In a chilling kidnapping plot, three California men—two brothers and their friend—hatched a plan and carried out the mass abduction of 26 innocent school children and their bus driver. The kidnappers, James and Richard Shoenfeld and their friend Fred Woods, plotted for 18 months—allegedly inspired by the plot of the popular 1971 movie Dirty Harry.
The Bay Area trio held their hostages buried in a secret hillside bunker for a grueling 16 hours, while they negotiated their ransom demands of $5 million.
It all went down in the summer of 1976 in Chowchilla, California. After a failed real estate venture, James, Richard and Fred planned the bus heist to recoup some of their financial loses.
Armed with guns, the men waylaid the bus and its occupants by pretending their white van had broken down on the freeway. They took the driver and children captive, threatening them with weapons as they were herded onto two vans.
The children, who ranged in age from five to 14, and their driver Ed Ray, were driven to a quarry in Livermore and buried alive in a tiny truck trailer that had been prepared for them.
They stayed there, trapped for 16 hours underground. They were provided with some mattresses, food and water—but the terrified children left in fear for their lives.
After a while the driver Ed and some of the older children realized that if they wanted to live, they needed to take matters into their own hands and escape. Stacking some mattresses, some of the group was able to clamber up to an opening at the very top of the trailer. The opening was weighted with 200-pound industrial batteries, but with a little work they wedged it open with a stick.
In constant fear of being caught in the act by their abductors, Ed and the children made their way to freedom.
Ed was able to provide authorities with the license plates of the vans they were kidnapped in, which led police to the identity and arrested of the trio one week later.
The three were originally given life sentences with no chance of parole, but an appeal overturned that limitation.
Now almost 40 years later, despite the protestations of the crimes victims, two of the three abductors have been released from jail.
Richard Shoenfeld was released in 2012, and now his brother James—who has reportedly applied for parole over 20 times—has been granted parole. Fred Woods was recently denied parole once again.