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The1976 Chowchilla Kidnapping: When 26 Children And 1 Adult Were Buried Alive


On the afternoon of Thursday, July 15, 1976, Frank Edward "Ed" Ray, a 55-year-old school bus driver, was in charge of transporting 26 students from Dairyland Elementary School back home. These pupils had spent the day enjoying a summer excursion to the Chowchilla Fairgrounds swimming pool. At around 4 p.m., their journey was abruptly halted when a van obstructed the road ahead, forcing Ray to come to a stop. What followed was a harrowing ordeal: three individuals, their identities concealed by nylon stockings worn over their faces, emerged from the van and forcibly commandeered the bus. One of the men brandished a firearm at Ray, another took over as driver of the bus, while the third trailed behind in the van.

July 16, 1976: Police and parents inspect the Dairyland Union school bus after it was found near Chowchilla with all 26 students and driver missing. The man facing the camera is Denver Williams, whose daughter Lisa, 12, was among the missing.

The children and the school driver were transported to nearby shallow part of the Cowchilla River where they had stashed a second van nearby. Both vans had been meticulously prepared by the kidnappers to facilitate their scheme: the rear windows were painted black to obscure visibility, and the interiors were equipped with soundproof paneling, ensuring the silence of their captives during transit.

The interior of the trailer where the victims of the 1976 Chowchilla kidnapping were held.

Ray and the children were forced into the awaiting vans at gunpoint, then transported to the California Rock & Gravel quarry in Livermore. In the early hours of July 16, under continued threat of being shot, they were forced down a ladder, pass through a hatch, and enter a buried truck trailer. This trailer had been converted by the kidnappers into an underground cell, complete with ventilation systems and a rudimentary toilet facility, as well as provisioned with several mattresses and a modest supply of food and water. As each victim was moved from the van to the bunker, the assailants meticulously documented their identities, inscribing the name and age of each child on individual Jack in the Box hamburger wrappers. Once all the victims had been confined within, the kidnappers sealed off the entryway by removing the ladder, covering the hatch with a piece of sheet metal, weighting it down with two 100-pound industrial batteries, and ultimately concealing the opening under a layer of earth.



After enduring several hours of confinement, Ray and the older children utilised the mattresses to construct a makeshift platform, enabling them to access the hatch. With Ray's guidance, 14-year-old Michael Marshall deftly inserted a piece of wood into the opening, displacing the sheet metal and batteries, and diligently cleared away the remaining debris obstructing their escape route. Approximately sixteen hours following their initial imprisonment, Ray and the children successfully emerged from the underground bunker and embarked on a trek to the quarry guard's shack, located in close proximity to Shadow Cliffs Regional Park.

July 17, 1976: Alameda County Sheriff Tom Houchins briefs the news media at the Livermore quarry where the Chowchilla children were buried. They escaped through the shaft lower right in this photo

Subsequently, Alameda County sheriffs assumed responsibility for the rescued victims, promptly transporting them to Santa Rita Jail, the nearest facility equipped with medical personnel. There, the victims received comprehensive medical evaluations and treatment from jail doctors and EMTs, in addition to being provided with food and water. The sheriffs diligently recorded statements and gathered detailed descriptions of the kidnappers from the freed captives. Following their medical assessment and debriefing, the victims were safely escorted back to their families in Chowchilla.

Victims being escorted by sheriff's deputies after their escape

On July 16, the telephone lines connecting to the Chowchilla Police Department were inundated with calls from both media outlets and distressed families, rendering the kidnappers unable to communicate their demand for a $5 million ransom (equivalent to approximately $26.8 million in 2024). Consequently, they opted to postpone their ransom demand and went to bed Upon awakening later that evening, they were greeted by television news broadcasts reporting that the abducted victims had managed to liberate themselves and were confirmed safe.



Simultaneously, the FBI swiftly initiated an investigation into 24-year-old Frederick Newhall Woods IV, the son of Frederick Nickerson Woods III, who owned the California Rock & Gravel quarry. Investigators discovered Woods had possession of keys granting unrestricted access to the quarry premises and its amenities. Furthermore, it came to light that Woods, alongside his companions, brothers James and Richard Schoenfeld aged 24 and 22 respectively, had previously faced legal repercussions for their involvement in motor vehicle theft, resulting in probationary sentences.


Following the issuance of a search warrant, the FBI meticulously combed through Hawthorne, the expansive 78-acre estate situated in Portola Valley belonging to the Woods family. Within the confines of the younger Woods' bedroom, investigators unearthed a trove of incriminating evidence. Among the discoveries were journals, a draft of the ransom demand, assorted maps, meticulous notes, detailed plans, receipts pertaining to the procurement of the vans and trailer, counterfeit identification documents, one of the firearms utilised in the abduction, and the pivotal Jack in the Box hamburger wrapper inscribed with the names and ages of each abducted child.


The uncovered documents elucidated a comprehensive strategy, delineating intentions to orchestrate a ransom drop from a plane into the remote terrain of the Santa Cruz Mountains under the cloak of darkness, followed by clandestine retrieval operations. Additionally, investigators stumbled upon a rental contract for a storage facility, which upon inspection, yielded further damning evidence. Within this storage unit lay the very vans employed in ferrying the victims, alongside a conspicuous getaway vehicle - a Cadillac surreptitiously adorned with a coat of flat black night camouflage spray paint.



In the wake of their investigations, the FBI swiftly procured warrants for the apprehension of Woods and the Schoenfeld brothers. Eight days subsequent to the kidnapping, Richard Schoenfeld voluntarily surrendered himself to authorities. Two weeks later, James Schoenfeld was apprehended in Menlo Park. On that very day, Woods was arrested by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Vancouver.


James Schoenfeld later stated that despite coming from wealthy families, both he and Woods were deeply in debt:

"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. They will mind."

All three perpetrators pleaded guilty to charges of kidnapping for ransom and robbery. However, they adamantly refused to enter a guilty plea for the infliction of bodily harm, as a conviction on this count, alongside the kidnapping charge, mandated a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Despite their protestations, they faced trial on the bodily harm charge, where they were ultimately found guilty and handed down the mandatory sentence.


The abductors entering the courthouse for a pre-trial hearing

Nevertheless, their convictions faced a legal challenge, resulting in a significant turn of events. An appellate court overturned their convictions, ruling that the physical injuries sustained by the children, predominantly cuts and bruises, did not meet the legal threshold for bodily harm as defined by the law. Consequently, they were resentenced to life imprisonment with the potential for parole.

Richard Schoenfeld regained his freedom in 2012, while James Schoenfeld was granted parole on August 7, 2015, marking the culmination of a complex and protracted legal saga.


In 2016, a worker's compensation lawsuit brought against Woods unearthed startling revelations: despite his incarceration, Woods had been clandestinely operating multiple businesses, including a gold mine and a car dealership, without disclosing these activities to prison authorities. As the scion of two affluent California families, the Newhalls and the Woods, he had inherited a substantial trust fund from his parents, purportedly valued at $100 million (equivalent to $127 million in 2023) according to court documents, although Woods' legal representative contested this figure.



Despite repeated attempts, Woods faced a series of setbacks in his quest for parole. In October 2019, his parole bid was denied for the 19th time. Reasons cited for these denials ranged from his persistent downplaying of the severity of his crime to disciplinary infractions such as possession of contraband pornography and unauthorised mobile phone use. Remarkably, Woods, while incarcerated, entered into three marriages and even acquired a mansion located approximately thirty minutes away from the prison.


However, a pivotal turn of events occurred in March 2022, when a panel comprising two commissioners recommended Woods for parole. This recommendation necessitated approval from the full parole board, the board's legal division, and California's governor. Despite Governor Gavin Newsom's request for reconsideration, the decision to grant Woods parole was ultimately affirmed. On August 17, 2022, it was reported that Woods had been granted parole and was slated for release from prison.


Ray's heroic actions during the Chowchilla kidnapping were recognised posthumously with a California School Employees Association citation for his exceptional community service. Prior to his passing on May 17, 2012, Ray was visited by numerous schoolchildren whose lives he had valiantly saved. In 2015, Chowchilla honored Ray's memory by renaming the Sports & Leisure Park as the Edward Ray Park, and designated every February 26—Ray's birthdate—as "Edward Ray Day".


Aug. 22, 1976: Bus driver Ed Ray is surrounded by some of the children he is credited with rescuing as Chowchilla celebrates “Ed Ray and Children Day,” with parade, speeches and barbecue.

However, the enduring trauma inflicted upon the kidnapped children reverberated long after their harrowing ordeal. A comprehensive study revealed a myriad of psychological scars, including panic attacks, recurring nightmares featuring themes of abduction and mortality, and profound personality alterations. Many of the victims developed debilitating phobias, ranging from fears like cars and darkness to more obscure fears such as the wind, kitchen appliances, rodents, dogs and hippies. Tragically, the repercussions extended beyond psychological distress, with one individual resorting to aggression, shooting a Japanese tourist with a BB gun when their vehicle broke down near his residence.

Frederick Woods, James Schoenfeld and Richard Schoenfeld

Even decades later, a significant portion of the abducted children continued to grapple with the aftermath of their trauma, manifesting symptoms such as substance abuse and depression. Disturbingly, some individuals found themselves ensnared in the criminal justice system, perpetrating acts of control and coercion upon others. The treatment and support provided to these young victims of trauma have been informed by the enduring legacy of the Chowchilla kidnapping, highlighting the profound and lasting impact of such traumatic events on the lives of those involved.


It's an unexpected twist that the reason the kidnappers committed their crime was they aimed to fund the restoration of the Victorian Rengstorff House in Mountain View, California, using the ransom money.

 



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