Chowchilla kidnapping of July 15, 1976, On a summer day, a busload of children, aged 5 to 14, along with their 55-year-old bus driver, Ed Ray, were abducted on a country road in Madera County. Returning from a swim outing, the children and Ray found themselves ensnared in a nightmare. The bus was later discovered abandoned, covered in bamboo and brush, nine miles west of Chowchilla.
The victims, comprising 19 girls and seven boys, were driven for 11 agonizing hours in two vans before being entombed in a moving van buried in a Livermore rock quarry. After 16 harrowing hours underground, the children and their driver managed a miraculous escape, emerging near the Shadow Cliffs East Bay Regional Park.
The orchestrators behind this heinous act were Frederick Newhall Woods IV, then 24, and brothers James Schoenfeld, 24, and Richard Schoenfeld, 22, scions of affluent families. The motive, as revealed by James Schoenfeld during a parole hearing, was to secure a $5 million ransom. The trio believed that kidnapping children, perceived as vulnerable and precious, would increase the likelihood of the state paying the ransom.
Arrests and Legal Proceedings
Investigations led to the discovery of a rough draft of the $5 million ransom note on the estate of quarry owner Frederick Nickerson Woods. Arrests ensued, with Richard Schoenfeld voluntarily surrendering, James Schoenfeld arrested in Menlo Park, and Woods captured in Vancouver. The trial, initially in Madera County, was moved to Alameda County, where, in 1977, the perpetrators pled guilty to kidnapping for ransom.
In December 1977, a Superior Court judge found them guilty of three counts of kidnapping with bodily harm, leading to life sentences. Despite the severity of their crimes, Woods’ financial resources have played a role in extending his imprisonment.
Life Behind Bars
Recent investigations reveal that Fred Woods, still incarcerated at the California Men’s Colony prison in San Luis Obispo, has been conducting unauthorized business activities. Woods, a descendant of prominent California families, has reportedly been running businesses, including a Christmas tree farm, a gold mine, and a used car business, all from behind bars.
His financial prowess allowed him to settle a civil suit filed by the survivors in 2016. Despite ongoing parole hearings, Woods, now 70, remains incarcerated, facing disciplinary actions for unauthorized business dealings.
|July 15, 1976
|School bus, carrying 26 children aged 5 to 14 and bus driver Ed Ray, is abducted in Madera County.
|The victims are driven around for 11 hours in two vans before being buried alive in a moving van.
|July 17, 1976
|Victims manage to dig their way out and are found in a remote area near Shadow Cliffs East Bay Park.
|July 23, 1976
|Richard Schoenfeld surrenders voluntarily in Oakland and is held on $1 million bail.
|July 29, 1976
|Frederick Woods is captured in Vancouver, and James Schoenfeld is arrested in Menlo Park.
|November 5, 1976
|Madera County judge orders the trial moved to Alameda County.
|November 10, 1976
|Trial assigned to Alameda County.
|July 25, 1977
|Woods and Schoenfelds plead guilty to 27 counts of kidnapping for ransom; 18 counts of robbery dropped.
|December 15, 1977
|Trio found guilty of three counts of kidnapping with bodily harm.
|Sentenced to life in prison.
|Richard Schoenfeld paroled from prison.
|James Schoenfeld released from prison.
|October 8, 2019
|Fred Woods denied parole for the 17th time.
|August 17, 2022
|Fred Woods, last of the three, paroled.
Impact on Survivors
The survivors of the Chowchilla kidnapping, now adults, continue to grapple with the trauma inflicted upon them. Many suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and endure emotional scars that persist decades later. A recent “48 Hours” investigation highlights the ongoing struggles of the victims, emphasizing the profound impact the crime has had on their lives.
Parole Denials and Controversies
Despite numerous parole hearings, Woods has been denied release 17 times, with his most recent attempt on October 8, 2019. The parole board, citing unauthorized business activities, opted to postpone his next hearing to 2024 when Woods will be 72. His lawyer contends that Woods, now an elderly inmate, poses no threat and should be released.
Reflections on a Crime
As the Chowchilla community and the survivors reflect on this notorious crime, the question of motive remains central. Was it a misguided attempt at securing wealth, or was there a deeper psychological impetus behind the actions of these affluent perpetrators? The survivors, often referred to as the “little heroes of medicine” by psychiatrist Dr. Lenore Terr, serve as a poignant reminder of the enduring impact of trauma and the importance of prompt psychological intervention.
Business ventures, and parole hearings, the Chowchilla kidnapping stands as a stark testament to the resilience of the human spirit. The survivors’ stories, filled with courage and perseverance, underscore the vital role of therapy and counseling in overcoming the lasting effects of trauma.
The kidnappers believed that children, perceived as precious and vulnerable, would increase the likelihood of the state paying a $5 million ransom.
Woods has reportedly been involved in a Christmas tree farm, a gold mine, and a used car business.
Many survivors continue to suffer from PTSD and emotional scars, impacting their lives decades after the traumatic event.