Chowchilla kidnapping 30 years later | August 18, 2006 | Pleasanton Weekly | |

Pleasanton Weekly

Cover Story - August 18, 2006

Chowchilla kidnapping 30 years later

Former local residents remember the Tri-Valley's ties to this strange crime

by Elizabeth Campos Rajs

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."


Posted by H.A. Robbins, a resident of another community
on Aug 28, 2007 at 9:44 pm

I remember when this crime happened. I am watching the movie about this crime and was wondering how the children and Ed Ray are doing since the kidnapping. I think what happened to them is so horrible that the three young men who did this should never be released from jail.

If they can do something like this, they can commet any crime. They should never be given the chance to hurt amyone else again.

Posted by Karla, a resident of another community
on Jan 15, 2008 at 5:36 pm

I remember when this happened. I was 10 or 11 and I lived in New York. It scared me to death because there had also been a famous kidnapping of a little kid in NYC close to the same time. I read a book about it too. I am a counselor and I have thought about the fate of those children from time to time. I have always wondered what became of them and if they have been able to move on with their lives. I don't suppose that you could ever really get over something like that.

Posted by Suzanna Williams, a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood
on Jun 14, 2008 at 8:23 am

I grew up in Livermore and was in Chowchilla visiting my Grandparents when the Kidnapping happened. The entire town closed up no-one went out of their houses and no-one left. It was virtually a ghost town for those two days following the event. I remember that summer like it was yesterday I had broken my ankle on April's fools day amd my Parents were in Vegas so we were staying with our grandparents. When the children were found in Livermore it was too much for a ten year old girl to fathom. I have often wondered about those children and hope they are doing well and have been able to ease those memories of that horrible day .

Posted by Mary, a resident of another community
on Jul 15, 2008 at 9:07 pm

I will never forget that day. It was exactly 32 years ago today. I was 9 years old and those were all my friends and neighbors on that bus. The horror that those 3 men put our little town through could never be forgotten.

Posted by Shanna Ruth, a resident of another community
on Sep 20, 2008 at 10:44 pm

was nine years old when this happened and a resident of another California Central Valley town, Turlock. A friend of mine had just moved to Chowchilla and I so worried she was one of these children. I later found out she wasn't, but one of her cousins was on that bus. These children and Mr. Ray could so easily have died in that moving van in the quarry - the idea that those men could be paroled is sickening. They were more than old enough at the time to know better than to do what they did, and they made some very heinous, sick choices that could have resulted in an even worse tragedy than what did occur. Their lives should be lived out in a jail cell plain and simple... Shame on appellate court judge Newsom for thinking otherwise.

Posted by Ken, a resident of another community
on Oct 23, 2008 at 7:22 am

I read somewhere that the bus driver was sued. Who were the (Comment deemed inappropriate by Pleasanton Weekly Online staff) who thought they should sue the guy who saved the children?

Posted by someone who cares, a resident of Livermore
on Oct 31, 2008 at 11:38 am

The youngest one of the kidnappers is being released in 98 days!! Is this not crazy? How do you get paroled for such a horrifying crime with 26 back to back life sentences and get out after 31 years? This is an outrage, these boys ruined these children lives, if you do not believe speak to anyone that was affected by it. These kids who are now adults have had a lot of emotional problems because of this. I cannot imagine how you can release a person who buried 26 young children alive! this is wrong and we should stop this!! PEOPLE PLEASE APPEAL THIS WE CAN NOT LET THESE MEN OUT AFTER ALL THE HARM THEY DID TO THESE INNOCENT CHILDREN!!!!!

Posted by PJ, a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood
on Nov 1, 2008 at 1:45 pm

Someone who cares,

Thanks for the heads up. Please post a link with details of the release.

Posted by B, a resident of another community
on Dec 11, 2008 at 6:51 am

These guys were all brutal and have no business being paroled. This guy has no defense - youthful indiscretion!!?? At no point in this multi-day event did this guy show any indication of being against this horrific crime. He had plenty of opportunities. They survived despite his best efforts. No amount of "I was just going along reluctantly" makes up for him not even bothering to tip off someone (when he was running, and away from the other two criminals) to go help those kids. He didn't lift a finger to help the kids but did the heavy work to do the crime.

This boggles the mind. What does one have to do to get an honest life sentence?

Posted by PJ, a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood
on Jan 6, 2009 at 12:13 am

Chowchilla School Bus Kidnapper Denied Parole:

Web Link

Posted by B, a resident of another community
on Feb 5, 2009 at 3:27 am

Glad to see this worked out on the side of common sense.

Posted by Someone who knows the mother, a resident of another community
on Mar 17, 2009 at 1:22 pm

What those 3 men did is deplorable, however I feel that we let much more hardened criminals out of prision who repeat their offesses right away. Many of them have been in prison multiple times. I happen to know their mother, who was heart broken over that event and yearns for the day to have her children home. The family lost everything they owned because of it, but she still holds out hope. They have been exemplary inmates and have received an education while in prision. None of them are out of prison yet, but hopefully, someday society will forgive them. I know that some of the victims have already done so. Anyway, that's my opinion. I'm not saying what they did was right, but I think they've paid their dues.

Posted by Father of Victim, a resident of Amador Valley High School
on May 3, 2009 at 11:02 am

The untold story is that Laura Diamond of Longview Drive in Pleasanton, CA was murdered two years earlier (1974) when she stumbled upon the site where the truck was being buried in the quary. Since the kidnapping didn't happen until about two years later. The cases were never connected.

She attended Amador Valley High School.

Just a remembrance.

Posted by Joan Brown, a resident of another community
on May 7, 2009 at 8:29 pm

I am the mother of two of the victims: Jeffrey and Jennifer Brown. Jeffrey was killed 5 years later in a farming accident in 1981, at the age of 15. Jennifer, now 43, lives in a San Joaquin Valley community, not far from Chowchilla, with her husband and two boys, ages "almost" 9 and 10. (The same ages she and Jeff were at the time of the kidnapping.) This past winter she finally told her sons the story of the Chowchilla Kidnapping. They were amazed at what their mother had gone through; but, as all the kidnapping victims themselves at their young ages, the real impact of it is only realized as one gets older and has children of their own. Does that make sense???

Anyway, just wanted to say that the emotional effects of that ordeal will always be with Jennifer in unusual and troubling ways -- in no way life-threatening, but nonetheless, things that complicate her life, and all because of the crime committed upon those children.

What they did to our children was brutal and inhumane. In addition to what they endured before they were buried alive, had they not dug themselves out, they would still be buried there to this day; and all those families would have lived a life of sadness and sorrow, never knowing what happened to their loved ones. Of course, what do I know, I'm just the Mother of two of them??? I do have sadness and sorrow in my life because of the loss of Jeff, but I find great joy in Jennifer and her family.

Posted by Fred, a resident of Del Prado
on May 7, 2009 at 8:36 pm

My gosh why are they still in prison after all of these years? I mean no one died and they have been in now for over 30 years. seems to long.

Posted by Tiffany, a resident of another community
on May 24, 2009 at 11:56 pm

I grew up in Chowchilla and grew up hearing the horror stories of this and how badly the children were affected. I wasnt even born when it happened but kids were still scared of the busses from stories people told of what happened as I as growing up. My dad is 45 and was the perfect age to have been on that bus. They were 1 street over from where he lived when this happened and I'm just thankful he wasnt victimized in this horrible act. If the van was burried in 1975 and this didnt happen until so much later, this was really thought out and wasnt some spur of the moment thing that they should be let go for. If the victims hadnt been smart enough to get out when they did they could have easily died down there with no air, little food and water and nowhere to get rid of bodily fluids, they could have all gotten very sick very quickly. Then these guys would have probably gotten 27 life sentences as they deserve. No parole, its rediculious! If they hadnt managed to get out they would have been dead down there! With all those families of the close community of Chowchilla hurting and never knowing what happened, just for some rich spoiled boys to get more money! Keep them locked up!

Posted by Felix Katich, a resident of another community
on May 25, 2009 at 2:13 pm

Hello Joan. I met you many years ago while Jennifer as living in Fresno before she was married. Must have been early 90's. I was watching late night TV Saturday night on 5/24 and a segment was on the kidnapping. Because I knew Jennifer I decided to get on the commputor and I found your posting. I hope she is doing well with her family. The reason I am posting this hoping you will see it. While unpacking boxes that were in storage from moving my wife and I came accross a book that belongs to you that you gave Jennifer. It's called Sun Signs, your name is written on the inside cover. It is not mine and want to know if either you or Jennifer want it back. Jennifer and her friend Kim know what area I live in and I should be easy to get in contact with. I also think that those men should NEVER be released from prison. Hope all is well..Felix.

Posted by Michael Davis, a resident of Danville
on May 25, 2009 at 3:45 pm

I remember this story....I had a Chowchilla at the time and was afraid it might get kidnapped too. Or was it a Chihuahua? hmmm

Posted by Joy, a resident of another community
on Jun 3, 2009 at 2:29 am

I remember this also I was 13 that summer and I lived in California even though it was So.Cal it was a shocking event all over the state.

Posted by Bill the Nurse, a resident of Livermore
on Nov 6, 2009 at 7:00 pm

I was one of two Nurses that cared for the kids while they were at Santa Rita Correctional Facility. I also rode on the Greyhound bus with them back to Chowchilla. Went through the court process as a witness also. Anyway, I will never forget. A permanent memory for me. I still keep drawings, letters and such the kids gave me that night and that they sent to me for months, years afterwards. Hello to any of them that read this note. -Nurse Bill

Posted by catherine, a resident of another community
on Mar 7, 2010 at 4:43 pm

Regarding Ken's question concerning the lawsuit against the driver: it was a group of the parents of the children. Mr. Ray was contemplating writing a book on his experiences. Some of the parents objected to his profiting in any way from the crime. Others simply found fault with his failure to safely deliver their children home from school that day (as though, with the knowledge he had at the time, anything he could have done would have prevented the crime). It was an ugly situation, and the threatened suit hurt the man deeply. I think he once said that the law suit hurt him almost as much as the crime itself did. He dropped his project of co-authoring a book on the subject, and, for whatever reason, the lawsuit went away.
For the record, it was only some of the childrens' parents --not all of them. At the time I didn't even know which parents were involved, so I certainly don't remember now.

Posted by Glen, a resident of another community
on Jun 24, 2010 at 11:55 pm

I was 14 years old and lived in Madera,Ca. when this kidnapping happened and I think these creeps should spend life in prison,no parole.

Posted by Jennifer, a resident of another community
on Sep 24, 2010 at 7:57 am

What a surprise to read these postings from people I actually know. I was online looking up details of the kidnapping to answer some questions someone asked me about the timeline of the kidnapping. After 30+ years I could not remember exactly some of the details. Over the years I have stashed some of those parts of my life in storage in the back depths of my brain.

Felix, keep the book, didn't realize you still had it. Thanks for thinking of returning the book, you are a very thoughtful person to do so. I have fond memories of the time spent with you. Hope life is treating you well.

Nurse Bill: I will NEVER forget the kindness you and Nurse Dave showed to me during the ordeal. I still have photos of you from the parade you attended shortly after the kidnapping. I am married 15 yrs, with two boys, living in a southern state.

Many people cross your path in life and help make you the person you are today. You two (felix and bill) have been a stepping stone in my life to happiness, love and peace. Hope you have found the same.

Posted by Mike, a resident of another community
on Nov 29, 2010 at 8:19 am

This was a horrible thing to do; however, I think every one of us can relate to hearing of a murderer, a rapist, or a child molestor let out after serving a fraction of this sentence. I have always held special interest in this, as it happened the day I was born. That was 34.5 years ago. Folks, that is a long time. I just don't really see that these three are a danger to anyone if they get out.

Posted by long-time family friend, a resident of Vineyard Hills
on Jan 28, 2011 at 9:44 am

I'd like to offer some input from an different angle, one of familiarity with the family of the brothers who did the kidnapping.

My father has been a long-time friend of Dr. Schoenfeld, father of the brothers. This was, obviously, devastating to this family. These boys were raised in a loving home by two involved and loving parents whose family values were strong and good.

I recognize that what Jim and Rick did was devastating to the well-being of the children involved. Words cannot express the depth to which the damage was done. But, what Jim and Rick did was NOT due to a desire to hurt others. These are NOT hard-hearted criminal-minded boys, now men, who can't wait to get out and inflict more pain. They were good kids who did something incredibly stupid. They were young, naive, and influenceable. Lots of kids are. They just went way too far.

They have been exemplary inmates, earned degrees, gained responsibility within their "community." Again, they were young and incredibly misguided. Their parents were as shocked as you wuold be if your good kids did something agonizingly wrong and damaging.

Jim and Rick should be released after 34 years. My father has spoken at their parole hearings alongside many of the now-grown children who were involved in the kidnapping, urging the parol board to allow Rick and Jim to live their lives. Dad has heard the grown children speak of forgiveness. The men have expressed deep sorrow for the life-long pain they inflicted on all those involved. They are not bad boys, they did something terribly bad over 30 years ago. They have spent the rest of their youth and into their middle age in agony over the decisions made when they were young.

We've all done stupid things. THey went too far. They have paid for it and always will. Even on the outside, they will never have a normal life. They will never forget. They can only try to make up for it by doing the most with what is left of their lives.

Posted by George, a resident of another community
on Feb 24, 2011 at 9:35 am

Being buried alive is one of the most horrific experiences a person can suffer. Edgar Alan Poe wrote a famous tale of horrer about it.
These men subjected 25 of the most vulnerable of our society such torture, young children aged five to fourteen. None of these children will ever forget the horror and mental trauma of the kidnapping; some children will never recover from this trauma. It is ridiculous for anyone to argue that "no one was injured." It was only an accident that these children are alive today.
These men carefully planned this crime for over a year, and then dealt out a a lifetime of trauma to vulnerable children. A lifetime of trauma equals a lifetime of punishment. Shame on Justice Newsom for trying to argue otherwise.

Posted by ReadUp, a resident of Avila
on May 18, 2012 at 10:12 pm

One man has been granted parole, to take place in 2021, 45 years after he was incarcerated and when he'll be around age 68. The other two tried to or did run to Canada, but the man who has been paroled turned himself in and confessed. And that's why he was paroled. Whether you agree with it or not, in some cases, the confession is the only evidence, so there has to be some incentive to confess.

As horrible as this crime was, paroling the only one of the three who confessed after 45 years in prison for a crime in which no one actually died, though through no help from the parolee, was probably the right thing to do.

Posted by CA girl, a resident of another community
on Jun 16, 2012 at 10:26 am

I was 19 and living in Sacramento when this occurred and was scared silly while they were gone; I remember (before they were found) all of the speculation that the bus driver took the kids.
My opinion about whether any of them deserve parole substantially depends on the intentions of the three at the time: did they intend to release the kids and driver when (if) they received the ransom, or did they intend to let them die? Young people often lack common sense, so it seems reasonable that they might not have understood that the hostages could die in a short period of time underground, and intended to release them after receiving the ransom; if that is the case, then I agree with their parole. However, if they intended to keep the money and never return to release the 27 hostages, then that is indicative of a complete lack of regard for human life and a mental defect that I don't think is reparable over time, and I would be very afraid to have them back out on the streets at any time.

No matter what anyone thinks about parolling them, it is happening for the youngest kidnapper; let's hope that he intended to return and set the hostages free.

Posted by Friend, a resident of another community
on Apr 2, 2015 at 6:29 pm

This wasn't a "Childhood mistake that went too far" as the family friend of these kidnappers. That would apply to a kid going on a joy ride speeding in a car not a year long planned kidnapping of children. That is distorted brains that were either born that way or were never taught the impact of actions on other people. Are you telling me these brains have been rehabilitated? Something like that doesn't just get fixed with time. They didn't just do something "Terribly bad 30 years ago" they did something unbelievably horrendous (not even a strong enough word to describe what they did) that they planned to do for a year. This is what pure evil looks like and to lesson it with words like "didn't intend on hurting anyone" is deplorable.

Posted by Map, a resident of Del Prado
on Apr 3, 2015 at 1:16 pm

Should have been sentenced to spending all those years in that same buried vehicle that they stuck those poor kids in, would have saved us taxpayers a lot of money "rehabilitating " them !!! Obviously the people that feel sorry for these FELONS need to wake up and smell the coffee, bring back the chain gangs and tear gas, if you can't handle the "time" don't do the "crime" I'm betting their jail time was like a walk on the beach compared to what those kids have gone through.

Posted by Janice, a resident of another community
on Sep 4, 2015 at 3:35 pm

i am wondering if anyone knows where they lived as children. I am 60 and remember hearing rumors that I had played with these two,boys as a kid. I grew up in Saratoga.