1976 Chowchilla kidnapping

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The 1976 Chowchilla kidnapping was the abduction of a school bus driver and 26 children, aged 5 to 14, in Chowchilla, California on July 15, 1976. The kidnappers put their victims into a buried box truck within a quarry in Livermore, California. After about 16 hours, the driver and children were able to dig themselves out and escape unharmed. Police soon arrested the quarry owner's son and two accomplices. All three were sentenced to life imprisonment. By 2015 the two accomplices were paroled. The son remains incarcerated as of fall 2019.


On July 15, 1976, 26 children and their bus driver were kidnapped in Chowchilla, California by armed men who blocked the road around 4 p.m. The students, who were attending summer classes at Dairyland Elementary School, were being dropped off on their way back from a field trip at the Chowchilla fairgrounds' swimming pool. The kidnappers hid the bus in the Berenda Slough[1] and drove the children and bus driver around in two vans for 11 hours, eventually taking them to a quarry (37°39′48″N 121°48′29″W / 37.66333°N 121.80806°W / 37.66333; -121.80806) in Livermore, California. There, the kidnappers imprisoned the victims inside a buried moving van with a small amount of food and water and a number of mattresses.

After many hours, bus driver Frank Edward "Ed" Ray and the children stacked the mattresses, enabling some of them to reach the opening at the top of the truck, which had been covered with a metal plate and weighed down with two 100-pound industrial batteries. They wedged the lid open with a stick, Ray moved the batteries, and they removed the remainder of the debris that blocked the entrance. After 16 hours underground, they emerged and walked to the quarry's guard shack near the Shadow Cliffs East Bay Regional Park. All were "in good condition".[2]

Arrests and convictions[edit]

The truck was registered to the quarry owner's son, Frederick Newhall Woods IV. Under hypnosis the bus driver remembered the license number of one of the vans. Woods was arrested after fleeing to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. His accomplices, Richard and James Schoenfeld, surrendered to authorities in California. (James was caught shortly before he was able to do so.)[3]

The kidnappers had been unable to call in their ransom demand because telephone lines to the Chowchilla Police Department were tied up by media calls and families searching for their children. A draft ransom note was also found. Some details of the crime corresponded to details in "The Day the Children Vanished", a story by Hugh Pentecost that was published in Alfred Hitchcock's Daring Detectives (1969).[4] A copy of this book was in the Chowchilla public library, and police theorized that it had inspired the kidnappers.[5]

All three were sentenced to life in prison.[6] Richard Schoenfeld was released in 2012.[7] James Schoenfeld was paroled August 7, 2015.[8][9][10]

As of October 2019, Frederick Woods has been denied parole 19 times.[11][12] Following a hearing in 2018, Woods would have not been eligible again until 2021. However, on April 24, 2019, a federal judge ruled that Woods should receive a new hearing within six months due to a conflict of interest concealed by a member of the panel of his 2012 hearing.[11] At previous hearings, Woods was denied parole due to his continued minimization of his crime as well as disciplinary infractions, including "three for possession of pornography... and two for possessing contraband cellphones."[13][14] Woods was married twice while in prison.[15] On 8 October 2019 Woods was again denied parole.[12]


Frank Edward "Ed" Ray (February 26, 1921 – May 17, 2012) received a California School Employees Association citation for outstanding community service.[16] Before he died in 2012,[17] he was visited by many of the schoolchildren he had helped save.[18] Every February 26 has been declared Edward Ray Day in Chowchilla.[19]

A study found that the kidnapped children suffered from panic attacks, nightmares involving kidnappings and death, and personality changes. Many developed fears of such things as "cars, the dark, the wind, the kitchen, mice, dogs and hippies",[20] and one shot a Japanese tourist with a BB gun when the tourist's car broke down in front of his home.[21] Many of the children continued to report symptoms of trauma at least 25 years after the kidnapping, including substance abuse and depression, and a number have been imprisoned for "doing something controlling to somebody else."[22][23]

In popular culture[edit]

The Chowchilla kidnappings were featured on episode 7 of season 2 of the program House of Horrors: Kidnapped, which airs on the American cable network Investigation Discovery.[24] The episode, "Buried Alive", first aired on April 21, 2015, and was told from the point of view of Michael Marshall, who at age 14 was the oldest of the children on the bus.

A two-hour made-for-TV movie about the event aired on the ABC Network on March 1, 1993 titled: They've Taken Our Children: The Chowchilla Kidnapping. It starred Karl Malden as bus driver Ed Ray, and Julie Harris as his wife.[25]

A second-season episode of Millennium, "19:19", involves the kidnapping of a busload of school children, as well as their bus driver, who are then taken to an aluminum quarry and hidden in an underground bunker.[26]

A fourth-season episode of Walker, Texas Ranger involves the kidnapping of a busload of school children buried alive in a landfill, with the kidnappers demanding a $10 million ransom.

An episode of Inside Edition reunited some of the kidnapped women to tell their stories of the kidnappings. The bus from the kidnappings, which is now stored in a Chowchilla farm warehouse, was also seen in the episode.

In 2019, the television news magazine 48 Hours investigated the story in the episode "Live to Tell: The Chowchilla Kidnapping."

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Lindsey, Robert (July 17, 1976). "26 Children Found Safe After Being Kidnapped From Bus In California". The New York Times. The New York Times Company. p. 1. Retrieved May 12, 2017. Instead of turning right at an intersection leading to the fourth stop, it apparently continued west toward what is called the Berenda Slough. It was in the slough that the bus was found...
  2. ^ "Chowchilla City History: 1976 Bus Kidnapping". City of Chowchilla, California. Chowchilla, California. Archived from the original on November 3, 2015. Retrieved April 7, 2016.
  3. ^ The Encyclopedia of Kidnappings by Michael Newton (2002) p. 60.
  4. ^ Alfred Hitchcock; Arthur Shilstone (1969) Alfred Hitchcock's Daring Detectives, Random House, New York ISBN 978-0-39481-490-2
  5. ^ "CRIME: Escape from an Earthen Cell". Time. July 26, 1976. Retrieved April 28, 2010.
  6. ^ MacGowan, Douglas. "The Chowchilla Kidnapping". crimelibrary. Archived from the original on April 3, 2014. Retrieved March 16, 2014.
  7. ^ Hurd, Rick; Green, Jason (June 22, 2012). "Paroled Chowchilla school bus kidnapper living in Mountain View". San Jose Mercury News. MediaNews Group. Retrieved June 22, 2012.
  8. ^ [1] (August 7, 2015)
  9. ^ "Chowchilla kidnapper granted parole at 20th hearing" Archived May 6, 2015, at the Wayback Machine (April 1, 2015) The Fresno Bee
  10. ^ "CALIFORNIA BRIEFING; SAN LUIS OBISPO; Parole granted in 1976 kidnapping" (April 2, 2015) Los Angeles Times, p. B4
  11. ^ a b Egelko, Bob (April 24, 2019). "Parole hearing granted for last Chowchilla kidnapper still in prison". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved July 16, 2019.
  12. ^ a b Sorto, Gabrielle (October 8, 2019). "Infamous Chowchilla School Bus Kidnapper Who Inspired 'Dirty Harry' Is Denied Parole". CNN. Retrieved October 9, 2019.
  13. ^ "California: Parole Denied for Man Who Helped Hijack School Bus in 1976". The New York Times. November 19, 2015. Retrieved November 19, 2015.
  14. ^ "Parole Denied Again for Frederick Woods, Last of 3 Men Convicted in 1976 Chowchilla Kidnapping to Remain in Prison" (November 19, 2015) NBC Bay Area
  15. ^ Dan Noyes (November 29, 2012). "Parole Hearing Reveals New Details About Chowchilla Kidnapping". Retrieved April 6, 2016.
  16. ^ Hevesi, Dennis (May 18, 2012). Ray, Bus Driver During Kidnapping, Dies at 91. The New York Times
  17. ^ Associated Press (May 18, 2012). Chowchilla kidnapping bus driver Frank Ray dies. San Francisco Chronicle
  18. ^ Smith, Joshua Emerson (May 17, 2012). Ed Ray, Chowchilla bus driver in 1976 kidnapping, dies. Archived March 22, 2014, at the Wayback Machine Merced Sun-Star
  19. ^ Miller, Thaddeus (February 26, 2015). "Chowchilla bus driver remembered, honored as humble hero". Merced Sun-Star. Retrieved February 26, 2016. Chowchilla Mayor John Chavez read a proclamation during the park dedication, which included making every Feb. 26 Edward Ray Day in Chowchilla. "We hope that when Feb. 26 comes around each year, you stop for a moment and remember the strength and heroism that was Edward Ray," he said, speaking to the crowd.
  20. ^ "Study Finds Trauma in Kidnap Victims". Merced Sun-Star. The Associated Press. January 20, 1981.
  21. ^ Linda Witt (July 20, 1986). "A Decade-old Crime Holds A Small Town Hostage". Chicago Tribune. TEMPO; Pg. 1; ZONE: C. Retrieved March 15, 2016.
  22. ^ 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.
  23. ^ "'Little Heroes of Medicine' Teach Experts to Treat Childhood Trauma". CBS News. January 31, 2002. Retrieved April 5, 2016.
  24. ^ "House of Horrors: Kidnapped: "Buried Alive" (TV Episode)". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved April 22, 2015.
  25. ^ https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0105576/
  26. ^ https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0648214/?ref_=ttep_ep7