1976 Chowchilla kidnapping

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The 1976 Chowchilla kidnapping occurred in Chowchilla, California, on July 15, 1976, when kidnappers abducted 26 children and their adult driver. The school bus was stopped, the captives were loaded into two separate vans and driven to a rock quarry in Livermore, CA. The captives were then loaded into a buried truck that served as a prison, with nothing but a little food and water and a few mattresses. The driver, Frank Edward "Ed" Ray, piled up mattresses that were in the truck and held the oldest child (14) up to the opening while the 14 year old dug out the ceiling, allowing himself and the others to escape. They were assisted by a quarry worker after exiting the truck, who alerted authorities. Upon further investigation, the buried truck was found to be registered under the name of the quarry owner's son, Frederick Newhall Woods, IV. The son was immediately arrested along with his accomplices, the Schoenfeld brothers, who all confessed to carrying out the scheme. They had planned to collect a ransom, but after burying the captives, they could not reach police with demands due to the phone lines being tied up with calls of parents and family members searching for their missing loved ones.


Kidnapping and escape[edit]

Chowchilla was launched into national headlines on July 15, 1976, when 26 children and an adult bus driver were kidnapped from their bus. The kidnappers hid the bus in a drainage slough, and drove the children and bus driver around in two vans for 11 hours before forcing them to climb into a hole in the ground. After passing through the hole, the children and their driver found themselves trapped in the interior of a buried moving van. Although they did not know it, their place of confinement was in a quarry located in Livermore, California.

Local farmer and part-time bus driver Ed Ray, with help from some of the boys, stacked the 14 mattresses that were in the van. This enabled some of the older children to reach the opening at the top of the truck, which had been covered with a metal lid and weighed down with two 100-pound industrial batteries. They wedged the lid open with a stick, Ray moved the batteries, and then they removed the remainder of the debris blocking the entrance. After 16 hours underground, they emerged and walked to the guard shack at the entrance to the quarry. The guard alerted the authorities, all the victims were pronounced in good condition, and they returned home to find that the mass media had descended on the town.

Investigation and arrests[edit]

Ray was able to remember the license plate number of one vehicle under hypnosis, which led to the capture of the kidnappers as they attempted to flee to Canada. A rough draft of a ransom note was found at the house of the owner of the quarry. The owner's son, Frederick Newhall Woods, IV, and two friends, Richard and James Schoenfeld, were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.[1]

After the children were recovered, it was observed that some circumstances of the abduction corresponded to details in "The Day the Children Vanished", a story written by Hugh Pentecost that had been published in the 1969 fiction anthology Alfred Hitchcock's Daring Detectives. A copy of this book was in the Chowchilla public library; police theorized that this was the real-life kidnappers' inspiration.[2]



After being denied parole 20 times, one of the three kidnappers, Richard Schoenfeld, was deemed suitable for parole by the California Board on Parole Hearings on October 30, 2008. Richard Schoenfeld was released on June 20, 2012 and is living with his mother in a condominium complex in Mountain View, California.[3]

James Schoenfeld was granted parole in 2015, at his 20th parole hearing. As of April 2, 2015 no parole date had been set. Frederick Woods was denied parole for the 13th time on November 28, 2012 and will not be eligible again until 2015. [4] He was subsequently granted parole on April 1, 2015.

Bus driver[edit]

Frank Edward "Ed" Ray (February 26, 1921 – May 17, 2012) graduated from Chowchilla High School in 1940. After working on a small farm, Ray began driving a bus in the early 1950s. After the kidnapping, the town celebrated Ed Ray and Children’s Day with a parade, and Governor Jerry Brown awarded Ray a 1976 California School Employees Association citation for outstanding community service.[5] Ray died at a Chowchilla nursing home of cirrhosis of the liver, at the age of 91.[6] In the days before he died, he was visited by many of the schoolchildren whom he helped save.[7]


Three years after the kidnapping, a study of 23 of the children by Dr. Lenore C. Terr of UC San Francisco concluded that they had been traumatized by the ordeal, resulting in panic attacks, nightmares of kidnappings leading to their deaths, and personality changes. Twenty of the children were afraid of being kidnapped again, and 21 were afraid of such things as "cars, the dark, the wind, the kitchen, mice, dogs and hippies."[8] Eighteen months after the kidnapping, one of the older male victims shot a Japanese tourist with a BB gun when the tourist's car broke down in front of his home in what Dr. Terr described as "a dangerously inappropriate episode of (his need for) heroism."[9] Many of the children continued to report symptoms of trauma at least 25 years after the kidnapping, including substance abuse and depression. According to Dr. Terr, a number have spent time in prison for "doing something controlling to somebody else."[10]

Media adaptations[edit]

The ordeal was dramatized in the 1993 ABC-TV movie They've Taken Our Children: The Chowchilla Kidnapping (shown in the UK as Vanished Without a Trace) starring Karl Malden as Ray. Frederick Woods subsequently sued the network, alleging their portrayal of him was false and misleading, but the case was dismissed.[11]

Interviews with many of the children, now adults, as well as the bus driver, have been broadcast on MSNBC.

The TV series Without a Trace ran an episode called "The Bus," in which a bus full of children is hijacked for ransom in a manner similar to the Chowchilla incident.

The TV series Criminal Minds ran an episode called "Wheels on the Bus", where a bus full of high-school students was hijacked, with the perpetrators using the same method as the Chowchilla kidnappers did. Spencer Reid referenced this kidnapping because of its similarities.

The TV series Millennium ran an episode called "19:19", in which Frank races against time to locate a busload of abducted children in southeastern Oklahoma. Their kidnapper, a crazed visionary, also entombed the children in an abandoned quarry.

The TV series Walker, Texas Ranger aired an episode, entitled "Cyclone", where kidnappers demand ransom after burying a school bus holding ten children. The Rangers must find the bus before severe weather hits the area.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ MacGowan, Douglas. "The Chowchilla Kidnapping". crimelibrary. Retrieved March 16, 2014. 
  2. ^ "CRIME: Escape from an Earthen Cell". Time. July 26, 1976. Retrieved April 28, 2010. 
  3. ^ Hurd, Rick; Green, Jason (22 June 2012). "Paroled Chowchilla school bus kidnapper living in Mountain View". San Jose Mercury News (MediaNews Group). Retrieved 22 June 2012. 
  4. ^ "Parole Denied To 1 Of 3 Chowchilla Bus Kidnappers". CBS San Francisco. November 28, 2012. Retrieved March 16, 2014. 
  5. ^ Hevesi, Dennis (May 18, 2012). Ray, Bus Driver During Kidnapping, Dies at 91. New York Times
  6. ^ Associated Press (May 18, 2012). Chowchilla kidnapping bus driver Frank Ray dies. San Francisco Chronicle.
  7. ^ Smith, Joshua Emerson (May 17, 2012). Ed Ray, Chowchilla bus driver in 1976 kidnapping, dies. Merced Sun-Star
  8. ^ "Study Finds Trauma In Kidnap Victims". The Associated Press (AM Cycle). January 20, 1981. 
  9. ^ Linda Witt (July 20, 1986). "A DECADE-OLD CRIME HOLDS A SMALL TOWN HOSTAGE". Chicago Tribune (TEMPO; Pg. 1; ZONE: C). 
  10. ^ Charles Osgood, anchor; John Blackstone, reporter (July 29, 2001). "Innocence lost; the Chowchilla kidnap victims 25 years later, and what they taught us about childhood trauma". CBS News Transcripts (CBS Sunday Morning). 
  11. ^ Staff report (April 16, 1994). Goals in the school of hard knocks, etc. Washington Times

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