Thirty-five years ago, three men in their 20s kidnapped a bus full of schoolchildren in the Central Valley town of Chowchilla (Madera County), stuffed them and their driver into a makeshift underground dungeon and demanded a $5 million ransom.
The 27 prisoners dug their way to freedom after 16 hours, the abductors were nabbed and given life terms in prison, and the victims all tried to get on with their lives....
The Schoenfelds lived in Atherton and Woods lived in Portola Valley. They told relatives they hijacked the school bus at gunpoint on a road in Chowchilla on July 15, 1976, to get money to pay off a $30,000 debt they'd racked up in buying a house.
After piling the driver and all the children into vans, they drove them 100 miles north to Livermore, where they left the prisoners buried in a moving van in a quarry.
That's when, failing to get through overloaded phone lines at the Chowchilla police station, they took a nap. When they woke up, they learned from the radio that their victims had dug themselves free. Richard Schoenfeld turned himself in eight days later, and the other two were captured less than a week later. The Schoenfelds' only brother, John Schoenfeld of Belmont, said his siblings would have jobs waiting if they got out. Richard Schoenfeld, now 57, could work at drafting, and James Schoenfeld, 59, could work in air conditioning, he said.
Retired state appellate court Justice William Newsom, who took part in the 1980 ruling giving the three a chance at parole, said Wednesday that they have paid their debt.
"This is a gross injustice to leave them in prison," Newsom said. "Nobody was physically injured in the kidnapping, and that is a major factor."
Also speaking out for parole was retired Madera County sheriff's Detective Dale Fore, who led the kidnapping investigation. Lead prosecutor David Minier, now a retired Madera County judge, sent a letter in support.
"These were just dumb rich kids who tried to rip a city off, and they've paid hell of a price for what they did," Fore said.
$50,000 a year?! Wow, just imagine the savings! Let's empty the prisons! We can't afford "vengence!" (cut to Gov. Brown nodding enthusiastically).
"Vengeance is a luxury California can no longer afford," attorney Scott Handleman said, noting that it costs about $50,000 a year to keep a state prisoner behind bars.
That's straight talk from a decent man who did more in one terrifying afternoon that those three guys in prison have done in their entire lives.
Bus driver Ed Ray, 89 and ailing in health, feels just as adamantly that the kidnappers should stay in prison, said his wife.
"We're not for them getting out," Odessa Ray said at their Chowchilla home. "We're thinking those three knew better. They really jeopardized a lot of lives."