In the quiet town of Chowchilla, a chilling event opened out on July 15, 1976, forever etching itself into the collective memory of the community. The Chowchilla school bus kidnapping, where 26 children and their bus driver were abducted at gunpoint, remains a haunting chapter in the town’s history. As a new documentary by CNN sheds light on the survivors’ harrowing escape, it also brings to the forefront the indomitable spirit of the hero bus driver, Ed Ray.
|July 15, 1976
|Bus abduction and burial in the rock quarry
|July 16, 1976
|Escape of survivors and notification to authorities
|Death of Ed Ray
|Renaming of Sports & Leisure Park to Edward Ray Park
|December 3, 2023
|CNN documentary “Chowchilla” airs
The Kidnapping Ordeal
On that fateful summer day, three armed men halted the school bus carrying innocent children returning from a trip. The assailants, later identified as James Schoenfeld, Richard Schoenfeld, and Frederick Woods IV, drove the bus and its occupants over 100 miles, burying them alive in a makeshift bunker in a rock quarry.
The perpetrators demanded a staggering $5 million ransom, setting the stage for a 16-hour standoff that would challenge the survivors to their very core. In the face of unimaginable terror, the group, guided by their heroic bus driver Ed Ray, devised a plan to escape. They stacked mattresses, clawed their way to freedom, and, against all odds, sought help.
The Heroic Escape
Ed Ray’s quick thinking and courage foiled the kidnappers’ nefarious plot. In the CNN documentary released on December 3, 2023, survivors recount the nightmarish experience, with one victim, Jennifer Brown Hyde, expressing, “It’s been a life-long struggle of trying to be normal when your childhood is stolen from you, and my life was never the same from that moment at nine years old.”
Impact on Survivors
The trauma inflicted on the victims during those 16 harrowing hours reverberated throughout their lives. Larry Park, who was just six at the time, vividly remembers the event, stating, “Mike was Hercules. Mike was Sampson. Mike was the man that slayed the beast.” The survivors, now adults, still carry the scars of that dreadful day.
Ed Ray’s Legacy
Ed Ray, the bus driver hailed as a hero during the events, received posthumous recognition for his outstanding community service. Before his passing in 2012, Ray was visited by many of the schoolchildren he had saved. In 2015, Chowchilla honored him by renaming the Sports & Leisure Park to Edward Ray Park and dedicating every February 26 as “Edward Ray Day.”
The perpetrators, after being caught, faced charges of mass kidnapping, child abduction, attempted robbery, and psychological torture. Though initially sentenced to life without parole, their convictions were later overturned, and they were re-sentenced to life with the possibility of parole. By 2022, all three kidnappers had been granted parole, sparking controversy and reopening wounds for the survivors.
CNN’s Documentary Unveils the Untold Story
In a bid to immortalize the courage of the survivors and the heroism of Ed Ray, CNN released a documentary titled “Chowchilla” on December 3, 2023. The film features new interviews with survivors, offering a raw and emotional perspective on the enduring impact of the Chowchilla bus kidnapping.
Guided by their hero, Ed Ray, the survivors stacked mattresses and clawed their way out after a 16-hour ordeal.
The survivors, now adults, continue to grapple with the enduring trauma of the event, impacting their mental health and daily lives.
Initially sentenced to life without parole, the perpetrators later received a life sentence with the possibility of parole.