But Richard Schoenfeld, 54, won't be released from prison anytime soon because the panel's ruling at a hearing recently is only "the first step in a rather long process," state Board of Parole Hearings spokesman Bill Sessa said.
The hearing was held Nov. 5 at the California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo, where Schoenfeld is serving a life prison term for his crime.
Schoenfeld, his brother, James Schoenfeld, and Frederick Woods were in their early- to mid-20s when they ambushed a busload of school children July 15, 1976, from Dairyland Union School in Chowchilla, a small farm community about 35 miles south of Fresno. The men left the bus camouflaged in a creek bed and drove the children and bus driver, Ed Ray, to the California Rock and Gravel Quarry in Livermore. The kidnappers sealed their victims in a large van that had been buried in a cave at the quarry and fitted out to keep the children and driver hostage.
The kidnappers then demanded a $5 million ransom for the return of the 26 children and driver. The hostages escaped from the buried van more than 24 hours after they were first kidnapped when Ray and the two oldest children piled mattresses to the top of the van and forced their way out.
The Pleasanton Weekly had an extensive story on the kidnappings in August 2006, revisiting the case 30 years later. To see that story, visit www.pleasantonweekly.com/story.php?story_id=994.
The three men received life sentences after pleading guilty in 1977 to 27 counts of kidnapping for ransom. Richard Schoenfeld had been denied parole 20 times before the panel decided he was suitable for parole.
Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Jill Klinge and Madera County District Attorney Ernest LiCalsi told the panel at the Nov. 5 hearing that they still believe Schoenfeld is unsuitable for parole. But a ruling by the California Supreme Court in August made it more difficult for the panel to find Schoenfeld unsuitable for parole. Previously, even a model prisoner serving a life sentence could be denied parole based on the gravity of the crime.
But now the parole board must find an additional factor showing the inmate could be dangerous in order to deny parole repeatedly. On April 28, James Schoenfeld was denied parole for two years. It was the 16th time he had been denied parole. Woods has a parole hearing scheduled for Jan. 5. He has been denied parole 11 times.
Sessa said the decision by the two-person panel will now be subjected to an administrative review by the Board of Parole Hearings that will determine if the decision is supported by all the evidence. The review can take up to four months. If the decision that Richard Schoenfeld is suitable for parole stands, the review also will calculate a date at which he could be released, according to Sessa.
The calculation will be complicated because Schoenfeld was convicted of 27 counts, which is many more counts than most inmates serving life terms, Sessa said.
If the administrative review upholds the decision that Schoenfeld is suitable for parole, the case then will go to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for his review. Schwarzenegger can then refer the decision to the full 12-person parole board for more review, Sessa said.
The full board can uphold the decision or reverse it, he said. Even if the decision that Schoenfeld is suitable for parole stands, it "probably will be sometime in the future" before he is released, Sessa said.