1976 Chowchilla kidnapping

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1976 Chowchilla kidnapping
LocationChowchilla, California, U.S.
DateJuly 15, 1976 – July 16, 1976; 46 years ago (1976-07-16)
Attack type
Mass kidnapping, mass child abduction, attempted robbery, psychological torture
InjuredSeveral children suffering cuts, bruises, and burns
Victims26 children and 1 adult
  • James Schoenfeld
  • Richard Schoenfeld
  • Frederick Newhall Woods IV
DefenderFrank Edward Ray
  • All pleaded guilty to kidnapping
  • All found guilty of infliction of bodily harm at trial
  • Infliction of bodily harm conviction overturned
ConvictionsKidnapping for ransom and robbery
SentenceLife imprisonment with the possibility of parole (previously without parole)
LitigationLawsuits against kidnappers settled for undisclosed amounts

The 1976 Chowchilla kidnapping was the abduction of a school bus driver and 26 children, ages 5 to 14, in Chowchilla, California, United States, on July 15, 1976. The kidnappers held their captives in a box truck buried in a quarry in Livermore, California, intending to demand a ransom for their return. After about 16 hours underground, the driver and children dug themselves out and escaped. The quarry owner's son and two of his friends were convicted of the crime, each receiving a sentence of life with the possibility of parole. By 2022, all three had been paroled.


Interior of the trailer where the victims were held

At around 4 p.m. PDT on Thursday, July 15, 1976, school bus driver Frank Edward "Ed" Ray was driving 26 students of Dairyland Elementary School home from a summer class trip to the Chowchilla fairgrounds swimming pool when a van blocked the road ahead of the bus. Ray stopped the bus and was confronted by three armed men with nylon stockings covering their faces. One of the men held a gun to Ray while another drove the bus; the third man followed in the van.[2]

The kidnappers hid the bus in the Berenda Slough, a shallow branch of the Chowchilla River,[3] where a second van had been parked. Both vans' back windows were painted black; their interiors were reinforced with paneling. Ray and the children were forced into the two vans at gunpoint and then driven around for 11 hours before being taken to a quarry (37°39′48″N 121°48′29″W / 37.66333°N 121.80806°W / 37.66333; -121.80806) in Livermore.[2] There, in the early morning of July 16, the kidnappers forced the victims to climb down a ladder into a buried moving truck that they had stocked with a small amount of food and water and some mattresses.[4]

Victims being escorted by sheriff's deputies after their escape

Ray and the older children later stacked the mattresses so that some of them could reach the opening at the top of the truck, which had been covered with a heavy sheet of metal and weighed down with two 100-pound (45-kilogram) industrial batteries. After hours of effort, Ray and the oldest boy, 14-year-old Michael Marshall, wedged the lid open with a piece of wood and moved the batteries; they then dug away the remainder of the debris blocking the entrance.[4] Sixteen hours after they had entered the truck, the group emerged and walked to the quarry's guard shack, near Shadow Cliffs Regional Park.[5]

Arrests and convictions[edit]

The quarry owner's son, 24-year-old Frederick Newhall Woods IV, quickly came under suspicion as one of the people who had keys to the quarry and enough access to have buried the moving truck there. He and two of his friends, brothers James and Richard Schoenfeld (aged 24 and 22 respectively), had previously been convicted of motor vehicle theft, for which they had been sentenced to probation. A warrant was executed on the estate of Woods' father, and there police recovered one of the guns used in the kidnapping as well as a draft of a ransom note, but the three men had fled.[4] Woods was caught two weeks after the kidnapping in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.[6] James Schoenfeld had been captured earlier the same day in Menlo Park, California, while Richard Schoenfeld had voluntarily turned himself in to authorities eight days after the kidnapping.[2]

The kidnappers had been unable to call in their intended ransom demand of $5 million (equivalent to $23.8 million in 2021) because telephone lines to the Chowchilla Police Department were tied up by media calls and families searching for their children. They went to sleep at some point on July 16 and woke late that night to television news reports informing them that the victims had freed themselves and were safe.

The abductors entering the courthouse for a pre-trial hearing

James Schoenfeld later stated that despite coming from wealthy families, both he and Woods were deeply in debt: "We needed multiple victims to get multiple millions, and we picked children because children are precious. The state would be willing to pay ransom for them. And they don't fight back. They're vulnerable. They will mind."[4][7]

All three perpetrators pleaded guilty to kidnapping for ransom and robbery, but they refused to plead guilty to infliction of bodily harm, as a conviction on that count in conjunction with the kidnapping charge carried a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. They were tried on the bodily harm charge, found guilty and given the mandatory sentence, but their convictions were overturned by an appellate court which found that physical injuries sustained by the children (mostly cuts and bruises) did not meet the standard for bodily harm under the law. They were re-sentenced to life with the possibility of parole.[4] Richard Schoenfeld was released in 2012,[8] and James Schoenfeld was paroled on August 7, 2015.[9][10][11]

In October 2019, Woods was denied parole for the 19th time.[12][13] Over the years, reasons given for the denials have included his continued minimization of his crime as well as disciplinary infractions for possession of contraband pornography and cellphones.[14][15]

In 2016, a worker's compensation lawsuit filed against Woods also revealed that he had been running several businesses, including a gold mine and a car dealership, from behind bars without notifying prison authorities as required. The heir to two wealthy California families, the Newhalls and the Woodses, he inherited a trust fund from his parents that was described in one court filing as being worth $100 million (equivalent to $113 million in 2021), although Woods' lawyer disputed that amount. He has married three times while in prison and has purchased a mansion about 30 minutes away from the prison.[7]

In March 2022, a panel of two commissioners recommended Woods for parole. The recommendation required the approval of the full parole board, the board's legal division, and California's governor.[16][17] California Governor Gavin Newsom asked the parole board to reconsider its decision but the decision was affirmed. On August 17, 2022, it was reported that Woods' parole had been granted and he was to be released from prison.[18]


The victims riding in a parade to celebrate their escape

Frank Edward "Ed" Ray (February 26, 1921 – May 17, 2012) received a California School Employees Association citation for outstanding community service.[19] Before he died in 2012,[20] he was visited by many of the schoolchildren he had helped save.[21] In 2015, the Sports & Leisure Park in Chowchilla was renamed the Edward Ray Park, and every February 26 was declared "Edward Ray Day" in Chowchilla.[22][23]

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",[24] and one shot a Japanese tourist with a BB gun when the tourist's car broke down in front of his home.[25] 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."[26][27] What was learned from the after-effects suffered by the kidnapped children has guided the treatment of young victims of trauma since the kidnapping.[27]

In 2016, the 25 surviving kidnapped children settled a lawsuit they had filed against their kidnappers. The money they received was paid out of Frederick Woods' trust fund, and although the exact settlement amount was not disclosed, one survivor stated that they had each received "enough to pay for some serious therapy — but not enough for a house."[7]


Frederick Woods, James Schoenfeld and Richard Schoenfeld
  • Frederick Newhall Woods IV (aged 24 during the kidnapping) was repeatedly denied parole until August of 2022 when, at the age of 70, he was granted full parole. [28]
  • James Schoenfeld (aged 24 during the kidnapping) was paroled in 2015 at age 63.[29]
  • Richard Schoenfeld (aged 22 during the kidnapping) was paroled in 2012 at age 57.[30]

In popular culture[edit]

A two-hour made-for-television 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.[31]

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.[32] 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.

Also in 2015, 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.[33]

In 2019, the television news magazine 48 Hours investigated the story in the episode "Live to Tell: The Chowchilla Kidnapping".[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The ballad of the Chowchilla bus kidnapping".
  2. ^ a b c Taylor, Michael (July 15, 2001). "Chowchilla nightmares / 25 years later, kidnap victims still struggling to forget past". SFGate.com. Retrieved October 21, 2019.
  3. ^ Lindsey, Robert (July 17, 1976). "26 Children Found Safe After Being Kidnapped From Bus In California". The New York Times. 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...
  4. ^ a b c d e "Chowchilla bus kidnapping survivor: 'I felt like I was an animal going to the slaughterhouse'". cbsnews.com. Retrieved October 21, 2019.
  5. ^ "Chowchilla City History: 1976 Bus Kidnapping". ci.chowchilla.ca.us. City of Chowchilla, California. Archived from the original on November 3, 2015. Retrieved April 7, 2016.
  6. ^ Newton, Michael (2002). "Chowchilla Kidnappings". The Encyclopedia of Kidnappings. Facts on File. p. 60.
  7. ^ a b c "Notorious Chowchilla bus kidnapper ran a gold mine and Christmas tree farm from prison". cbsnews.com. Retrieved October 22, 2019.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ "Chowchilla Bus Kidnapper Released From Prison". KSBY.com. August 7, 2015. Archived from the original on August 8, 2015.
  10. ^ "Chowchilla kidnapper granted parole at 20th hearing". The Fresno Bee. April 1, 2015. Archived from the original on May 6, 2015.
  11. ^ "CALIFORNIA BRIEFING; SAN LUIS OBISPO; Parole granted in 1976 kidnapping". Los Angeles Times. April 2, 2015. p. B4.
  12. ^ Egelko, Bob (April 24, 2019). "Parole hearing granted for last Chowchilla kidnapper still in prison". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved July 16, 2019.
  13. ^ Sorto, Gabrielle (October 8, 2019). "Infamous Chowchilla School Bus Kidnapper Inspired By 'Dirty Harry' Is Denied Parole". CNN. Retrieved October 9, 2019.
  14. ^ "California: Parole Denied for Man Who Helped Hijack School Bus in 1976". The New York Times. November 19, 2015. Retrieved November 19, 2015.
  15. ^ "Parole Denied Again for Frederick Woods, Last of 3 Men Convicted in 1976 Chowchilla Kidnapping to Remain in Prison". NBCBayArea.com. November 19, 2015.
  16. ^ Vigdor, Neil (March 29, 2022). "California to Parole Man Who Kidnapped 26 Children on School Bus". The New York Times. Retrieved April 18, 2022.
  17. ^ "Frederick Woods, convicted in 1976 Chowchilla school bus kidnapping, to be released on parole". www.cbsnews.com. Retrieved August 18, 2022.
  18. ^ Hevesi, Dennis (May 18, 2012). "Ed Ray, Bus Driver During Kidnapping, Dies at 91". The New York Times.
  19. ^ "Chowchilla kidnapping bus driver Frank Ray dies". San Francisco Chronicle. Associated Press. May 18, 2012 – via sfgate.com.
  20. ^ Smith, Joshua Emerson (May 17, 2012). "Ed Ray, Chowchilla bus driver in 1976 kidnapping, dies". Merced Sun-Star. Archived from the original on March 22, 2014.
  21. ^ "Edward Ray - A Local Hero". CityofChowchilla.org. City of Chowchilla, California. Retrieved July 14, 2021.
  22. ^ 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.
  23. ^ "Study Finds Trauma in Kidnap Victims". Merced Sun-Star. Associated Press. January 20, 1981.
  24. ^ Witt, Linda (July 20, 1986). "A Decade-old Crime Holds A Small Town Hostage". Chicago Tribune. p. C1. Retrieved March 15, 2016.
  25. ^ Osgood, Charles; Blackstone, John (July 29, 2001). "Innocence lost; the Chowchilla kidnap victims 25 years later, and what they taught us about childhood trauma". CBS Sunday Morning – via CBS News Transcripts.
  26. ^ a b "'Little Heroes of Medicine' Teach Experts to Treat Childhood Trauma". CBS News. January 31, 2002. Retrieved April 5, 2016.
  27. ^ "He Kidnapped a School Bus of Children and Buried Them Alive. This Week He Was Granted Parole". USA Today.
  28. ^ "Chowchilla School Bus Kidnapper James Schoenfeld Freed on Parole, May be in Bay Area".
  29. ^ "Chowchilla kidnapper Richard Schoenfeld paroled". June 16, 2012.
  30. ^ "They've Taken Our Children: The Chowchilla Kidnapping" – via imdb.com.
  31. ^ "House of Horrors: Kidnapped: "Buried Alive" (TV Episode)". Internet Movie Database. April 21, 2015. Retrieved April 22, 2015.
  32. ^ "40 Years On, Victims Recall Being Buried Alive in Van as Children in Chowchilla". Inside Edition. July 31, 2015 [July 30, 2015]. Retrieved April 18, 2022.

External links[edit]