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Chowchilla Bus Kidnapper Wins Release From Prison

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Investigators at a Livermore quarry where kidnapped Chowchilla schoolchildren were buried, July, 1976. (CBS)

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CHOWCHILLA (CBS / AP) — One of three young men from wealthy families who kidnapped and hid a busload of California schoolchildren in a 1976 ransom attempt that captured the nation’s attention has gained his freedom after more than 35 years in prison, officials announced Friday.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said that it would release Richard Schoenfeld later this month to an undetermined location. An appeals court earlier this year ordered Schoenfeld’s immediate release after ruling the Board of Parole Hearings unfairly set his release date for 2021 even though it concluded he wasn’t a threat to society.

Schoenfeld remained locked up while CDCR appealed to the California Supreme Court. On Thursday, the high court notified CDCR that it was refusing to take the case.

“As such, CDCR does not have any legal option other than to release inmate Shoenfeld and will do so,” CDCR spokesman Luis Patino said Friday.

The cases of Schoenfeld and his accomplices—his brother John Schoenfeld and their friend Fred Woods—has become something of a cause celebre among lawyers, judges and others lobbying for reforms in the California parole system they view as too harsh. All three have good prison records and became eligible for release years ago, which has been opposed by many of the victims and some residents of Chowchilla. Chowchilla Mayor Janan Hebert and Mayor pro tem Jim Kopshever did not return messages sent to their government email accounts.

John Schoenfeld and Woods have parole hearings later this year.

Richard Schoenfeld’s attorney Scott Handleman didn’t return a phone call.

“After some 36 years, Richard Schoenfeld’s parole release is long, long overdue,” said Gary Dubcoff, John Schoenfeld’s attorney. “He worked extremely hard to rehabilitate himself, and my great hope is that his two codefendants, his older brother James Schoenfeld and Fred Woods, will soon follow him as they have worked equally hard and are equally worthy.”

Schoenfeld and his brother John Schoenfeld, who grew up as the sons of a podiatrist in Atherton, along with friend Fred Woods hatched their kidnap-for-ransom plan in 1976 after falling into debt because of a real estate deal gone sour. They spent 18 months working on the plan.

On July 16, 1976, they pretended their van had engine problems along Avenue 21 about 35 miles north of Fresno, prompting bus driver Ed Ray to pull over and park his bus of 26 summer school students.

The trio, who were wearing pantyhose on their heads, forced the victims into two vans and hid the bus in a creek bed. They drove about 100 miles to a Livermore quarry owned by Woods’ father and sealed the children and Ray in a trailer in a cave. They then left to make their $5 million ransom demand.

The Chowchilla Police Department was swamped with so many calls that the kidnappers couldn’t get through so they 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. Eventually, 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 Ray.

Ray, 91, died last month.

CDCR spokesman Patino, speaking generally about parole, said parolees are generally sent to the county of their last address before they entered prison, “but sometimes there are other considerations, such as the location of the victims.”

(Copyright 2012 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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