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Man behind 1976 kidnapping of 26 Chowchilla children and bus driver gets parole

A parole board said Tuesday that Frederick Woods, one of three men convicted of hijacking a school bus filled with 26 children and its driver in Chowchilla, California, in 1976 in an effort to obtain a $5 million ransom, will be released. .

Woods, 70, was cleared for parole for the first time at a hearing at the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo on March 25, marking the 18th time he has appeared before the parole board, according to Terry Thornton, spokesman for the California Department. of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Woods had previously been denied parole 17 times.

Frederick Woods.

(Associated Press)

Gov. Gavin Newsom remanded Woods’ parole grant for review by the board, which happened Tuesday. Woods’ release date was not disclosed for security reasons, Thornton said.

Woods, with his accomplices Richard and James Schoenfeld, had hatched a kidnap-for-ransom scheme for more than a year. An appeals court ordered the release of Richard Schoenfeld in 2012; then Governor Jerry Brown granted the release of James Schoenfeld, Richard’s brother, in 2015.

In July 1976, farmer and bus driver Ed Ray was driving a yellow school bus carrying Dairyland Unified elementary school students when he saw a white pickup truck stopped on the highway. Ray slowed the bus down to see if those in the truck needed help, and three men armed with guns jumped out, seized the bus, and drove it to the dry bottom of a canal, where they had left another truck.

Ray and the schoolchildren were loaded into the two trucks and driven for 11 hours to a quarry in Livermore, 100 miles from Chowchilla. The kidnappers forced them down a ladder to a moving trailer which they buried.

Ray and some of the kids started stacking mattresses and finally made it out of the trailer 16 hours later. Meanwhile, the three hijackers left and tried to contact the Chowchilla Police Department to request the ransom, but were unable to get through as the phone lines were busy. They napped and woke up to the news of the escape, and were either captured or turned in within weeks. Ray was hailed as a hero. He died in May 2012 at the age of 91.

James Schoenfeld told probation officers that he was jealous of his friends who had “his and hers” Ferraris. Woods, who was 24 at the time of the crime, said during a previous parole hearing that he simply “got greedy,” saying in 2012 that he didn’t need the money. Woods is the son of Frederick Woods III, owner of the quarry and a 100-acre Portola Valley property; the Schoenfelds came from the family of a wealthy Menlo Park chiropodist.

“I’ve had empathy for the victims, which I didn’t have then,” Woods said at the March parole hearing. “I’ve had a character change since then.”

Sheila Perry, superintendent and principal of the Alview-Dairyland Union Unified School District, declined to comment on the parole decision.

Madera County District Attorney Sally Moreno spoke out against Woods’ release in a statement after the hearing.

“It is difficult to articulate all that I feel, all the suffering that I have caused these children throughout their lives, which will continue without end; his continued inability to conform his behavior to the rules, which demonstrates his own lack of repentance and rehabilitation; her glaring lack of understanding of the impact her acts have on others as evidenced by the entirety of her conduct in prison,” he said.

Woods violated prison rules multiple times, according to Moreno, who said he was caught with pornography in 2002 and had four cellphone violations in 2013, 2014 and twice in 2016. Woods was most recently disciplined for running businesses in the prison in 2019.

Jennifer Brown Hyde, one of the survivors opposing Woods’ parole who now lives in Tennessee, was 9 years old at the time of the abduction. She said she and her family were “disappointed with the parole board’s decision.”

“I am extremely proud of my fellow survivors, friends and family who continued to fight to the end,” she said in a statement. “I am grateful to have the support of Alameda County Attorney Jill Klinge; She has been a true champion in supporting her over the years.”

All three men were found guilty of kidnapping with bodily harm and sentenced to life in prison. Newsom’s father, State Judge William Newsom, was on the 1980 appeal panel that reduced their life sentences to give them a chance at parole. William Newsom advocated for the kidnappers’ release in 2011, saying no one was seriously injured in the incident. He died in 2018.

Survivor Larry Park, who supported Woods’ release during the March parole hearing, said he believes Woods “did enough time for the crime he committed.” However, Park encouraged Woods to seek help.

“I’m concerned about the addiction he may have to money,” Park said.