Supporters Call For Release Of Notorious ’76 Chowchilla Kidnappers

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS/AP) — Fred Woods and brothers Richard and Jim Schoenfeld captured the nation’s attention in 1976 when they used guns and nylon masks to commandeer a Chowchilla school bus and buried the 26 children and driver in a truck underground.

It wasn’t long, however, before the kidnappers fell asleep long enough for their captives to escape without any serious injuries. The men — all in their mid-20s — were soon arrested, convicted and sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

KCBS’ Barbara Taylor Reports:

The case has now taken an even more unusual turn, with the judges, prosecutors and investigators who sent the men to prison rallying in support of their push for parole.

“They were just dumb, rich kids and they paid a hell of a price for what they did,” said Dale Fore, who served as lead investigator on the case for the Madera County Sheriff’s Department.

Fore was among a group of supporters who attended a news conference Wednesday to draw attention to the case at San Francisco Civic Center, near the state Supreme Court building.

“I might not be the most popular guy when I get back home,” Fore said, acknowledging that no victims have publicly supported parole for the three men. “But what is right is right. How much time do you want out of these guys?”

Retired Court of Appeal Justice William Newsom, who overturned the three men’s original sentence of life in prison without parole, noted that nobody was injured in the kidnapping.

“That’s a major factor,” he said. “I think it’s a gross injustice.”

On Wednesday, Richard Schoenfeld formally petitioned the state Supreme Court to grant him parole. Supporters also demanded the release of his two accomplices.

The three men have been denied parole numerous times since they were sentenced in 1978. Woods was last turned down in 2009 and can re-apply next year.

The Parole Board found Richard Schoenfeld suitable for parole in 2008 then rescinded its decision.

His brother John Schoenfeld said the three men had fallen into debt because of a real estate deal gone sour and hatched the elaborate kidnap-for-ransom plan involving the bus as a way to rid themselves of financial worry.

They spent 18 months working on the plan. On July 16, 1976, they pretended their van had engine problems, prompting bus driver Ed Ray to pull over and park his bus full of summer school students as it traveled on Avenue 21 about 35 miles south of Fresno.

The men moved in, forcing the victims into two vans and hiding the bus in a creek bed. They drove about 100 miles north to Livermore to a quarry owned by Woods’ father and sealed the children and Ray in a trailer in a cave then left to make their $5 million ransom demand.

The Chowchilla Police Department was swamped with so many calls that the kidnappers decided to take a nap before calling in their demand.

When they awoke, Ray and the two oldest children had managed to stack mattresses high enough to escape through the roof of the trailer. It wasn’t long before all the abductees staggered to safety.

Richard Schoenfeld turned himself in eight days later. His brother and Woods were arrested the next week.

The case was turned into a 1993 made-for-television movie titled “They’ve Taken Our Children: The Chowchilla Kidnapping,” starring Karl Malden as the heroic bus driver.

“The kids suffered terribly,” said Paul Yates, who was then the principal of two elementary schools attended by many of the victims. “But I don’t believe they should spend the rest of their lives behind bars.”

(© 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

  • CIndy

    let them rot this still HAUNTS me

    • gene ray

      can’t wait till the charie manson supporters start up………….

  • Citizen

    I was a child and they were buried a few miles from where we lived! This was horrifying! I can’;t believe that anyone thinks 33 years for burying 26 children ALIVE is enough!

  • Holdwine

    Kick ’em out if they’re really not dangerous. Why should taxpayers foot the bill for their room, board, and health care? However, if there is any chance that they are still a menace to society, … .

    • JBlevins

      Do you really think letting them out will benefit taxpayers? These guys must be in their 50’s. Who will employ, house and feed them? They will get welfare and use our taxpayer dollars for free money, housing and medical. The true cost of providing welfare is greater than the cost of their jail cell.

      • Sadie Girl

        These young men are from wealthy families that are fully able to take care of them.

  • Bay Area W

    If you were alive when this happened, then you would remember how horrific this crime was and how the outcome could have been very different if the children didn’t escape. A life sentence means a sentence in prison FOR LIFE!

  • Sandy F

    agree on that one..Holdwine..It will be harder on the outside for X FELONS to find work etc..unless they have rich families who WANT to support and be associated with them. yuk

  • Sandy F

    does anyone know why they have the support of all the prosecutors, judge and investigators??

    • pauldsummer

      Because California is broke…it cost nearly 45K a year to house each prisoner!

  • Sam Mallory

    “then you would remember how horrific this crime was and how the outcome could have been very different ” um…. first off nothing happened to the children and it was not horrific. Horrific is what would have happened if there intentions where to hurt them. Have you spoken with the 2 men? Do you remember there financial situation and why they where so desperate for cash? No you have no clue your just a typical person who thinks the media is always right…who thinks the emotions of a thousand ill informed jerks are right….Personally I think the only ones who know any of these answers are the doctors and officials that they have sen over the years locked up. Either way I will assume that 30+ years in a state pen won’t make you such a nice person.

    • CC

      These guys were rich local boys who plotted for several months how to bury the kids and the school bus driver. It was when the police started to hunt for them they ran away, one of them even tried to hide in Canada.
      The kids are grown and some have not recovered from being buried in that hot hole in the ground. I was only a kid at that time and it scared me to think that somebody out there could do that to me.
      They are best left where they are until the kids say it is time for them to come out.

    • p. hower

      These were rich kids. had lots of advantages. The kids were in bad shape and some never recovered.

      • thyestian

        where did you get that information?

  • Kiley

    These guys are whack jobs and should NEVER leave prison.

  • Rox

    why should these guys be treated any different than other LIFE SENTENCES? they were man enough to do the crime… they can do ALL the time….. LIFE!

    • Sweet Lady

      Their sentences included the possibility of parole. Many other criminals do much less time where lives are lost.

  • Rena

    This crime is so old let them out pick them in a halfway house make them demonstrate that they deserve to be amongst us productive people.

  • Jadǝ Purǝlica

    *Whew* I’m glad to know no one was killed (that was what I wanted to know since the article does not mention it).

  • wendi

    I’d like to know what the adults who were those children at that time think about this possible release? Yes, it’s expensive to house these individuals, but this act affected many people and families.

    • A kid from '76

      Well, as for myself (one of the kids) I feel no mercy for them. A life sentence is a long time, that is the idea.

      This article makes it sound like the guys gathered up a bunch of kids and then just fell asleep and we all ran off, no harm done. That would be a slight understatement. They drove 26 kids and an adult around in the back of two normal sized vans in wooden/metal boxes, during the afternoon and night in the valley in July. Do you know how hot that is? Sucking air from cracks and worse. They drove long enough to refuel and then drove further.

      Then at night they took each kid out of the van, alone in the dark, three masked adults with guns and a kid and a dark hole in the ground. I really thought I was going to be killed in the next few seconds. I remember being very sad that I wouldn’t see my family again. They took clothing items and personal information. That was the worst moment for me (and there were some bad ones). No shot came, I went down into the hole with Mr. Ray who was sent down there just before me.

      They buried us deep underground with a segmented tunnel leading down to a truck trailer. The tunnel was later filled with plywood partitions, huge diesel truck batteries and a lot of dirt. This wasn’t just a casual burying of kids (a little dark humor there). I guess they had a small tube with an old, small electric fan connected to a battery to ventilate this thing (for 27 people!!!). That died. That hole was dark, dirty and not a place for kids to be hanging out. Contrast that with some napping rich kids. Then they couldn’t make their calls and switched to skipping the country. They never tried to tell where they left us. They were surprised when they heard we escaped. It was another flaw in their plan. If we had not escaped we would have died and it would have been easier for them to get away with it. Since we were buried on their family’s property how were they going to release us without implicating themselves? Certainly there wasn’t a clean way to do it while they were in Canada or elsewhere. We would have died in there. We dug out in time to save our own lives. I (and others) thought we’d be shot as we escaped but we couldn’t stay buried. The lingering idea that these guys would return stuck with me for a long time even though they were captured.

      This reporter didn’t seem to dig beyond what these supporters were giving. What I’ve said isn’t anything new. I keep hearing that these guys should be released because it was such a dumb mistake for them when they were young. I don’t know anyone who has made anything close to this kind of mistake. This wasn’t just bad judgement from poorly raised young adults. This was deeper than that in my opinion. The damage they caused wasn’t limited to the kids and Mr. Ray, the driver. The families took a hit as well.

      I wish to remain anonymous and I do not want to be contacted for any followup.

  • Denise

    They should stay in prison. I am disgusted that they intentionally endangered children for their profit. Just plain sick.

  • El Diablo Blanco

    I find it really interesting how we have different views of different crimes. Lets take this terrible act and compare it to lets say the Manson crimes. Manson and his cronies will never see the light of day. We know why. These guys should never see the light of day. The criminal mentality for both is the same. We would not be having this discussion if even one child died. We would not be paying 45 thousand a year (which is more than I make. )to house prisoners. Am I the only one who finds it apalling that it cost more to house a prisoner than most folks make annually. We need to adjust somewhere.

  • CMV

    these supporters…are they from Berkley?

  • Gary

    I’m a taxpayer and I want them to never enjoy a breath of freedom. They were going to let those children die. Shame on anyone who wants to set them free. Ask the victims and let them decide.

  • Ribin Bonker

    Cut their heads off, then they would have paid for their crime. Can’t believe these people are still alive. What happened to prison justice?
    I remember this as kid, this is why we have prisons..

  • curious

    They were from wealthy families from the town of Atherton. However, rich or poor means nothing for the crime they did. They were not wrapped right. From what I heard of them when I was growing up, they did some off wall things in class in Jr. High. And I can only imagine the nightmares some of the survivers have.

  • Long time Livermoron

    This still haunts me. I will never , ever forget that July afternoon/early evening when the kids and Ed Ray were found-helicopters flying low above my house in Livermore just less then a mile away. I drive by the site at least twice a week and still get the chills.
    the kidnappers paid their price? I don’t think so. Many of these kids are still having emotional problems. how come the story doesn’t say that?

    And there is some false information in your story. the kidnappers did NOT fall asleep to allow time for ed Ray to dig their way out. Get your story right before you print something

  • lcat

    This is just more ammunition for the death penalty. Life in CA doesn’t mean life. The only reason 27 people didn’t die is because they escaped. These animals were never going to let them go. They didn’t even give them water. I live 3 miles from where they were buried and I think about it still.

  • Beth

    I went to high school with one of the students. She still couldn’t sleep at night because of this. I can’t beleive anyone would want to let them out..What just becasue the students got lucky and escpaed and survied this, thats why these guys did there time…I don’t think so. They should never be set free.

  • A friend of a Kid on the Bus

    I am Friends with one of the Kids that was in the bus, and than Buried Alive. He is NOT OK to this day. This has and is still messing with his mind. Don’t tell me they did no harm to these kids. What they did to these kids will effect them for the rest of there lives. Just ask one of the kids. I have.

  • Someone who knows this story all too well...

    The emotional hurt and trauma that these “Chowchilla Children” went through was a wound indeed. Your parents whom I knew personally (who were dear, decent people), were hurt and put under stress because of your greed. And for what…money? Rich, spoiled kids who felt entitled, that their parents would just fork over free money to them! Completely sickening. You parents forgave you ( I know this personally), God forgives you, I don’t judge you, but don’t ever be surprised if society never forgives you. I hope that this story of greed is NEVER forgotten: that material goods should never be put before someone’s life, worse, a bus load of innocent children.

    • curious

      Perfectly said. I always wondered how there family was. Greed is exactly what it was. There were quite a few children from my schools (a few years behind them) in Menlo Park & Atherton who felt their parents would just hand it over…..sad.

  • Rambo

    Let these 3 rot in in jail. That is exactly what they planned to do to those children.

  • Rich Barlow

    I was involved in this case from start to finish. These “poor rich kids” did not hurt any of the children because the children saved themselves. They would have all died within hours of being buried in the gravle pit the kidnappers had left with no plan to return. They wanted the money to buy a big rig and pay for college, Frred Wood was very proud of what he had done and wondered who would play his part in the movie and how much they would make…Keep them in Jail.

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