SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Fred Woods and brothers Richard and Jim Schoenfeld captured the nation’s attention in 1976 when they used guns and nylon masks to commandeer a Chowchilla school bus and buried the 26 children and driver in a truck underground.
It wasn’t long, however, before the kidnappers fell asleep long enough for their captives to escape without any serious injuries. The men — all in their mid-20s — were soon arrested, convicted and sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.
The case has now taken an even more unusual turn, with the judges, prosecutors and investigators who sent the men to prison rallying in support of their push for parole.
“They were just dumb, rich kids and they paid a hell of a price for what they did,” said Dale Fore, who served as lead investigator on the case for the Madera County Sheriff’s Department.
Fore was among a group of supporters who attended a news conference Wednesday to draw attention to the case at San Francisco Civic Center, near the state Supreme Court building.
“I might not be the most popular guy when I get back home,” Fore said, acknowledging that no victims have publicly supported parole for the three men. “But what is right is right. How much time do you want out of these guys?”
Retired Court of Appeal Justice William Newsom, who overturned the three men’s original sentence of life in prison without parole, noted that nobody was injured in the kidnapping.
“That’s a major factor,” he said. “I think it’s a gross injustice.”
On Wednesday, Richard Schoenfeld formally petitioned the state Supreme Court to grant him parole. Supporters also demanded the release of his two accomplices.
The three men have been denied parole numerous times since they were sentenced in 1978. Woods was last turned down in 2009 and can re-apply next year.
The Parole Board found Richard Schoenfeld suitable for parole in 2008 then rescinded its decision.
His brother John Schoenfeld said the three men had fallen into debt because of a real estate deal gone sour and hatched the elaborate kidnap-for-ransom plan involving the bus as a way to rid themselves of financial worry.
They spent 18 months working on the plan. On July 16, 1976, they pretended their van had engine problems, prompting bus driver Ed Ray to pull over and park his bus full of summer school students as it traveled on Avenue 21 about 35 miles south of Fresno.
The men moved in, forcing the victims into two vans and hiding the bus in a creek bed. They drove about 100 miles north to Livermore to a quarry owned by Woods’ father and sealed the children and Ray in a trailer in a cave then left to make their $5 million ransom demand.
The Chowchilla Police Department was swamped with so many calls that the kidnappers 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 of the trailer. It wasn’t long before 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 the heroic bus driver.
“The kids suffered terribly,” said Paul Yates, who was then the principal of two elementary schools attended by many of the victims. “But I don’t believe they should spend the rest of their lives behind bars.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)