On July 15, 1976, school bus driver Frank “Ed” Ray was driving home 26 students from Dairyland Elementary School who had attended a summer class trip to the Chowchilla, California, fairgrounds swimming pool.
He had to stop due to a van blocking the road and was immediately approached by three men holding guns who had stockings over their faces. The men hijacked the bus and drove to an area of the Chowchilla River where they had stashed a second van, which, like the first, had a blackened back window and reinforced interiors. The hijackers forced Ray and the children into the two vans and abandoned the bus, driving around for 11 hours before taking the victims to a quarry in Livermore, California.
In the early morning hours of July 16, the kidnappers forced Ray and the children into a truck trailer they had buried underground. The vehicle was stocked with food, water, and mattresses, as well as a ventilation system and toilets.
Once the kidnappers had fallen asleep, Ray and some of the older children gathered the mattresses and stacked them so they could reach an opening at the top of the trailer. The top of the trailer had been covered with a heavy piece of metal and weighed down with industrial batteries, but Ray and Michael Marshall — who was 14 at the time and the oldest of the kidnapped children — managed to get the lid open and dig their way out. They then helped all the other children out of the trailer, and the group walked to the guard shack at the quarry.
After Ray and the children were safe, police quickly looked at the quarry owner’s son, Frederick Woods IV, as a potential suspect. Woods had keys to the quarry and would have had plenty of time to bury the truck. He and his two friends, James and Richard Schoenfeld, also had a previous conviction for motor vehicle theft.
Police obtained a search warrant for the home of Woods’ father, and discovered a gun used in the kidnapping and the draft of a ransom note demanding $5 million that was never sent to authorities.
By the time police searched the home, Woods and the Schoenfeld brothers were gone. Two weeks after the kidnapping, Woods was found in Vancouver, British Columbia. James was found the same day in Menlo Park, California. Richard had already turned himself in days earlier.
Ed Bates, the Madera County sheriff at the time of the kidnapping, told Vox that the kidnappers’ plan “was pretty ingenious.”
“They were going to drive up the coast to someplace heavily wooded, then go back inland and have airplanes patrol for 200 miles up and down the area until they saw a certain series of lights indicating [the drop site]. Then the money was to be dropped on them, and they’d be gone. By the time they had the money, nobody would be able to get there. You just can’t stake out 200 miles,” Bates said.
All three men pleaded guilty to kidnapping but denied harming the children or Ray. They were later convicted of infliction of bodily harm and sentenced to life without parole. Those sentences were overturned after it was determined the minor injuries on the children didn’t meet the standard for bodily harm. All three were then sentenced to life with the possibility of parole.
Richard Schoenfeld was released on parole in 2012, while his brother, James, was released in 2015. In March of 2022, Woods was approved for parole after more than 17 previous denials, The Daily Wire reported, but it still had to be finalized and reviewed by Governor Gavin Newsom (D-CA). Newsom asked the state’s parole board to reconsider Woods’ release in mid-August of this year, but the board affirmed its previous decision.
Newsom requested the reconsideration in part because Woods “continued to engage in financial related-misconduct in prison,” the governor said, adding that Woods had used a contraband cellphone to offer advice to people operating a Christmas tree farm, a gold mining business, and a car dealership, The Associated Press reported. Because Woods wasn’t convicted of murder (all the children and the bus driver survived), Newsom couldn’t block his release.
It is unclear when Woods will be released, with officials citing safety concerns as the reason his release date had not been disclosed.