee Smith and Gregory Ulas Powell for kidnapping Los Angeles Police Officers Ian Campbell and Karl Hettinger in Hollywood, and taking them to an onion field south of Bakersfield, Calif., where they murdered Campbell.

However brusque he might be with inept opponents or colleagues, Mr. Halpin was known for his kindness to victims, their families and to support staff of his office.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company


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