Certain crimes leave indelible scars. Survivors carry the trauma with them for the rest of their lives. When 26 children vanished in Chowchilla, California, it knocked an entire community into a state of shock. Many theorized about who were responsible: cults, aliens, escaped convicts, drifters, serial k*illers, etc. The real story is perhaps even more illustrative of human nature.

A bus ride into a slough

On 15 July 1976, a school bus snaked along its route. Inside of the vehicle, kids waited for their stops after a recent trip to a swimming pool at the fairgrounds. The children, all between the ages of 5 and 14, rode the route to return home after their second-to-last-day of summer school.

At around 4:15 pm, the bus driver, Ed Ray, turned down Avenue 21. A white Dodge van blocked his progress. A guy jumped out from behind the vehicle. The stranger had a gun in his hand, nylon stockings on his head, and overalls.

The man forced Ed to open the bus’s door. Thereafter, two identical men forced their way in, ordered the passengers to the back of the bus, and drove it to another location. The white Dodge van followed the hijacked vehicle.

After only about a mile, the convoy came to a stop in a bamboo thicket, near the edge of an almond grove. The kidnappers forced the 27 passengers to jump from the bus into the loading bay of one of two waiting vans. They took this precaution to leave no identifiable footprints. Before they left, they covered the yellow bus with pieces of foliage.

Tombs await

In the back of the dark, humid van; time became a foreign concept. All in all, the drive took around 11 hours, but for the victims, who didn’t have access to water or food, it must have felt like an eternity. Jennifer Brown Hyde, 9 years old, saw through a crack how the kidnappers drank soda and joked with each other in the driver’s compartment. The moment she begged for mercy, they banged on the partition and told her to shut up.Photo of tied hands. Edited by the author. By lil artsy from Pexels.

At 3:30 am, the two vans arrived at a quarry in Livermore. One by one, they removed captives from the vans, after which they asked them their age, name, and other information. The kidnappers also took an item of clothing from each one. With this done, they lowered the person into a container with a ladder.

When all the captives were in the container in the dirt, the kidnappers lifted the ladder, covered the hole with a metal plate, placed large batteries on top of that, and capped it with plywood. The kids and Ed Ray were now in a prison. And to make matters worse, they noticed how the overhead soil’s pressure warped the metal roof of the space.

Parties search familiar faces

Meanwhile, in Chowchilla, a large group of parents had become concerned after their children failed to return to their homes. Law enforcement, civilian search posses, and a plane combed the area. During the evening hours of 15 July, the authorities discovered the school bus in the slough.

The only evidence that children had ever been in the vicinity was a few books, towels, and swimsuits nearby. People called the sheriff’s office with any kind of tip. Sheriff Ed Bates described the wave of interest:

As soon as these people kidnapped the children, every line was busy. So I called the FBI and told them. Next thing I know, I got 50 FBI agents down there. They called the telephone company and put up 30 or 40 phones.

Journalists also flooded Chowchilla. Residents pulled closer together, held communal church services, and hoped for the best outcome. Concerned parents gathered near the fire station to be the first to hear any news.

A long trek

Back in the container, the captives discovered the room had an air ventilation system. Chips, bread, water jugs, mattresses, and rudimentary toilets were also in the container. Among the children, 14-year-old Mike Marshall and 10-year-old Robert Gonzales became determined to escape captivity.

The two boys stacked the mattresses on top of each other to gain access to the blocked hole in the roof. Ed Ray and the boys then used all their strength against the weighted plate. After hours of work, they heaved the obstructions out of their way. Mike Marshall then used a piece of plywood to dig to the surface.

Aboveground, the quarry was dark and silent. It was 8 pm, on the 16th of July when everyone climbed out of the container. A quarry employee saw the haggard group, mistook them for intruders, and pushed the alarm. When they drew near, Ed Ray disclosed to the employee their true, shocking identity.Ed Ray and the children from his bus on a parade float (23 August 1976).

Roads lead to points

The police had received no ransom demands. Later, security guards at the quarry came forward to say they had seen three men dig in the location: Frederick Newhall Woods, James, and Richard Schoenfeld. A further wrinkle was that Frederick Newhall Woods’ father owned the quarry. The authorities had also traced a kidnap van to the group.Fred Woods, James Schoenfeld and Richard Schoenfeld (1976).

Law enforcement raided the estate of Fred’s dad, Frederick Newhall Woods III, where he had lived in an apartment garage. During their raids, they found thousands of damning pieces of evidence, including an undelivered ransom note. The handwritten note stated:

Put 2 1/2 million dollars in each of the suitcases, total 5 million

Use old bills

Have ready at the Oakland Police station

Further instructions pending until 10:05 PM Sunday

We are Beelsabub (sic)

Rick Schoenfeld soon surrendered to authorities in Oakland. Police officers pulled over James in Atherton, California. The last of the trio, Fred Schoenfeld, had flown to Vancouver, Canada. Undercover Canadian officers apprehend him in a post office, where he had sent and received letters from a friend. Frederick Newhall Woods, James and Richard Schoenfeld enter the Madera County Courthouse for a pre-trial hearing (20 October 1976).

Rick, James, and Fred received a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. What could have motivated these three guys, all of whom were in their 20s, to commit the crime? In the 2010s, James disclosed he had needed more money to buy an expensive car, in part because he needed to match up to his neighbor’s Ferraris.

All three became eligible for parole after their re-sentencing in 1982. After many applications, they received parole: Richard in 2012, James in 2015, and Frederick in August 2022. Although no one had died, their plan inflicted significant trauma on Ed Ray and the children. Many of the former captives would struggle to sleep or burst into tears at certain moments. The USA’s largest mass kidnapping had wounded many in ways they only discovered at later points.

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