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The 26 kidnapped school children were found safe July 17, 1976. (NEW YORK DAILY NEWS )

The Chowchilla Kidnapping

In 1976, a school bus with 26 children suddenly disappeared on its way home. A frantic search by police located the bus but not the children. What no one knew at the time was that they had been kidnapped and hidden in a buried truck. News of the disappearance became a national story. With time running out, and the authorities unable to locate the children or even communicate with the kidnappers, it was up to the children and their adult driver to save themselves.

The questioning had begun in the afternoon with parents like Joan Brown.

“Jeffrey, Jennifer? Where are you? Come on, you guys. I know you’re hiding. Don’t play games with me now.”

Something was wrong at the Browns’ Chowchilla home. What was it?

Then she noticed. The peanut butter wasn’t out. There were no chairs in front of the television. She looked at the clock. It was 5 p.m. Where could they be?

From there, one of America’s most bizarre crimes against children began to play out over two horrific to joyous days. Twenty-six schoolchildren from Dairyland Elementary School and their bus driver, Ed Ray, were abducted from their school bus by three young men, transported hours around the state in two vans, and then buried alive in a moving van. In a daring escape, the bus driver and the older boys clawed their way out of their underground prison, leading the younger children across a rock quarry in a sprint to freedom.

It was a comfortable summery day in the sleepy farm town of Chowchilla, in central California. A school bus meandered down the winding, dusty streets between farms and uncultivated fields, carrying a group of children home from school. It was Thursday, July 15, 1976. The United States had just finished celebrating its bicentennial a week earlier. Summer school was due to wind down in just a few days. Naturally, the children were excited about their upcoming summer vacation and the atmosphere was spirited. That day the children had gone on a special trip to the town swimming pool. The heat in the San Joaquin Valley region is oppressive in July and the swim was a real treat. The children were in a happy, boisterous mood. Bus driver Franklin Edward Ray was having a hard time maintaining order on his bus. It was 4:30 PM when Ray stopped to drop off a child. The child ran home excitedly, completely unaware that he had avoided a horrific nightmare by just moments. Ray made a right turn and continued driving. He slowed the bus down as he prepared to make a sharp left turn. There was a stop two blocks away where several children were to get off. But the bus never made it to that stop. Just as he was about to execute the left turn, Ray noticed a large white van blocking the road. He slowed and tried to pass the van on the left, but a masked man sprang out of the driver’s side. The man was brandishing a large gun in his left hand. His right hand was held up in an unmistakable gesture for Ray to stop.

It had to be some kind of joke.

Ed Ray had stopped the school bus to see if the apparently broken-down white van needed help, and although it was a typically sultry Central California afternoon in the small town of Chowchilla, the peculiar man at the bus door was not an optical illusion caused by heat.

Two things about the stranger caught Ed’s attention: the guns he was holding and the nylon stocking stretched over his head.

Being solely responsible for the 26 children still on board, Ed opened the door, hoping to avoid the use of the firearms on either himself or one of his charges.

The strange man quickly mounted the steps inside the bus and ordered Ed to get up and move to the back of the bus. The children, ranging in age from 5 to 14, had various reactions to the appearance of the newcomer. Some thought it was a prank and giggled, while others became frightened immediately. Before they could react, and before Ed had moved down the aisle and reached the back seat, two more masked men appeared from around the back of the “stalled” van and jumped into the bus.

Soon one of the men took the wheel and continued driving down lonely Avenue 21 while another stayed near the front, watching the kids and Ed. The third followed in the white van. After a few minutes, the driver pulled the bus into a drainage slough and cut the motor. In an almost business-like fashion, the white van backed up to the front door of the bus and the men ordered half of the occupants into the back. All of the windows in the back of the van had been covered over, allowing in no light. The back door of the white van was then locked from the outside and the van was driven away. That van was quickly replaced by a similar vehicle, into which those remaining on the school bus were efficiently herded.

As Ed moved from the bus into one of the vans, his confused mind tried to capture any details of the men, the vans, the location — anything to retain some thread of sanity or illusion of control.

Once the second of the vans had been securely locked, the 27 hostages had gone from the bright environs of a sunny summer afternoon to the dark and claustrophobic cave of a small van. It all happened in just minutes.

It was 4:15 on the afternoon of Thursday, July 15, 1976, and the world seemed to have suddenly spun madly off its axis.

The children attended the Dairyland School in Chowchilla, seen on July 17, 1976.

It was hard to tell how long the hostages were crammed into the dark and practically airless vans, but most now believe it to have been about 11 hours. Ed lost track of the time, some children dozed off, and everyone later had a different estimation of the duration of the trip.

In reality, the two vans left Chowchilla and drove to Livermore, a city approximately 100 miles to the northwest. But the route was roundabout and misleading, and so when the vans finally stopped, Ed and the children had no idea where they were or in what direction they had travelled.

The kids were hungry, some had soiled themselves during the long journey, and nobody knew what to expect when the vans finally came to a halt.

One of the kidnappers shouted out for the driver, and Ed became the first one let out of the dark mobile enclosures.

Ed couldn’t see where he was, the landscape was a wasteland, and he was quickly directed to state his name, remove his pants and boots, and told to climb down a ladder sticking up out of the ground that appeared to lead down to a cavern.

By and large, brothers Rick and Jim Schoenfeld and their friend Fred Woods were the epitome of post-high school young men from privileged backgrounds living in the wealthier towns along the San Francisco peninsula during the 1970s. Rick and Jim’s father was a podiatrist and Fred’s father owned and managed many businesses, including a rock quarry in Livermore. All three young men were in their early to mid-20s, living with their parents in spacious houses, made halfhearted attempts at various businesses, and dreamed big.

They worked on cars and talked about movies with a friend of theirs who wanted to strike it rich as a Hollywood screenwriter. Films featuring crime and action and car chases, such as “Dirty Harry” and “The French Connection” had been blockbusters in the recent past, and discussion of those movies led to musings on “perfect” crimes and whether or not one could be committed.

Police and parents inspect the Dairyland Union school bus after it was found empty and hidden July 16, 1976, near Chowchilla. The man facing the camera is Denver Williams, whose daugter Lisa, 12, was among the missing.

The moving van was buried at the Livermore quarry, about 100 miles from where the hostages had been taken in Chowchilla. This photo was published July 20, 1976.

Exactly when these theoretical discussions crossed into the realm of actual planning is a grey area. Jim told the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper in July of 2001 that in their early 20s they believed their parents were disappointed in their sons and that the money they had was being spent quicker than it was coming in. Maybe they felt they would rather do anything other than asking their families for yet more financial support.

Initially, the idea of holding hostages for ransom was a pipe dream of easy money — Jim thought for a long time it was all some kind of imaginary game. “We never went through with anything, so this wasn’t going to be any different,” he told The Chronicle. But time passed, the plans snowballed and became more elaborate and concrete, and there came a time when it “got to the point where we had to do it,” Jim explained.

When the day arrived that he stood in the middle of the deserted Chowchilla road, Jim told The Chronicle, “I said to myself as soon as the bus stopped: ‘What have I got myself into?’ Then you rationalize. You see them and you rationalize all your…problems will be over in 24 hours.”

Jack W. Baugh (an investigator of the case) and Jefferson Morgan, whose 1978 book “Why Have They Taken Our Children – Chowchilla, July 15, 1976” was an examination of the crime and its aftermath, believe that for a long time Jim and Rick considered the planned crime “a mental exercise,” but Fred wanted to see if it could actually be done.

The plan, developed over months, was simple: hijack a school bus, hide the children somewhere safe, demand a sizeable ransom from the state, pick up the money, and then release the hostages unharmed — all within 24 hours.

As had countless others before them, the trio would discover that the unexpected will happen, regardless of the amount of planning.

Officials work to remove the van buried at a rock quarry in Livermore on July 20, 1976.

Officials remove a truck buried at a rock quarry in Livermore, Calif., on July 20, 1976. That was where 26 school children and their bus driver were held captive. Photo AP.

As the afternoon of July 15th closed in towards dusk, parents of the some of the missing children began calling the school.  Presuming that the bus had broken down somewhere, school officials drove Ed’s route and soon puzzled over the fact that the bus was not parked along the side of the road, had not been taken in for repairs at a local mechanic’s shop, and was not parked in the garage of a good Samaritan living along Ed’s route.

By 6:00 pm, the calls to the school had escalated into calls to the town’s police and county sheriff’s office.  The law officers quickly determined that Ed had successfully made his first three stops and then somewhere along the mile between the third and fourth stop on rural Avenue 21 the bus had vanished and left no trace.

Gradually other law enforcement agencies in the area were contacted, which led to planes taking to the air to scan the area before darkness fell.  By 7:30 an all-points bulletin had been broadcast and waves of parents, town residents, and law enforcement officers scoured the area.

A little after 8:00, a sheriff’s officer radioed in that he had found the bus covered with bamboo and brush in a dusty slough nine miles west of town.  Any hopeful feeling his announcement generated was quickly crushed when he reported that the bus was empty and there were no signs of Ed or the children anywhere on the bus or in the general area.

Soon a local evidence specialist was called in and was puzzled by what he found: the empty bus, sets of tire tracks leading away from the area — but not a single footprint, no blood or other signs of violence, no other scrap of evidence that any of the 27 missing persons had been in the area.

Police continued to search the area after darkness set in, but had to call off the investigation as a freak storm hit — the rain and winds of which would almost completely erase the chances for finding any evidence after the storm abated.

Not long after the bus had been found, the first trickle of what would become a flood of reporters began to arrive in Chowchilla, eager for a story.

As the morning of July 16th dawned, word had spread far beyond the borders of Chowchilla and tips began coming in from across the state.

The residents of Chowchilla all hoped for the best, and although their town was slow-paced and idyllic compared to most of California, the residents of the small town couldn’t help but remember nearby events in the recent past, such as the Patty Hearst kidnapping and, perhaps, some even remembered the October 1969 Zodiac letter to The Chronicle where the serial killer had stated, “School children make nice targets, I think I shall wipe out a school bus some morning.”

A spokesman of the sheriff’s office told reporters, “The kids are gone, and that is our only fact. There’s no blood, no evidence of foul play.  I absolutely can’t figure it out.”

It was difficult for Ed and the children to tell, from the inside, the true nature of the cramped box that held them captive.  In actuality, they were sealed in a moving van that had been buried several feet below the ground’s surface.  They had entered the moving van through an opening in a corner of the ceiling, which sagged ominously and was covered by some wire mesh.

The furnishings were sparse: there were mattresses and box springs spread haphazardly throughout the van and limited food and water supplies placed near holes that were meant to act as primitive toilets.  Small air vents did little to lessen the claustrophobic feeling of suffocation that pressed in from every side.

Time passed differently for each of the hostages.  For some the minutes all ran together in a jumble and for others, each minute stretched on for what seemed like forever.

Some of the older girls tried to calm and care for the younger children, even suggesting sing-alongs in an effort to quell the mounting fear they all felt.

After about 12 hours, and with no idea of when or if they would be freed, the captives began to look for any possible way to escape.

By piling mattresses on top of each other, Ed and some of the older boys were able to climb high enough to reach the place in the roof where they had entered the moving van hours earlier.  The metal lid seemed heavy and immovable, but they discovered that they could move the lid by wedging a wooden beam into a small gap where the lid did not completely meet the ceiling.

After struggling for what seemed like hours, they were able to move the lid enough that Ed could reach up and pull down something that was weighing the lid down, which turned out to be one of two enormous industrial batteries. Later, after the other battery had been brought down into the darkness of the van, Ed and the boys pulled down the rest of the dirt and debris that blocked them from the ground’s surface.

After what seemed like hours, an opening large enough for one of the smallest boys was cleared.  Not knowing what or who was at the top of the hole, the boy ascended nervously but then reported that nobody was in sight. After expanding the width of the opening, Ed made sure all of the children climbed up and out of the buried van and, after 16 hours underground, the hostages began walking towards a light in the distance, moving as quickly as their exhausted bodies could carry them.

The moving van had been buried in a Livermore rock quarry owned by Fred Woods’ father.  Two of the quarry workers, who had no knowledge of the crime or of the fact that the hostages they had heard so much of on the radio news that day had been buried within shouting distance of where they’d worked all day, looked up from their work to find the disheveled group of people coming slowly towards them. The workers quickly called the police, gave the dazed hostages some water, and found Ed a spare pair of coveralls, as he was still without his pants and boots.

After the authorities arrived, the hostages were taken to the nearby Santa Rita Rehabilitation Center (ironically by bus), where health care workers examined and fed them. FBI and local law enforcement officers questioned Ed and the children to find out as much as possible about the kidnapping, the perpetrators, the vehicles involved, and the underground prison.

Finally, at about 4:00 on the morning of July 17th, and approximately 36 hours after Ed had stopped his bus to see if he could help the driver of an apparently stalled van, the hostages arrived back in Chowchilla.  Ed was reunited with his wife and the children ran quickly into the open arms of their parents.

A view of the interior of the moving van where the kidnapping victims were held. This photo was published in the July 24, 1976, Los Angeles Times.

Twenty-six children and a bus driver were forced to climb into this moving van that had been buried in a rock quarry. Above, the van just after it was pulled from the quarry in Livermore on July 20, 1976.

During the hours that their captives had been underground, the three kidnappers had not been inactive.  The next step of their plan was to demand a $5 million ransom, which they would quickly pick up and then return the captives within 24 hours of the abduction.

However, that every time the trio tried to call in their ransom demand to the Chowchilla police department, they had been unable to get through — no doubt because of the flood of calls from reporters, law enforcement agencies, tipsters and cranks.

After hours of attempting to take the next step of their “perfect crime,” the three split up and slept.  When they awoke on the 17th, and before they could meet up again, the media was reporting the news that the hostages had safely escaped.

In the months of preparation (the moving van had actually been buried in December of 1975), the trio had never considered that the captives would escape, and subsequently, not much care had been taken to disassociate themselves from the Livermore quarry or the moving van, neither of which was ever supposed to be discovered.

In reality, as one of the defence lawyers later told The Chronicle, the trio’s plan “would make a great…comedy because nothing went right.”

In a panic, the three young men scrambled to come up with ways to avoid association with the crime but decided instead to make a run for it.  Fred and Jim loaded up a car and headed north.  Rick decided to return home and confess everything to his parents, who were shocked by their son’s story and were at a loss as to what to do next.

When the key investigators of various law enforcement agencies met up for the first time, they tried to piece together the sometimes wildly varying testimony obtained from Ed and the children into a single story.  At the core, however, all of the statements told of their school bus being stopped by three men, being herded into two vans, driven around for an indeterminately long time, unloaded one at a time, asked their name and age, and then put down into the shaft into the buried van.

The crime scene investigation centred, naturally, around the buried van and the quarry where it had been hidden.  The van was eventually brought up out of the ground and it was scoured for clues, although much of the evidence found related to the captives and not to the kidnappers.

The buried van and its location provided the first key clues.  Never believing it would be discovered, Fred had purchased the old moving van using his own name, and the fact that his father was the owner of the quarry pointed directly towards his involvement.

Suspicion against him magnified greatly when investigators contacted Fred’s parents and discovered that Fred was missing from the family home.  Asking around at likely places where he could have gone, it was discovered that his friend Jim was also missing.

The investigation quickly uncovered more facts that pointed towards Fred and Jim’s (and possibly Rick’s) involvement: there had been at least one witness to the trio’s burial of the moving van, while under hypnosis Ed was able to recall many more significant details of the episode, and a draft of the crime’s plan was found on a handwritten note in Fred’s home.

Law enforcement put a tight watch on Rick and puzzled over the big question: Where were Fred and Jim?

After leaving the Bay Area, Fred and Jim decided to go to Canada. Because they had so many supplies and equipment crammed into the one car they had fled in, it was decided that Jim would drive across the border and Fred would fly to Vancouver from Reno, check into a cheap hotel, and then wait for Jim to make the drive north.

Once settled in Vancouver, Fred would go to the main post office twice each day at predetermined times to rendezvous with Jim, who would go to the same post office at the first opportunity after his arrival.

Police officers escort the children from a bus upon their return to Chowchilla. They had spent 16 hours entombed at the quarry. This photo was published in the July 18, 1976, Los Angeles Times.

Young victims of the Chowchilla kidnapping huddle together during a celebration honouring them and bus driver Ed Ray on Aug. 22, 1976. From right: Julie Carrejo, Monica Ardery, Linda Carrejo and an unidentified friend. Photo AP.

Bus driver Frank “Edward” Ray, 55 at the time, and these schoolchildren survived the Chowchilla bus kidnapping. Ed Ray, surrounded by some of the children he was credited with rescuing, was celebrated during an “Ed Ray and Children Day,” with a parade, speeches and a barbecue in Chowchilla. This photo was published in Aug. 23, 1976, Times.

Fred arrived on the evening of July 17th.  He easily passed through immigration and, after registering at a Vancouver hotel under a false name, settled down to wait for Jim.

After a long drive, on the evening of the July 18th, Jim approached the Canadian border in northern Idaho.  When questioned, he told the border guard that he was driving up to visit a friend who lived near Edmonton and then would possibly head east to Montreal to see some of the summer Olympics. The guard felt that Jim seemed to be making up parts of the story and the fact that Jim carried very little money for a journey of that magnitude caused him to refuse Jim entry.

Frustrated and wanting a good meal and some sleep, Jim turned the car around and headed west.

A couple of days went by and Fred waited in Vancouver, checking in at the post office at the agreed times. Jim was taking a long time.

Back in California, Rick anxiously listened to the news that was rapidly announcing more and more of the discovered details of the crime. Eventually, Fred was identified by name as someone the law wanted to talk to, but the media made no mention of him or his brother. Yet.

Monday, July 19, found Jim in Spokane, pawning some of the contents of the packed car. Believing that his lack of money was the sole reason he had been turned away from the border in Idaho, he felt confident with more cash in his pocket.  This time when he reached the border, the guards did a more thorough search of the car and found a pistol; one of Fred’s that Jim wasn’t aware was in the car. Thankful that he was not charged with attempting to bring firearms into the country, Jim was refused entry again and he headed back to Idaho.

The following day, in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, he abandoned the car after pawning more of its cache.  He purchased a run-down truck and aimlessly headed back towards Washington.

After five days of waiting, Fred wondered if Jim would ever arrive.  He was using an alias, so the news that the authorities were looking for “Frederick Woods” didn’t disturb him.

On July 23rd, Fred and Jim were both startled to hear that Rick had surrendered and was being held in lieu of $1 million bail.

According to Baugh and Morgan, this information made Jim give up his flight and he turned his truck towards home. When he arrived back in the Bay Area on Sunday, he didn’t know what to do.  He was afraid of going home, to call anyone, or to go directly to the police.  Driving over to the Pacific Ocean, he camped on a local beach for a couple of days to try to figure out what to do.

In Vancouver, Fred wrote a letter to an old friend in California. Fred told the friend not to let anyone know he had received Fred’s letter and to write him back, using Fred’s alias, at the Vancouver Post Office.  On receipt of Fred’s letter, the friend quickly passed it on to the FBI who alerted the law enforcement in Vancouver to watch for Fred at the main post office.

On the morning of July 29, Jim was driving towards his family home when he was recognized by another driver who had seen his photo in the newspaper.  The other driver sped down a freeway off-ramp where, by chance, some policeman happened to be parked.  The driver quickly told his story and described the truck Jim was driving and Jim was tracked down and arrested.

On the same day, a Vancouver post office clerk alerted nearby police that a man using Fred’s alias had asked about incoming mail, and Fred, too, was quickly apprehended.

On the 14th day after the kidnapping, much of the key evidence had been gathered and the three perpetrators were now in custody.

On August 4th, the three young men were reunited in a small courtroom in Chowchilla.  In court, Jim and Fred pleaded innocent to 40+ felony charges (Rick had entered a similar plea several days earlier).

The process then moved more slowly, so that it wasn’t until November that, after repeated requests by the defence, the trial was moved west from Chowchilla’s Madera County to Alameda County, which was home to Oakland and Berkeley.

Even after the change in venue, Baugh and Morgan noted: “the case ground through the courts for months as motions were made, granted or denied, and then appealed.”

After numerous and complicated legal manoeuvres, the final court appearance of the trio was anti-climactic.  On July 25, 1977, one year and ten days after the crime, the three pled guilty to 27 counts of kidnapping for ransom without inflicting injury.

The prosecution argued that injury had been inflicted, and later that year a judge heard testimony from Ed, the children, and various medical professionals. On December 15, 1977, the judge told the accused and the court that he had found “..beyond reasonable doubt that there was bodily harm.  I made my finding (based) on the testimony of (three of the) children.  I think they are telling the truth. The kidnapping itself was a classic violation of bodily security, and this was an aggravated kidnapping. (These) children were not old enough to endure such treatment….(they) were not told why they were there.  They were impressed with the fear they were going to die…(they) were put through an ordeal by terror.”

The three young men, still only in their 20s, were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, which was changed in 1981 to life with the possibility of parole.

The crime, while clearly not “perfect,” was certainly unique in many ways and it would be difficult to tell what after-effects the victims would suffer from their “ordeal by terror.”

Bay Area psychiatrist Lenore Terr went to Chowchilla for the first time less than six months after the crime, partially at the request of some of the hostages’ parents who were eager to have a mental health specialist come in to help with a noted rise in nightmares and other fear-based problems being experienced by the children.

On Oct. 19, 1976, James Schoenfeld, left, Fred N. Woods and Richard Schoenfeld arrive for court session in Madera on charges of kidnapping the children and bus driver and planning to demand a $5-million ransom.

Larry Park: Beating back rage after the school bus kidnapping. The then 6-year-old was in the school bus in Chowchilla, Calif., a tiny farming community 60 miles northwest of Fresno.

“I was very violent,” recalls Larry Park, 25, a 6’2″, 250-lb. bearded former youth-prison inmate. “My mother was afraid of me, and she was right. I could have seriously hurt somebody.” Park’s descent into rage began in 1976, a product of one of the most notorious crimes of the decade.

“There’s been a lot of fears that I wouldn’t have without the kidnapping,” says Park. “I had nightmares, I was petrified of the dark, and I always thought people were trying to get the better of me—even if they weren’t.”

Some other survivors suffered bouts of depression and addiction. Park’s sister Andrea, in 2005, then 26, and a college student refused to speak about it. Their father, Rodney, a tour bus driver at Yosemite National Park said: “Larry had some discipline problems before because he was hyperkinetic, but nothing to the way he was afterwards.” By ninth grade, Park was arrested on charges he will not discuss (his youth-court records are sealed) and spent five years in California youth prisons, where he uncovered his rage in group therapy. “I was too angry to cry,” he says. “Once I realized what it was about, they taught me how to deal with it.”

After studying at Merced College in California, Park hoped someday to go to medical school. He recently broke up with his girlfriend of three years and lives with his sister in a neat, two-story house in Chowchilla. “I can discuss the kidnapping now,” says Larry, “without getting angry.”

Safe: Most of the children pose with the bus driver, Ed Ray, who was credited with getting them to safety.

In 2015, more than 39 years after events that shocked the nation and changed his life forever, Larry Park is at peace with his Chowchilla bus kidnappers. He’s forgiven the three kidnappers, and even met one of them, James Schoenfeld earlier in the year, where he says he saw true remorse in the man’s eyes and finished the meeting by shaking his hand.
“When it came time to go to his parole hearing I could freely tell the parole board that as far as I was concerned, his debt to me was paid,” Park said.
Schoenfeld and his brother Richard are both out of prison, but Fred Woods’ is still in jail, hoping to get parole. Park was not going to his hearing, but he was praying for the parole board and is still hoping for a chance to sit down with Woods.
“I want to be able to apologize to Fred. I hated that man with everything I had for so long and no one deserves that kind of hatred. And so I just want the opportunity to tell Fred I’m sorry,” Park said.

Park says as a child, he was their victim, but as an adult became his own victim. He was depressed, acted out, and partied hard. That’s until 2010 when he found sobriety and understood forgiveness, which he says set him free. Regardless of what happens, and whether he gets an interview with him or not, he forgives Woods, and simply wishes him the best.
“One way or another, the man and I are going to meet, god willing and you know, the same thing goes for Fred as goes for Richard and James. If you get out, if you would honour me at all, have a wonderful life, make it a success,” Park said.

But some of his victims said he remains too dangerous to be freed.

“I think they need to be watched eternally, the rest of their lives,” victim Lynda Carrejo Labendeira, who was 10 at the time, said in a telephone interview days before the hearing.

The three men, all from wealthy San Francisco Bay Area families, were given life terms for kidnapping the 26 children and their school bus driver. Richard Schoenfeld was released in 2012. James Schoenfeld was paroled August 7, 2015.

In 2012 at his parole hearing, Fred Woods said greed drove him to kidnap the children for ransom. But the parole board believed he had not dealt with the issue during 36 years behind bars. The prime example — Woods has been able to amass a collection of 60 cars, buying dozens from his cell at the Men’s Colony. He’s a rich man now, with family money in a trust fund. Parole commissioners could not remember a longer hearing — after seven hours at the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo they refused to release the kidnapper Fred Woods, then 61 years old. Commissioners found that Woods continued to minimize his crime, despite therapy and self-help groups during his numerous years in prison.

Woods downplayed the fear the schoolchildren felt after he and brothers Rick and Jim Schoenfeld hijacked the school bus in Chowchilla and loaded them into vans for the drive to Livermore.

“Some of those victims today may remember certain facts about the crime and harm to them differently, than what really happened,” Woods said.

Woods said he saw none of the kids crying and that some were actually singing during the ordeal.

Victim Lynda Carrejo-Labendeira remembers it differently — she was 10 years old at the time.

“We were crying, no one was singing, we were holding on to each other and wetting ourselves, we asked for food, we asked for our mommies, we asked for our daddies, we said, ‘please sirs, please sirs, please,’ all we got was a hard pounding on the van saying, ‘shut up in there, be quiet,'” she said.

“You stated, and I wrote it down with quotations, ‘We went into this crime not thinking there would be violence,'” California parole commissioner Jeff Ferguson said. “Your crime involved the abduction of children with guns and burying them in a box. That sounds like violence to me.”

Under intense questioning, Woods revealed new details, including that the three kidnappers planned the crime for 1.5 years that before deciding on Chowchilla, they staked out school buses in Rio Vista and Madera, and that they tried to hijack the same bus the day before, but the timing didn’t work so they returned the following day. It was also revealed that Jim Schoenfeld recorded a ransom demand on audiotape that was never used.

“Something like, ‘We have your children, we want $5 million from the state Board of Education,’ I believe was on there and ‘We’ll be in touch,'” Woods said.

Woods revealed he bankrolled the operation with his trucking business. He bought three used prison transport vans, along with the moving van that was buried and rented a warehouse in San Jose. He bought an x-ray machine to check the money once it was delivered, to detect any exploding die packs. And he hired a man to build a lead box in which to store the money and prevent any tracking devices from transmitting. “The planning, the obtaining of the materials, the stalking of the buses, I could go on and on, this is the crime of the century, this is not stuff you see every day,” Alameda County Prosecutor Jill Klinge said.

Woods said at his parole hearing in 2012 that he didn’t need the money. At age 24, he had owned a successful trucking, auto painting and wrecking yard, according to a transcript of his last parole hearing.

“I just, you know, got greedy,” he told parole commissioners then.

Another major stumbling block for Woods was porn found in his cell on three occasions — more than 1,200 pictures, some of naked children. Parole was denied.

Frederick Woods was also denied parole on November 19, 2015, because he continued to minimize his crime and had disciplinary problems, including possession of a cell phone, pornography, and more photos of naked children. He will not be eligible for another parole hearing until 2018. Not only has Woods been able to buy dozens of cars while in prison — he married twice. The first lasted a year, his second wife died in a car crash.

In 2016, The Chowchilla school bus kidnapping victims are fighting back, even though it’s been nearly 40 years. “They did a number of emotional damage to all of us, including our family, our parents,” said kidnapping victim Jodi Medrano. “Our lives are never the same after that, ever.”

“You have these victims sitting there going how is this possible?” said Ray Boucher, a lawyer for 10 of the victims. “Twenty-seven consecutive life sentences and these men are getting out free?”
Boucher has filed a lawsuit on behalf of the victims against Woods and the Schoenfelds for “false imprisonment, intentional or reckless infliction of emotional distress, assault, battery.” He explained California law allows the victims to sue up to 10 years after the kidnappers are paroled.
“If they get out, then they ought to be held accountable and they ought to pay,” Boucher said. “And they ought to be able to stand in front of these children, these victims and answer for what they did to them.”
The case is now in mediation and no dollar figure has been discussed at this point. The kidnappers come from wealthy Peninsula families. The Schoenfelds’ father was a long-time podiatrist, and Woods’ father owned that quarry where they buried the school kids and the bus driver.
The kidnappers’ attorney declined to be interviewed about the lawsuit, and their only public comment was from an interview more than 20 years ago.
Jim Schoenfeld: “I’m very sorry, deeply sorry for what I’ve done.”

Rick Shoenfeld: “I was immature, I was the follower, and I made an extremely stupid decision here.”
Woods: “It was just a lot of pain and suffering we put everybody through that we didn’t realize we were doing at the time. But now, I just hope that everyone is going on with their lives. Everything can be somewhat back to normal.”
So far, 10 of the kidnapping victims are plaintiffs in the lawsuit and more could join.

Ed Ray, a school bus driver, was honoured as a hero for helping save a group of children in 1976. Credit United Press International.

Ed Ray, the California school bus driver who was hailed as a hero in 1976 for leading 26 children to safety after they were kidnapped and buried below ground in a truck trailer, died in 2012 at the age of 91, at a nursing home in Chowchilla, Calif. Five weeks after the kidnapping, thousands lined the main street in Chowchilla to celebrate Ed Ray and Children’s Day. By then, at the convention of the California School Employees Association in Sacramento, Gov. Jerry Brown had presented Mr Ray the Association’s citation for outstanding community service, “particularly to 26 precious Chowchilla schoolchildren.” Many more awards would come.

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