1976 Bus Kidnapping

A Nation Comes to a Standstill

Although July 15, 1976, is a day that the community of Chowchilla would like to forget forever, it is a piece of Chowchilla’s history. The crime transfixed the nation and affected many people in our quiet farming community. The following information was gathered from printed newspaper accounts:

On July 15, 1976, a busload of children aged 5 to 14 and their school bus driver, Ed Ray (then 55), were abducted on a country road in Madera County at about 4 p.m. on their way back from a swim outing on the fairgrounds. The bus was later found empty, covered with bamboo and brush in a drainage ditch nine miles west of town. The victims, 19 girls and seven boys, along with Ray, were driven around for 11 hours in two vans before being entombed in a moving van and buried in a Livermore rock quarry.

After 16 hours underground in an 8-foot by 16-foot space, two of the older children and Ray were able to escape after digging themselves out with only their hands, cutting themselves along the way. The 27 were found in a remote area near the Shadow Cliffs East Bay Regional Park and were then taken to the nearby Santa Rita Rehabilitation Center, where they were pronounced in good condition. The children and their bus driver returned safely to Chowchilla by a police-escorted bus shortly before dawn on July 17, 1976.

Investigators dug up the van and learned it had been buried in the quarry in November 1975. The 100-acre Portola Valley estate of the quarry owner, Frederick Nickerson Woods, was searched. Woods’ son, Fred Newhall Woods IV, 24, was missing. Authorities issued an all-points bulletin for young Woods and his two friends, James Schoenfeld, 24, and his brother, Richard Schoenfeld, 22, sons of a wealthy podiatrist. Officials said they discovered a rough draft of a $5 million ransom note on the Woods estate.

Arrests Made

On July 23, 1976, Richard Schoenfeld, accompanied by his attorney and father, surrendered voluntarily in Oakland and was held in lieu of $1 million bail. On July 29, Woods was captured in Vancouver, British Columbia, and James Schoenfeld was arrested in Menlo Park while reportedly preparing to surrender.

On November 5, a Madera County judge ordered the trial be moved from Madera County, and on November 10, it was assigned to Alameda County. In 1977, on July 25, Woods and the Schoenfelds pled guilty to 27 counts of kidnapping for ransom, and the prosecution dropped 18 counts of robbery. Then, on December 15, 1977, a Superior Court judge found the trio guilty of three counts of kidnapping with bodily harm, which usually carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The trio was sentenced to life in prison, but by 2022, all three kidnappers had been paroled. Richard Schoenfeld was paroled from prison in June 2012, and his brother, James Schoenfeld, was released in August 2015. Fredrick Woods was recommended for parole on March 25, 2022.  The recommendation required the approval of the full parole board, the board's legal division, and California's governor. On August 17, 2022, Woods' parole had been granted, and he was to be released from prison.

Remembering The Tragedy

Today, the bus kidnapping event is still remembered with strong emotion. A granite monument dedicated to the victims is located adjacent to the Chowchilla Police Department to mark where the victims were reunited with their families. On February 26, 2015, Edward Ray’s birthday, the City of Chowchilla officially renamed and dedicated the City’s largest park and home to many youth activities as  Edward Ray Park.