On July 15, 1976, three gunmen k*idnapped 26 children and their driver off a Chowchilla, Calif., school bus. The ki*dnappers buried the victims inside a truck trailer at a Livermore, Calif., quarry.
Then ransom was demanded.
In an April 3, 2011, Los Angeles Times article, Diana Marcum reported:
From Chowchilla, California: It’s easy for most people to remember where they were when the bus with all those kids disappeared. Because of how small towns work, the links to that dark time are personal.
Lois Rambo works at the Chowchilla Pioneer Market Cafe’s lunch counter. She says that her daughter would have been on that bus if she hadn’t been sick that day and missed school. Someone who runs a salon on the square named Jodi Heffington Medrano was one of the kids who went missing.
People of all ages know about the Chowchilla ki*dnappings. Some people can’t even remember a time when they didn’t know about them.
In this San Joaquin Valley town 35 years ago, three young men from wealthy families took a bus full of 26 schoolchildren and the driver hostage and buried them in a rock quarry. It’s the biggest ki*dnapping for ransom in U.S. history and one of the strangest crimes in California. People from other states still associate the name “Chowchilla” with it…
Moving van trailer used to house the Chowchilla victims when they were discovered by authorities at the Livermore quarry, July 20, 1976. (The Los Angeles Times/Boris Yaro)
In 1976 was the year. It was the last day of summer school, July, very hot. The large, yellow school bus from Dairyland Unified was trundling down rural roads that were adorned with fruit trees, much like they still are.
Ed Ray, the bus driver and farmer, was raised in Chowchilla. All the children he knew. A few of them were his own classmates’ grandkids. Ages of the group varied from 5 to 14. Monica Ardery, the youngest, would inquire if the man wearing pantyhose over his face and with his legs dangling like ears, was the Easter Bunny. Mike Marshall, the eldest, was a cowboy from the rodeo circuit.
A white van that was stopped in the road caught Ray’s attention. To see if it was someone experiencing engine problems, he decelerated. After jumping out, three shooters took control of the bus and drove it into a dry canal bottom, where a second vehicle was waiting.
Ray and the kids were pushed into the back of the two vans. They were driven for 11 hours without water or bathroom breaks. The younger kids got sick from the motion, and the older kids sang songs like “Boogie Nights,” “Love Will Keep Us Together,” and “If You’re Happy and You Know It Clap Your Hands” to make them feel better. “If you’re sad and you know it…” was changed.
They got to a Livermore quarry at 3:30 a.m., 100 miles away from Chowchilla. These people took them and made them give their name and an item of clothing. They then made them climb down a ladder into a moving van that was buried. Mats that were dirty and water bottles were lined up along one wall. With only two air tubes, it was stuffy. Men on top of them began throwing dirt off the roof. Kids screamed. One passed out.
Ray tried to make them feel better, but he was crying. He was sure the roof would fall in.
Marshall said he wasn’t going to let himself die without trying to escape. Along with Marshall and the older boys, Ray stacked the mattresses and climbed on top of them. They then used wooden slats to remove a steel plate from the van’s roof that was blocking the hole they had used to get in. The plate was held down by two tractor batteries.
To keep from getting too tired from the heat, they poured water over their heads and kept pushing until the plate moved.
After being buried for 16 hours, the children of Chowchilla climbed out.
Fred Woods, who was caught was the son of Frederick Woods III and owned both the quarry and a 100-acre estate in Portola Valley. The other two were Richard and James Schoenfeld, who were the sons of a wealthy podiatrist in Menlo Park. Within weeks, all three were caught, found guilty of ki*dnapping with injury, and given life sentences without the possibility of parole.
Over the years, the law changed and people tried to get parole.
At the time of the k*idnapping, Frederick Newhall Woods IV was 24 years old. He had been denied parole several times until August 2022. At last, when he was 70 years old, he was given full parole.
James Schoenfeld, who was also 24 at the time of the ki*dnapping, got parole when he was 63 years old in 2015.
When he was ki*dnapped, Richard Schoenfeld was 22 years old. He got out of prison in 2012, when he was 57 years old.
July 17, 1976: Officers escort chidren from Greyhound bus upon their return to Chowchilla at 4 a.m. (Rick Meyer / Los Angeles Times)
Aug. 22, 1976: Chowchilla ki*dnapping bus driver Ed Ray and children at a parade held in his honor. (Art Rogers / Los Angeles Times Archive / UCLA)