In 1976, 26 Children Were Kidnapped & Buried Alive – How Did They Escape?

The 1976 Chowchilla kidnapping victims

CBS The 1976 Chowchilla kidnapping victims

The 1976 Chowchilla, California, kidnapping of a school bus driver and 26 children is one of the largest kidnappings in U.S. history. The driver and the students were buried alive inside a truck trailer for 16 hours before they were miraculously able to dig themselves out and escape. Ahead of the 48 Hours episode about the harrowing ordeal, here’s what you need to know about the kidnappings, escape and rescue.

The Kidnapping Plan Was in the Works For Weeks Before it Happened

In 1976, Frederick Newhall Woods and brothers James and Richard Schoenfeld decided to try to make millions in ransom money off some wealthy San Francisco Bay area families. Their idea was to kidnap a busload of children and demand $5 million in ransom for their safe return.

According to CBS News, on July 15, 1976, Frank Edward “Ed” Ray was taking 26 students on a summer class trip to a local swimming pool when a van pulled in front of the bus and stopped. Ray stopped the bus and three armed men drove it and their van a mile down the road where another van was parked. The three men loaded Ray and 26 children into the vans and then drove them around for nearly 12 hours, eventually ending up at a quarry owned by Woods’ father.

At the quarry, the kidnappers herded their victims into a moving van trailer they had buried in the quarry and left them there with a little bit of food and water.

The kidnappers tried to get a call into the Chowchilla police to make their ransom demands but they couldn’t get through the switchboard, so they went to bed. By the time they woke up, the bus driver and the children had escaped.

Mike Marshall and the Bus Driver Were The Heroes of the Escape

For the children and Ray, it wasn’t nearly that simple. They were 12 feet underground and terrified. Survivor Larry Park told CBS News that Ray and Mike Marshall, one of the oldest students among the kidnapping victims, stacked the mattresses left in the trailer for them high up until they were right underneath the manhole cover at the top. Eventually, they moved the cover and Marshall scrambled into a box the kidnappers had put on top.

“He dug until he was exhausted and then he kept on digging. There was no quit in him,” said Park of Marshall, adding that eventually Marshall broke the surface and “brave person that he is, crawled out of the hole first.”

They had been in the hole for nearly 16 hours.

The Kidnappers Got Life in Prison

Eight days after the kidnapping, Richard Schoenfeld turned himself in. A week later, James Schoenfeld was captured in Menlo Park, California, and Woods was found in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, according to the San Francisco Gate.

In 1977, they pleaded guilty to kidnapping and received life in prison. Richard was paroled in 2012 and James was paroled in 2015, according to CNN. The SF Gate reported in 2001 that the brothers had been in contact with some of the kidnapping victims over the years, repeatedly apologizing for what they had done.

Woods was denied parole for the 17th time in October 2019. His next parole hearing is scheduled for 2024. But being incarcerated hasn’t stopped Woods from buying a mansion, running a gold mine, owning a Christmas tree farm, and marrying three times, according to CBS News. He did not receive permission from the warden to conduct this outside business and so that was part of the reason the parole board declined to release Woods in 2019.

Woods is the heir to a sizable family fortune and his lawyer, Gary Dubcoff, has repeatedly argued that “apart from the commitment offense, [Woods] has no history of violence, whether before prison or in it. He is an elderly inmate, fast approaching 70, and clearly presents no danger to anyone.”

48 Hours airs Saturdays on CBS.

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