Lawyers rally for school bus kidnappers' release

Retired California Appellate Justice William Newsom speaks at a news conference on calling for the parole for Chowchilla Bus Kidnappers in San Francisco, Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2011. Three men who kidnapped and hid a busload of California schoolchildren in a 1976 ransom attempt are up for parole again, and this time, they have the support of the judge, prosecutors and investigators who handled their notorious case. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
February 23, 2011 7:20:03 PM PST
The three men responsible for the largest mass kidnapping in United States history are now getting support for their release from an unlikely place. Thirty-five years ago, they kidnapped 26 children on a school bus in the Central Valley town of Chowchilla and held them in a Livermore rock quarry.

Their supporters come from the most unlikely sources, the ones who led the investigation, prosecuted them and heard their cases in court. They say the three are model prisoners and pose no risk if they are given their freedom

Supporters held a rally in San Francisco's Civic Center Wednesday, demanding parole for the kidnappers.

"None of them are a danger to society; they all have exemplary prison records," Richard Schoenfeld's attorney Scott Handleman said.

"They were just dumb kids and they paid a hell of a price for what they had done," ex-Madera sheriff's detective Dale Fore said.

"Nobody was physically injured, that's a huge factor in the case," retired appeals court Justice William Newsom said.

It happened on a sweltering July afternoon 35 years ago on a dirt road in Chowchilla. A van swerved in front of the school bus carrying 26 children. Driver Ed Ray stopped.

"Two guys came to the van, one poked me with a gun [and said], 'Get in the back seat,'" Ray said in 1976.

The kidnappers were in their early 20s. Brothers James and Richard Schoenfeld and Fred Woods were scions of rich Peninsula families. Their handwritten notes revealed a plan to kidnap a busload of kids for a $5 million ransom.

They drove their victims to a rock quarry in Livermore. The hostages were herded into a moving van trailer which the kidnappers had buried in the ground. Ray and the children were able to escape unharmed some 16 hours later. Their captors were later arrested.

Ray bought the bus many years ago and now stores it in a nursery

"I'm very sorry, deeply sorry for what I have done," James Schoenfeld said in 1993.

In interviews 18 years ago, all three apologized but the parole board has consistently denied freedom to Woods and the Schoenfelds. In 2008, the panel ruled that Richard Schoenfeld was suitable for parole but later changed its mind. His lawyers are now challenging that ruling with the state Supreme Court.

Schoenfeld's eldest brother John believes politics is keeping them in prison.

"It's bad politics to let a notorious criminal out of prison," John Schoenfeld said.

But kidnap victim Jodi Medrano is one of the victims who does not want them paroled.

"They did a number of emotional damage to all of us, including our families, our parents, our lives were never the same after that, never," Medrano said.

Woods and the Schoenfelds are now in their late 50s. If they are paroled, their families say they have a place to live and jobs waiting for them.

Load Comments