1976 Chowchilla kidnapping

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On July 15, 1976, kidnappers abducted 26 children, ages 5-14, and their school bus driver in Chowchilla, California. The kidnapped victims were eventually transported from Chowchilla, California in Madera County to a quarry in Livermore, California and loaded into a buried moving box truck. After about 16 hours, they were able to dig themselves out and escaped unharmed. The quarry owner's son and his accomplices were quickly arrested.

Kidnapping and escape[edit]

On July 15, 1976, twenty-six children and their bus driver were kidnapped in Chowchilla, California by armed men blocking the highway around 4 p.m. The students, who were attending Dairyland Elementary School for summer 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 a drainage slough and drove the children and bus driver around in two vans for 11 hours, eventually taking them to a quarry in Livermore, California. There they were imprisoned inside a buried moving van containing 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 blocking the entrance. After 16 hours underground, they emerged and walked to the quarry's guard shack. All were in good condition.

Investigation and arrests[edit]

The truck was registered to the quarry owner's son, Frederick Newhall Woods IV, and under hypnosis the bus driver was able to remember the license number of one of the vans. Woods and his accomplices, Richard and James Schoenfeld, were arrested as they attempted to flee to Canada.

The kidnappers had been unable to deliver their ransom demand because phone lines were tied up by 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 written by Hugh Pentecost and published in Alfred Hitchcock's Daring Detectives (1969).[1] A copy of this book was in the Chowchilla public library, and police theorized it had been the kidnappers' inspiration.[2]

All three were sentenced to life in prison.[3] Richard Schoenfeld was released in 2012.[4] James Schoenfeld was granted parole in 2015 without a parole date being set.[5][6][7] Frederick Woods remains in prison; his next possible parole hearing will be in the fall of 2015.[8][9]


Frank Edward "Ed" Ray (February 26, 1921 – May 17, 2012) received a California School Employees Association citation for outstanding community service.[10] Before he died in 2012,[11] he was visited by many of the schoolchildren whom he had helped save.[12]

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,"[13] and one shot a Japanese tourist with a BB gun when the tourist's car broke down in front of his home.[14] 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."[15]

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.[16] 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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Alfred Hitchcock; Arthur Shilstone (1969) ''Alfred Hitchcock's Daring Detectives, Random House, New York ISBN 978-0-39481-490-2
  2. ^ "CRIME: Escape from an Earthen Cell". Time. July 26, 1976. Retrieved April 28, 2010. 
  3. ^ MacGowan, Douglas. "The Chowchilla Kidnapping". crimelibrary. Retrieved March 16, 2014. 
  4. ^ 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. 
  5. ^ "California kidnapper who ‘buried alive’ schoolchildren, bus driver in 1976 wins release from prison" (April 2, 2015) New York Daily News
  6. ^ "Chowchilla kidnapper granted parole at 20th hearing" (April 1, 2015) The Fresno Bee
  7. ^ "CALIFORNIA BRIEFING; SAN LUIS OBISPO; Parole granted in 1976 kidnapping" (April 2, 2015) Los Angeles Times, p. B4
  8. ^ "PChowchilla kidnapper granted parole at 20th hearing". Fresno Bee. April 1, 2015. Retrieved August 2, 2015. 
  9. ^ "Man Who Kidnapped Busload Of Kids Wins Initial Parole Approval" (April 2, 2015) Huffington Post
  10. ^ Hevesi, Dennis (May 18, 2012). Ray, Bus Driver During Kidnapping, Dies at 91. New York Times
  11. ^ Associated Press (May 18, 2012). Chowchilla kidnapping bus driver Frank Ray dies. San Francisco Chronicle
  12. ^ Smith, Joshua Emerson (May 17, 2012). Ed Ray, Chowchilla bus driver in 1976 kidnapping, dies. Merced Sun-Star
  13. ^ "Study Finds Trauma In Kidnap Victims". Merced Sun-Star (The Associated Press). January 20, 1981. 
  14. ^ Linda Witt (July 20, 1986). "A DECADE-OLD CRIME HOLDS A SMALL TOWN HOSTAGE". Chicago Tribune (TEMPO; Pg. 1; ZONE: C). 
  15. ^ 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). 
  16. ^ "House of Horrors: Kidnapped: "Buried Alive" (TV Episode)". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2015-04-22. 

External links[edit]