Today, the long stretch of barren land along the west side of Isabel Avenue sits largely unnoticed by passing motorists and local residents.
But 30 years ago this summer, that now-quiet rock quarry, which lies between Livermore and Pleasanton, was cast into the national spotlight when 26 school children and their bus driver miraculously dug their way to safety after being buried alive for more than 16 hours. The children, who ranged in age from 5 to 14, mysteriously vanished on July 15, 1976 from their small farming community in the central California town of Chowchilla.
Their astonishing re-appearance in Livermore was a triumphant end to a shocking crime that had gripped the nation for more than 30 hours. Three decades later, local residents can still vividly recall the events of that fateful day.
"It was so bizarre that anyone who heard about it said, 'What? Buried children? In Livermore?'" said Helen Tirsell, who was mayor of Livermore at the time. "Everyone was alarmed at such bizarre actions of people amongst us."
"We couldn't believe such a crime could occur here. It was the talk of the town," recalled Barry Schrader, who was editor of the Tri-Valley Herald. "I was taking a friend from Illinois through the Livermore Police Department that night when all hell broke loose. They were shouting, 'We found them. We found them.'"
Schrader quickly followed police to the site, located on Isabel Avenue between Stanley Boulevard and Vineyard Avenue, before the area was cordoned off. A resident at a neighboring farm let him use her phone to call his news desk with the story.
"I had been following the story, but I didn't think it was anything that would affect our area. I had to come up to speed pretty quickly," Schrader recalled.
Jack Baugh, now retired from the Alameda County Sheriff's Department, was chief of the criminal division at that time, and while he had been informed about the children's disappearance 100 miles away, he never imagined they would end up in his area.
"I certainly wasn't looking for them," said Baugh, who led the investigation after the victims were found at the quarry. He later wrote a book about the case, "Why Have They Taken Our Children?" which was made into a television movie.
According to news accounts from the time, on July 15, 1976, the school children and their bus driver were headed home after a summer school outing in the town of Chowchilla, located in Madera County.
As they were driving along a country road, they came upon what appeared to be a broken down van on the side of the road. When the bus driver, 55-year-old Ed Ray, slowed to pass, a masked man appeared with a shotgun. He was soon joined by two others and they commandeered the bus. They drove it off the road, concealing it in the brush after loading the children and Ray into two vans.
After driving around for 11 hours, the vans stopped at the rock quarry in Livermore and Ray and the children were ordered to descend a ladder into a buried moving van. Equipped with mattresses, limited food and water and a few crude air vents, the kidnapping victims were buried alive.
The three kidnappers intended to demand a $5 million ransom, but were unable to get through on the two phone lines into the Chowchilla police department before Ray and the children escaped after 16 hours underground.
Soon after they emerged above ground, they were discovered by quarry workers who recognized them and quickly notified police.
Michael Maloney, a staff photographer at the time for the Tri-Valley Herald, was the only photographer to make it to the site before the children were moved.
"It was pretty surreal," he said. "I rushed out there with my camera, but I was only able to get to the gate. Police were already blocking the entrance."
Although Schrader told Maloney the Chowchilla children had been found, he didn't say whether they were dead or alive, recalled Maloney, now a photographer for the San Francisco Chronicle. "All I could do was sit there at the gate and wait."
A sheriff's bus soon emerged from the quarry, but in the darkness, he couldn't tell if there was anyone on it. As it pulled through the gate, the driver opened the door to check for oncoming traffic.
"There wasn't a single sound from inside. I raised my camera up high and did what's called a 'Hail Mary' shot. With the flash, I was only able to fire off three frames," he said.
He rushed back to his office and in the dark room was elated to see four little heads in his picture. "It was quite exciting."
Lieutenant Jim Knudsen of the Alameda County Sheriff's Department was a young deputy at the Old Santa Rita Jail that night. He vividly remembers getting the call that the children were being transported to the jail facility before their journey home and he was needed to help receive them.
"I will never forget that night," Knudsen said. "We had to change their clothes and help them get cleaned up. They were relieved to see the uniform, but they were in shock."
The children were given clean clothes brought over from the probation department and provided with something to eat and drink. In addition to their shock, the children were very embarrassed that they had soiled themselves, he recalled.
"But thank God they were all right," Knudsen said.
Someone had wisely thought to charter a new Greyhound bus for their long drive home and a couple of deputies rode on board with them, Knudsen said.
George Vien, a retired lieutenant in the Sheriff's Department, was the evening watch commander. "When I went to work that night, all the lights were lit up at Santa Rita and I thought there might have been an escape," Vien recalled.
He was shocked to discover the reason for the extra illumination that night. As watch commander, he fielded all incoming media calls and was on the phone from midnight to 6 a.m. talking to reporters from across the country. "I even took a call from the London Times," Vien added.
Working around the clock, investigators quickly identified the kidnappers as the son of the quarry owner, Fred Woods, and his friends, brothers James and Richard Schoenfeld. All three were caught within two weeks and in 1977, they were each convicted of kidnapping, robbery and ransom.
Baugh said the case was the highlight of his law enforcement career. All of the victims were safe and the case was resolved in two weeks. All of the resources of the Alameda County Sheriff's Department were at his disposal, as well as those of the San Mateo and Madera county departments.
"Anything I wanted, I got. Gov. Jerry Brown gave me a National Guard helicopter to fly the prints back and forth to the lab," said Baugh.
Livermore resident Dave Rezendes, president of Security Eye Patrol, provided an important piece of evidence that helped investigators link Woods and the Schoenfelds to the crime. His company provided weekend security to the quarry and eight months before the kidnapping, one of his guards called to tell him three young men were driving tractors on the property.
Rezendes contacted the plant manager who identified the men as the owner's son and his two friends. "He said the son had full run of the property," Rezendes recalled, adding that he advised his guards to nevertheless record the information in their log book. The guards also recorded license plate numbers, the arrival of a moving van onto the property and the fact that the young men used their own key.
After the kidnapping and subsequent discovery of the kids at the quarry, Rezendes said his business partner at the time, Gerald Bell, remembered the activity from months earlier.
"He started looking through the log book and called me and said, 'I think the police are going to want to see this,'" Rezendes said. The log book was quickly taken in as evidence and used to help justify a search warrant at the Woods home in Portola Valley, he recalled.
All three men were sentenced to life in prison and are currently incarcerated at the California Men's Colony, a medium security prison in San Luis Obispo. They have each made at least 11 appearances before the parole board and all requests have been denied.
"Those children could have all died had they not escaped," Schrader noted.
Baugh said it was shocking how dumb the kidnappers were in the planning and execution of one of the most notorious mass kidnapping cases in U.S. history.
"I don't think they ever considered that all the kids and the bus driver could have died of suffocation in that trailer," Baugh said, adding that he does not recall one of the men saying he was sorry for the crime.
Tirsell, the former Livermore mayor, doesn't think the kidnappers should ever be freed from jail.
"To do something like that to adults, is one thing. To do it to defenseless children is unforgivable. I think they forfeited their right to be free," she said. "I don't know that you can think of anything more gruesome than burying children alive."