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1976 Chowchilla kidnapping

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1976 Chowchilla kidnapping
Interior of the trailer where the victims were held
LocationChowchilla, California, U.S.
DateJuly 15, 1976 – July 16, 1976; 47 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
  • Frank Edward Ray
  • Michael Marshall
  • All pleaded guilty to kidnapping
  • All found guilty of infliction of bodily harm at trial
  • Infliction of bodily harm convictions overturned
ConvictionsKidnapping for ransom
ChargesKidnapping for ransom and robbery, infliction of bodily harm
SentenceLife imprisonment with the possibility of parole (previously without parole)
  • Richard paroled after 36 years
  • James paroled after 39 years
  • Woods paroled after 46 years
LitigationLawsuits against kidnappers settled for undisclosed amounts

On July 15, 1976, in Chowchilla, California, three armed men hijacked a school bus. They abducted the driver and 26 children, ages 5 to 14, and imprisoned them in a truck trailer buried in a quarry in Livermore, California. The bus driver and children managed to escape before the kidnappers could issue their ransom demands. All of the victims survived but many suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The kidnappers intended to use ransom money from the kidnapping to restore the Victorian Rengstorff House in Mountain View, California.[2]

The kidnappers were caught, convicted and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. An appellate court overturned the finding of bodily harm. Subsequently, the kidnappers were resentenced to life with the possibility of parole. The incident led to major changes in California laws regarding bodily injury and psychological trauma.

By 2022, all three kidnappers had been paroled.


On Thursday, July 15, 1976, 55-year-old school bus driver Frank Edward "Ed" Ray was transporting 26 Dairyland Elementary School students home. The children had spent the day on a summer class trip to the Chowchilla Fairgrounds swimming pool. At approximately 4 p.m., a van drove into the bus's path and blocked the road. Ray stopped, and three men with nylon stockings covering their faces exited the van and hijacked the bus. One of the men pointed a gun at Ray, a second drove the bus, and the third followed in the van.[3]

The kidnappers drove to Berenda Slough (37°09′26″N 120°07′28″W / 37.1573°N 120.1244°W / 37.1573; -120.1244 (Berenda Slough)), a shallow branch of the Chowchilla River,[4] where they hid the bus. They retrieved a second van they had hidden nearby. Both vans had been modified by the kidnappers to transport their victims: the rear windows had been painted black, and the interiors were insulated with soundproof paneling.

The kidnappers ordered Ray and the children into the vans at gunpoint, then drove them to the California Rock & Gravel quarry (37°39′47.3″N 121°48′32.8″W / 37.663139°N 121.809111°W / 37.663139; -121.809111) in Livermore,[3] roughly 110 miles (180 km) from the fairgrounds. In the early morning hours of July 16, the victims were forced, again at gunpoint, to climb down a ladder, through a hatch, and into a buried truck trailer. The kidnappers had made the trailer into an underground bunker, equipped with ventilation and a pit toilet, and stocked with several mattresses and a small amount of food and water.[5] As the victims climbed from the van into the bunker, the kidnappers wrote the name and age of each child on a Jack in the Box hamburger wrapper. Once the victims were all inside, the kidnappers removed the ladder, covered the hatch with a heavy piece of sheet metal, weighted it with two 100-pound (45-kilogram) industrial batteries, and buried the opening.

Victims being escorted by sheriff's deputies after their escape

After several hours, Ray and the older children stacked the mattresses to reach the hatch. As Ray lifted the hatch, 14-year-old Michael Marshall wedged a piece of wood into the opening, moved the sheet metal and batteries, and dug away the remainder of the debris covering the entrance.[5] Sixteen hours after being imprisoned, Ray and the children climbed out of the bunker and walked to the quarry guard's shack, near Shadow Cliffs Regional Park.[6]

Alameda County sheriffs took the victims to Santa Rita Jail, the nearest facility with medical staff. Jail doctors and EMTs examined and treated them and gave them food and water, while the sheriffs took down statements and descriptions of the kidnappers. The victims were then driven back to their families in Chowchilla.

Arrests and convictions[edit]

On July 16, telephone lines to the Chowchilla Police Department were jammed with calls from media and frantic families. The kidnappers therefore were unable to issue their $5 million ransom demand (equivalent to $26.8 million in 2023). They decided to call back later and fell asleep. When they awoke later in the evening, they saw television news reports that the victims had freed themselves and were safe.

Meanwhile, the FBI had immediately begun investigating 24-year-old Frederick Newhall Woods IV, the son of Frederick Nickerson Woods III, owner of the California Rock & Gravel quarry. The FBI discovered the younger Woods had keys to the quarry, unlimited access and free use of its facilities. Additionally, Woods and two friends, brothers James and Richard Schoenfeld (aged 24 and 22, respectively), had been previously convicted of motor vehicle theft, for which they were sentenced to probation.

The FBI obtained and executed a search warrant for Hawthorne, the 78-acre Woods estate in Portola Valley. In the younger Woods' room, investigators found journals, a draft of the ransom demand, maps, notes, plans, receipts for the vans and the trailer, false identification, one of the guns used in the kidnapping and the hamburger wrapper on which were written the names and ages of each kidnapped child.[5] The notes outlined plans to have the ransom money dropped from a plane into the Santa Cruz Mountains at night and retrieve it under cover of darkness. Also discovered was a rental contract for a storage facility. There, the FBI found the vans used to transport the victims, as well as a getaway vehicle, a Cadillac spray-painted with flat black night camouflage.

The FBI issued warrants for the arrests of Woods and the two Schoenfeld brothers. Eight days after the kidnapping, Richard Schoenfeld voluntarily surrendered to authorities.[3] Two weeks later, James Schoenfeld was arrested in Menlo Park. Later the same day, Woods was arrested by the RCMP in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.[7]

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."[5][8]

All three pleaded guilty to kidnapping for ransom and robbery but refused to enter a guilty plea 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 resentenced to life with the possibility of parole.[5] Richard Schoenfeld was released in 2012,[9] and James Schoenfeld was paroled on August 7, 2015.[10][11][12]

In 2016, a worker's compensation lawsuit filed against Woods revealed that he had been running several businesses, including a gold mine and a car dealership, from behind bars without notifying prison authorities. The heir to two wealthy California families, the Newhalls and the Woods, he inherited a trust fund from his parents that was described in one court filing as being worth $100 million (equivalent to $127 million in 2023), although Woods' lawyer disputed that amount.[8]

In October 2019, Woods was denied parole for the 19th time.[13][14] Over the years, reasons given for the denials included his continued minimization of the crime as well as disciplinary infractions for possession of contraband pornography and cellphones.[15][16] Woods married three times while in prison, and purchased a mansion about half an hour away.[8]

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.[17][18] Governor Gavin Newsom asked the board to reconsider 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.[19]


The victims riding in a parade to celebrate their escape

Ray received a California School Employees Association citation for outstanding community service.[20] Before he died on May 17, 2012, he was visited by many of the schoolchildren he had helped save.[21][22] In 2015, Chowchilla renamed the Sports & Leisure Park as the Edward Ray Park, and declared every February 26—Ray's birthdate—"Edward Ray Day".[23][24]

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",[25] and one shot a Japanese tourist with a BB gun when the tourist's car broke down in front of his home.[26] 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."[27][28] The treatment of young victims of trauma has been guided by what was learned about the effects of the Chowchilla kidnapping on the children who were abducted.[28]

In 2016, the 25 surviving victims 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."[8]


Frederick Woods, James Schoenfeld and Richard Schoenfeld
  • Frederick Newhall Woods IV (aged 24 during the kidnapping) was repeatedly denied parole until August 2022 when, at the age of 70, he was granted full parole.[29][30]
  • James Schoenfeld (aged 24 during the kidnapping) was paroled in 2015 at age 63.[31]
  • Richard Schoenfeld (aged 22 during the kidnapping) was paroled in 2012 at age 57.[32]

In popular culture[edit]

American crooner Robert Goulet released a ballad about the incident in 1977, entitled "Ballad Of Chowchilla Ray".[33]

A two-hour made-for-television movie about the incident, titled They've Taken Our Children: The Chowchilla Kidnapping, aired on ABC on March 1, 1993. It stars Karl Malden as Ray, and Julie Harris as his wife.[34]

The kidnappings are featured in "Buried Alive", the seventh episode of Season 2 of Investigation Discovery's House of Horrors: Kidnapped.[35] "Buried Alive" first aired on April 21, 2015, and is told from the point of view of Marshall, the oldest of the children, who was instrumental in their escape.

Also in 2015, an episode of Inside Edition reunited some of the women who had been kidnapped as children. They gave their recollections of the abduction. The school bus, which is now stored in a Chowchilla farm warehouse, was shown as well.[36]

48 Hours examines the abduction in the 2019 episode "Live to Tell: The Chowchilla Kidnapping",[17] as well as the March 18, 2023, episode "Remembering the Chowchilla Kidnapping" (Season 36, Episode 20).

On December 3, 2023, CNN aired a documentary on the kidnapping, simply titled Chowchilla.[37]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The ballad of the Chowchilla bus kidnapping". July 16, 2021.
  2. ^ Taaffe, Linda (December 14, 2023). "How Mountain View's oldest house became a motive for the 1976 Chowchilla kidnapping". Palo Alto Online. Archived from the original on December 16, 2023.
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ 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...
  5. ^ a b c d e Begnaud, David (March 18, 2023). "Chowchilla bus kidnapping survivor: 'I felt like I was an animal going to the slaughterhouse'". CBS News. Retrieved October 21, 2019.
  6. ^ "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.
  7. ^ Newton, Michael (2002). "Chowchilla Kidnappings". The Encyclopedia of Kidnappings. Facts on File. p. 60.
  8. ^ a b c d Osterkamp, George (August 18, 2022). "Notorious Chowchilla bus kidnapper ran a gold mine and Christmas tree farm from prison". CBS News. Retrieved October 22, 2019.
  9. ^ 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.
  10. ^ "Chowchilla Bus Kidnapper Released From Prison". KSBY.com. August 7, 2015. Archived from the original on August 8, 2015.
  11. ^ "Chowchilla kidnapper granted parole at 20th hearing". The Fresno Bee. April 1, 2015. Archived from the original on May 6, 2015.
  12. ^ "CALIFORNIA BRIEFING; SAN LUIS OBISPO; Parole granted in 1976 kidnapping". Los Angeles Times. April 2, 2015. p. B4.
  13. ^ Egelko, Bob (April 24, 2019). "Parole hearing granted for last Chowchilla kidnapper still in prison". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved July 16, 2019.
  14. ^ Sorto, Gabrielle (October 8, 2019). "Infamous Chowchilla School Bus Kidnapper Inspired By 'Dirty Harry' Is Denied Parole". CNN. Retrieved October 9, 2019.
  15. ^ "California: Parole Denied for Man Who Helped Hijack School Bus in 1976". The New York Times. November 19, 2015. Retrieved November 19, 2015.
  16. ^ "Parole Denied Again for Frederick Woods, Last of 3 Men Convicted in 1976 Chowchilla Kidnapping to Remain in Prison". NBCBayArea.com. November 19, 2015.
  17. ^ Vigdor, Neil (March 29, 2022). "California to Parole Man Who Kidnapped 26 Children on School Bus". The New York Times. Retrieved April 18, 2022.
  18. ^ "Frederick Woods, convicted in 1976 Chowchilla school bus kidnapping, to be released on parole". CBS News. Associated Press. August 17, 2022. Retrieved August 18, 2022.
  19. ^ Hevesi, Dennis (May 18, 2012). "Ed Ray, Bus Driver During Kidnapping, Dies at 91". The New York Times.
  20. ^ "Chowchilla kidnapping bus driver Frank Ray dies". San Francisco Chronicle. Associated Press. May 18, 2012 – via sfgate.com.
  21. ^ 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.
  22. ^ "Edward Ray - A Local Hero". CityofChowchilla.org. City of Chowchilla, California. Retrieved July 14, 2021.
  23. ^ 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.
  24. ^ "Study Finds Trauma in Kidnap Victims". Merced Sun-Star. Associated Press. January 20, 1981.
  25. ^ Witt, Linda (July 20, 1986). "A Decade-old Crime Holds A Small Town Hostage". Chicago Tribune. p. C1. Retrieved March 15, 2016.
  26. ^ 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.
  27. ^ a b "'Little Heroes of Medicine' Teach Experts to Treat Childhood Trauma". CBS News. January 31, 2002. Retrieved April 5, 2016.
  28. ^ Neysa Alund, Nataile. "He Kidnapped a School Bus of Children and Buried Them Alive. This Week He Was Granted Parole". USA Today.
  29. ^ "Last man in prison for Chowchilla bus kidnapping in 1976 to be released, officials confirm". abc30.com. August 17, 2022. Retrieved May 8, 2024.
  30. ^ "Chowchilla School Bus Kidnapper James Schoenfeld Freed on Parole, May be in Bay Area". August 8, 2015.
  31. ^ Gordon, Rachel (June 16, 2012). "Chowchilla kidnapper Richard Schoenfeld paroled". Sfgate.
  32. ^ "Ballad Of Chowchilla Ray" – via soundcloud.com.
  33. ^ "They've Taken Our Children: The Chowchilla Kidnapping" – via imdb.com.
  34. ^ "House of Horrors: Kidnapped: "Buried Alive" (TV Episode)". Internet Movie Database. April 21, 2015. Retrieved April 22, 2015.
  35. ^ "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.
  36. ^ "New Documentary Examines Kidnapping of School Bus Full of Children — and How They Miraculously Escaped". People. Retrieved November 17, 2023.

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