What Happened To The Kidnappers From The Chowchilla School Bus Incident?

When parents see their children off to school each morning on the school bus, they do so with the tacit expectation that the journey is going to be a safe one. That's not always the case, however. For example, reports out of Tennessee, North Carolina, and Florida, among multiple others, have revealed school bus drivers using their cell phones while transporting children. In South Carolina, a school bus driver was fired for driving recklessly with a bus full of kids.

A couple of generations ago, an incident involving a school bus, its driver, and 26 children between the ages of 5-14 was much more serious than a matter of a driver being careless. As CBS News reports, in 1976 kidnappers hijacked the bus and then took it, and the children, to a quarry and buried them — alive. Fortunately, the bus driver and a teenage passenger, against overwhelming odds, managed to escape and secure rescue for the other children, all of whom survived. 

In August 2022, the last of the kidnappers was paroled from a California prison.

The Kidnapping

On July 15, 1976, school bus driver Ed Ray and 26 schoolchildren left summer school for home, not knowing that the next 24 hours would be the worst of their lives, as SFGate reports. At about 4:15 p.m., the bus was forced to stop because of a vehicle blocking the road. As Ray slowed the bus, an armed man appeared and hijacked the bus. The hijacker drove the bus about a mile before hiding it in the woods, and then forced Ray and the children into vans; CBS News would report that the children were told to jump from the bus to the vans so they wouldn't leave footprints. The kidnappers then drove around for 11 or so hours, the children in the "sweltering" vehicles, before arriving at a quarry in Livermore, California. The children and driver were then sent down a hole and into an old truck trailer. The kidnappers buried the vehicle. The vehicle had been fitted with toilets, provisioned with food and water, and ventilation pipes extending to the surface provided fresh air.

After about 12 hours, the roof was starting to cave in, and the children were running out of rations. "It was just a desperate situation ... We thought ... if we're going to die, we're going to die trying to get out of here," said victim Jennifer Brown Hyde. Ray and the kids devised an escape plan.

The Escape

Other than Ray, an adult man, the oldest person on the bus was a teenage boy, 14-year-old Michael Marshall, according to CBS News. The children stacked up mattresses so the two could reach a manhole cover at the top of the trailer, and they set about to the arduous task of removing it. From there, they started digging their way to the top. It took several "grueling" hours, but eventually, they broke free. The other children then began emerging from their ersatz grave, one by one, as "stunned" quarry workers looked on.

The kidnappers, for their parts, slept through it. Literally. According to SFGate, they were unable to call in their $5 million ransom demand because the phone lines in Chowchilla were swamped with calls from the media, and from frantic parents trying to locate their children. So instead they took a nap. When they woke up later, they were watching media reports of their hostages on TV, reuniting with their families.

The Kidnappers

It didn't take long for authorities to develop an idea of who was behind the kidnapping, considering that the number of people who had access to the quarry was limited. And as it turns out, according to a 2001 SFGate report, a principal suspect was the son of the man who owned the quarry, along with two of his friends.

Though wealthy, the three libertines apparently lived beyond their means, and they'd racked up debt. So they hatched a plan to hold the children for ransom, collect the money, pay off their debts, and "have a high old time ever after," as the newspaper describes it.

"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," said convicted kidnapper James Schoenfeld via a 2022 SFGate report.

James Schoenfeld, his brother Richard, and the son of the quarry owner, Frederick Newhall Woods IV, would all ultimately be captured, convicted, and locked away for decades.

The Kidnappers And The Children Today

In August 2012, Richard Schoenfeld was the first of the three kidnappers to be paroled. He was reportedly sent home, albeit with conditions, such as having to wear a GPS monitor, as The Almanac reported. "Mr. Schoenfeld no longer poses a threat to society. I am confident of our police department and know they will appropriately monitor him to ensure the safety of our community," Mountain View Mayor Mike Kasperzak said at the time.

James Schoenfeld was the next to be released, in August 2015. As Sfbay.ca reported, he had stated that he planned to live with his aged mother in Mountain View.

The last of the kidnappers to be paroled was Woods, who was granted parole in August 2015, according to SFGate. He'd been up for parole multiple times before, but had been rejected, for reasons including allegedly illegally running businesses, including a gold mine, from behind bars. He was/is reportedly quite wealthy and even purchased a mansion near the prison.

The children, not unexpectedly, suffered PTSD from the ordeal, including nightmares. Now in their 50s and 60s, some developed substance abuse issues. Some never talked to their own children about their ordeal. At least one refused to let her own children ride school buses.