1976 Chowchilla kidnapping
The 1976 Chowchilla kidnapping was the abduction of a school bus driver and 26 children, ages 5 to 14, in Chowchilla, California on July 15, 1976. The three kidnappers imprisoned their victims in a buried box truck within a quarry in Livermore, California, intending to demand a ransom for their return. After about 16 hours underground, the driver and children were able to dig themselves out and escape.
The quarry owner's son, Frederick Newhall Woods IV, and two of his friends, brothers James and Richard Schoenfeld, were arrested and convicted of the crime. By 2015, both Schoenfelds had been paroled, while Woods remains incarcerated as of fall 2019.
On Thursday, July 15, 1976 at around 4 p.m., school bus driver Frank Edward "Ed" Ray was transporting 26 students from the 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 on Ray while another drove the bus; the third man followed in the van.
The kidnappers hid the bus in the Berenda Slough, a shallow branch of the Chowchilla River, where a second van had been stashed. Both vans had the windows in the back painted black and interiors reinforced with paneling. Ray and the children were herded into the two vans at gunpoint and then driven around for 11 hours before eventually being taken to a quarry ( ) in Livermore, California. There, in the early morning hours 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 a number of mattresses.
Bus driver Ray and the older children eventually stacked the mattresses, enabling some of them to reach the opening at the top of the truck, which had been covered with a heavy sheet of metal and further weighed down with two 100-pound industrial batteries. After hours of effort, Ray and the oldest boy, 14-year-old Michael Marshall, managed to wedge the lid open with a piece of wood and move the batteries; they then dug away the remainder of the debris blocking the entrance. Sixteen hours after they had been forced inside the buried truck, the group emerged and walked to the quarry's guard shack near the Shadow Cliffs East Bay Regional Park.
Arrests and convictions
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 grand theft auto, 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. Woods was caught two weeks after the kidnapping in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. 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.
The kidnappers had been unable to call in their intended ransom demand of $5 million 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 Friday the 16th and woke late that night to television news reports informing them that the victims had freed themselves and were safe. 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."
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). A copy of this book was in the Chowchilla public library, and police theorized that it had inspired the kidnappers.
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. Richard Schoenfeld was released in 2012 and James Schoenfeld was paroled on August 7, 2015.
In October 2019, Frederick Woods was denied parole for the 19th time; his next parole hearing was set for 2024. 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.
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 Woods, he inherited a trust fund from his parents that was described in one court filing as being worth $100 million (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.
Frank Edward "Ed" Ray (February 26, 1921 – May 17, 2012) received a California School Employees Association citation for outstanding community service. Before he died in 2012, he was visited by many of the schoolchildren he had helped save. Every February 26 has been declared Edward Ray Day in Chowchilla.
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", and one shot a Japanese tourist with a BB gun when the tourist's car broke down in front of his home. 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."
In 2016, the twenty-five 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."
In popular culture
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.
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. 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.
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."
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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...
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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.
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