On July 15, 1976, kidnappers abducted 26 children, ages 5 to 14, and their school bus driver in Chowchilla, Madera County, California. The kidnappers eventually transported their victims from Chowchilla to a quarry in Livermore, and loaded them into a buried moving box truck. After about 16 hours, the driver and children were able to dig themselves out and escape unharmed. Police soon arrested the quarry owner’s son and his accomplices.
Kidnapping and escape
On July 15, 1976, twenty-six children and their bus driver were kidnapped in Chowchilla, California, by armed men who blocked the highway around 4:00 pm. The students, who were attending Dairyland Elementary School for summer school, were being dropped off on their way back from a field trip at the Chowchilla fairgrounds’ swimming pool. The kidnappers hid the bus in a drainage slough and drove the children and bus driver around in two vans for 11 hours, eventually taking them to a quarry (37°39′48″N 121°48′29″W) in Livermore, California. There, the kidnappers imprisoned the victims inside a buried moving van with a small amount of food and water, and a number of mattresses.
After many hours, bus driver Frank Edward “Ed” Ray and the children stacked the mattresses, enabling some of them to reach the opening at the top of the truck, which had been covered with a metal plate and weighed down with two 100–pound industrial batteries. They wedged the lid open with a stick, Ray moved the batteries, and they removed the remainder of the debris that blocked the entrance. After 16 hours underground, they emerged and walked to the quarry’s guard shack near the Shadow Cliffs East Bay Regional Park. All were in good condition.
Investigation, arrests, and convictions
The truck was registered to the quarry owner’s son, Frederick Newhall Woods IV. Under hypnosis the bus driver remembered the license number of one of the vans. Woods was arrested after fleeing to Vancouver, Canada. His accomplices, Richard and James Schoenfeld, surrendered to authorities in California. (James was caught shortly before he was able to do so.)
The kidnappers had been unable to phone in their ransom demand because telephone lines to the Chowchilla Police Department were tied up by media calls and families searching for their children. A draft ransom note was also found. Some details of the crime corresponded to details in “The Day the Children Vanished”, a story by Hugh Pentecost that was published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Daring Detectives (1969). A copy of this book was in the Chowchilla public library, and police theorized that it had inspired the kidnappers.
All three were sentenced to life in prison. Richard Schoenfeld was released in 2012. James Schoenfeld was paroled August 7, 2015.
Frederick Woods was denied parole on November 19, 2015 because he continued to minimize his crime and had disciplinary problems, including possession of a cell phone, pornography, and photos of naked children. He will not be eligible for another parole hearing for three years. Similar problems were noted at his 2012 parole hearing. Woods was married twice while in prison.
Frank Edward “Ed” Ray (February 26, 1921 – May 17, 2012) received a California School Employees Association citation for outstanding community service. Before he died in 2012, he was visited by many of the schoolchildren he had helped save. Every February 26 has been declared Edward Ray Day in Chowchilla.
A study found that the kidnapped children suffered from panic attacks, nightmares involving kidnappings and death, and personality changes. Many developed fears of such things as “cars, the dark, the wind, the kitchen, mice, dogs and hippies,” and one shot a Japanese tourist with a BB gun when the tourist’s car broke down in front of his home. Many of the children continued to report symptoms of trauma at least 25 years after the kidnapping, including substance abuse and depression, and a number have been imprisoned for “doing something controlling to somebody else.”
In popular Culture
The Chowchilla kidnappings were featured on episode 7 of season 2 of the program House of Horrors: Kidnapped, which airs on the American cable network Investigation Discovery. The episode, Buried Alive, first aired on April 21, 2015, and was told from the point of view of Michael Marshall, who at age 14 was the oldest of the children on the bus.
A two-hour made-for-TV movie about the event aired on the ABC Network on March 1, 1993 titled: They’ve Taken Our Children: The Chowchilla Kidnapping. It starred Karl Malden as bus driver Ed Ray, and Julie Harris as his wife. It was Malden’s final on-screen role before retirement.
A second season episode of Millennium, 19:19, involves the kidnapping of a busload of schoolchildren, as well as their bus driver, who are then taken to an aluminium quarry and hidden in an underground bunker.
A fourth season episode of Walker, Texas Ranger, involves the kidnapping of a busload of schoolkids buried alive in a landfill, with the kidnappers demanding a $10 million ransom.