Framework

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July 16, 1976: Police and parents inspect the Dairyland Union school bus after it was found near Chowchilla, Calif., with all 26 students and driver missing. Man facing camera is Denver Willisms, whose daughter Lisa, 12, was among the missing. The bus was found in a bamboo thicket where it had been intentionally hidden. This photo was published on Page 1 of the July 17, 1976, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Associated Press

Dairyland School in Chowchilla, where the kidnapped students attended. This photo was published in the July 17, 1976 Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Boris Yaro / Los Angeles Times

Alameda County Sheriff Tom Houchins briefs the news media at the California Rock and Gravel Co., quarry where the Chowchilla children were held captive. In the foreground is the shaft leading to the still-buried moving van where the victims were imprisoned. This photo was published in the July 18, 1976 Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Boris Yaro / Los Angeles Times

July 17, 1976: Bob, left, and Carol Marshall talk to a reporter while waiting at command post for return of their son Mike and other kidnap victims. Boys on right were not identified. This photo was published in the July 18, 1976 Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rick Meyer / Los Angeles Times

July 17, 1976: Officers escort children from Greyhound bus upon their return to Chowchilla at 4 a.m. This photo was published in the July 18, 1976 Los Angeles Times. On July 15, 1976, three men kidnapped 26 children and their bus driver from a school bus and left them imprisoned in a buried truck.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rick Meyer / Los Angeles Times

July 17, 1976: Relieved parent carries daughter after chartered bus returned kidnapped children to Chowchilla, Calif. This photo was published in the July 18, 1976 Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rick Meyer / Los Angeles Times

July 17, 1976: Mr. and Mrs. Bill Parker comfort their daughter Barbara after her safe return in the Chowchilla school bus kidnapping. This photo was published in the July 18, 1976 Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Fitzgerald Whitney / Los Angeles Times

July 17, 1976: Judy Reynolds, 13, and her sister Rebecca, 9, at home discuss their kidnapping and imprisonment. This photo was published in the July 18, 1976 Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Fitzgerald Whitney / Los Angeles Times

July 17, 1976: Sandy Zylstra, 7, third from right, was the last child to get off school bus before kidnappers seized 26 Chowchilla children. She and Sunday school classmates sing at church during celebration of rescue of kidnapped students. This photo was published in the July 18, 1976 Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Art Rogers / Los Angeles Times

July 17, 1976: Rock quarry in Livermore, Calif., where kidnapped children and their bus driver were held prisoner. The circle in upper left locates the area where the captives were buried in a trailer. On July 15, 1976, three men kidnapped 26 children and their bus driver from a school bus and left them imprisoned in a buried truck.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Boris Yaro / Los Angeles Times

July 20, 1976: Moving van trailer in which the Chowchilla victims were imprisoned, after being dug up by police at the Livermore quarry.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Boris Yaro / Los Angeles Times

July 20, 1976: Workmen prepare to remove the van trailer used to imprison Chowchilla bus victims from the Livermore quarry. This photo was published in the July 21, 1976 Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Boris Yaro / Los Angeles Times

July 20, 1976: The buried moving van trailer just after it was dug out and pulled from the quarry in Livermore. The Chowchilla school bus victims were held captive in the trailer. This photo was published in the July 21, 1976 Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Boris Yaro / Los Angeles Times

July 23, 1976: Interior of moving van where Chowchilla kidnap victims were held. This photo was published in the July 24, 1976 Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rick Meyer / Los Angeles Times

Aug. 22, 1976: Chowchilla kidnapping bus driver Ed Ray and children ride on float in parade held in his honor. Over 4,000 people attended "Ed Ray and Children's Day" celebrations in Chowchilla.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Art Rogers / Los Angeles Times Archive/UCLA

Aug. 22, 1976: Bus driver Ed Ray is surrounded by some of the children he is credited with rescuing as Chowchilla celebrates "Ed Ray and Children Day," with a parade, speeches and a barbecue. This photo was published in the Aug. 23, 1976 Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Art Rogers / Los Angeles Times

Oct. 19, 1976: Chowchilla bus kidnapping suspects from left, James Schoenfeld, Fred N. Woods and Richard Schoenfeld arrive for court session in Madera, Calif. This photo was published in the Oct. 20, 1976 Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Joe Kennedy / Los Angeles Times Archive / UCLA

Jan. 6, 1983: Ed Ray in front of the bus he drove the day of the Chowchilla kidnapping. This photo was published in the Jan. 16, 1983 Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Jose Galvez / Los Angeles Times

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The 1976 Chowchilla bus kidnapping

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The 1976 Chowchilla bus kidnapping

On July 15, 1976, three gunmen kidnapped 26 children and their driver off a Chowchilla, Calif., school bus.

In this April 3, 2011 Los Angeles Times story, “Decades after school bus kidnapping, strong feelings in Chowchilla,” writer Diana Marcum reported:

Reporting from Chowchilla, Calif. — Most people can tell you exactly where they were when the bus and all those children disappeared.
In the way of small towns, the connections to that dark moment are personal.

Lois Rambo, who runs the lunch counter at Pioneer Market Cafe in Chowchilla, says her daughter would have been on that bus if she hadn’t stayed home sick from school that day. Jodi Heffington Medrano, who owns a salon on the square, was one of the children who disappeared.

Even those who weren’t born yet can’t remember a time when they didn’t know the story of the Chowchilla kidnappings.

Thirty-five years ago, three young men from wealthy families kidnapped a bus full of 26 schoolchildren and their driver in this San Joaquin Valley community and entombed them in a rock quarry. It’s the largest kidnapping for ransom in U.S. history and one of California’s strangest crimes — a legacy seldom forgotten by outsiders who still connect the name “Chowchilla” to it….

The year was 1976. It was July, hot, the next-to-last day of summer school. The big yellow school bus from Dairyland Unified was lumbering down country roads lined with fruit trees, same as they are today.

The bus driver, farmer Ed Ray, was born in Chowchilla. He knew all the kids. Some were the grandchildren of his own classmates. They ranged in age from 5 to 14. The youngest, Monica Ardery, would ask the gunman with the pantyhose over his face, legs hanging alongside his head like ears, if he was the Easter Bunny. The oldest, Mike Marshall, was the son of a rodeo cowboy.

Ray saw a white van stopped in the road. He slowed down to see if it was someone with engine trouble. Three gunmen jumped out, commandeered the bus and drove it into a dry canal bottom, where another van waited.

The children and Ray were herded into the back of the two vans. With no water and no bathroom breaks, they were driven for 11 hours, the smaller kids throwing up from motion sickness, the older kids singing songs to cheer them up: “Boogie Nights,” “Love Will Keep Us Together” and “If You’re Happy and You Know it Clap Your Hands.” They changed the words to “If you’re sad and you know it …”

At 3:30 a.m., they arrived at a Livermore quarry 100 miles from Chowchilla. The kidnappers made each of them give their name and a piece of clothing, then climb down a ladder into a buried moving van. Along one wall were dirty mattresses and containers of water. It was stuffy, with only two air tubes. Above them, the men started throwing dirt over the roof. Children screamed. One fainted. Ray tried to soothe them, but he was crying. He was sure the roof was going to cave in.

Marshall announced that he wasn’t going to die without trying to get out. Ray, Marshall and the older boys stacked the mattresses, climbed on top and used wooden slats to dislodge a steel plate on the roof of the van that was covering the hole through which they had entered. Two tractor batteries were holding down the plate.

They poured water over their heads to fight heat exhaustion and kept pushing until they moved the plate.

The children of Chowchilla climbed out — 16 hours after they’d been buried.

One of the kidnappers was Fred Woods, son of Frederick Woods III, who owned the quarry as well as a 100-acre Portola Valley estate. The others were Richard and James Schoenfeld, sons of a wealthy Menlo Park podiatrist. All three were captured within weeks, convicted of kidnapping with bodily harm and sentenced to life without parole…

Here is a link to Diana Marcum’s article:  Decades after school bus kidnapping, strong feelings in Chowchilla.

For more, check out bus driver Ed Ray’s 2012 Los Angeles Times obituary:  Frank Edward Ray dies at 91; hero in Chowchilla school bus hijacking.

Richard Schoenfeld was paroled in 2012. James Schoenfeld and Frederick Woods are still incarcerated.

scott.harrison@latimes.com

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5 Comments

  1. July 14, 2014, 12:32 pm

    I have never heard this story. What an awful experience for those involved. I hope that all are doing well today and my sympathy to the Ray family. Did the men ever give a reason why they would such a horrible thing.

    By: Tracy
  2. July 14, 2014, 12:38 pm

    I remember seeing this on the news. Can't imagine how scared those kids were.

    By: trentroy@lycos.com
  3. July 14, 2014, 3:23 pm

    They should have executed the worthless garbage.

    By: Everyone
  4. July 14, 2014, 10:17 pm

    I'm not a religious person but God bless those strong-willed young people and the late, great Mr. Ray. Heroes all!

    By: Joe Bean
  5. July 15, 2014, 12:03 pm

    I was the Police Chief in Chowchilla at that time. Ed Bates, Madera County Sheriff and the CPD worked a concurrent investigation. We worked well together. The command post was at the Chowchilla PD/Justice Court/Fire Department facility. Most people don't realize that those children were left in their tomb and deserted by the kidnappers. If it wasn't for Ed Ray and the older children making the escape, they could still be missing today. As such, the 3 should spend the rest of their lives in incarceration. However, one was paroled due to the bleeding heat liberals. The kidnappers fled and left those children to die once we identified who they were. The emotional stress of the victims is still felt today. Thanks for bringing back the memory. Due to this crime, all school buses have to have 2 way radios and emotional stress was added to kidnaping with bodily harm.

    By: montereycowboy

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