FORGOTTEN BUSINESS. The kidnapping of the Chowchilla children, the day a whole school bus flew away

FORGOTTEN BUSINESS.  The kidnapping of the Chowchilla children, the day a whole school bus flew away

On July 15, 1976, 26 children between the ages of 5 and 14 were kidnapped on their way home on a school bus. Closer returns to this incredible case.

It is one of the most significant kidnapping cases in American history. On July 15, 1976, a school bus was pulled over by a van on a country road in Chowchilla, California. On board, 26 children aged 5 to 14 and their driver, Frank Edward Ray, 55, who brought them back from the municipal swimming pool. Within seconds, the driver and his 27 passengers were taken hostage by three men. Once the bus is abandoned in a swamp, they are transported in vans nearly 200 kilometers from Chowchilla, to a quarry in Livermore. There they find hell.

At gunpoint, the children and their companion are thrown into a truck hidden underground. They discover a few mattresses and food there, before their executioners close the door behind them, burying them alive. “I wondered what it would be like to die. I was so scared I couldn’t move”, remembered Larry Park, one of the kidnapped little boys, in CBS Mornings, in 2019. Left to their fate in the almost total darkness, the children stack the mattresses to reach the door of the truck, but this one is covered with metal and several dozen industrial batteries. Soon the ceiling starts to sag, but 14-year-old Ed Ray and Michael Marshall aren’t losing hope. After sixteen hours of nightmare, they end up freeing the passage and getting the hostages out, barely aware of the horror they have just escaped…

A whirlwind investigation

While in Chowchilla, the news of the unexpected escape of the hostages reaches the ears of the families, the police of the county of Madera open an investigation. Authorities’ suspicion quickly turned to Frederick Newhall Woods IV, a 24-year-old man with access to the land on which the truck was buried. His friends, James Schoenfeld, 24and his brother Richard Schoenfeld, 22are also suspected, especially since they have already been convicted of motorcycle theft.

To everyone’s relief, the first intuitions of the police are the right ones. Richard Schoenfeld, the youngest of the three kidnappers, surrenders eight days after the kidnapping. His accomplices, James Schoenfeld and Frederick Woods, were arrested at the beginning of August 1976. They will declare that they acted in the hope of obtaining a ransom of up to 5 million dollars to repay their debts. However, following the disappearance of the bus, the telephone lines had been so saturated that they had not been able to contact anyone to make their request. “We needed several victims to obtain several millionSchoenfeld would explain years later, and we took children because they are precious. The state would have paid a ransom for them. And they don’t hit back. They are vulnerable.”

He received all his life the visit of the children he saved

It was without counting on the determination of a teenager and the only adult present on the scene. Died in 2012, Ed Ray received an award for service to the state. He was visited throughout his life by the children he saved. Richard Schoenfeld, James Schoenfeld and Fred Woods were sentenced to life in prison. The first was granted parole in 2012, the second in 2015. As for the third, he was released in August 2022 after 20 attempts. He is 70 years old.

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