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. It was a crime that 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 about 4 p.m. on their way back from a swim outing at 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 buried in a Livermore rock quarry.

After 16 hours underground in a 8 foot by 16 foot space, the victims dug their way out and were found in a remote area near the Shadow Cliffs East Bay Regional Park. They 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 apparently 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, 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 normally carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole.

The trio was sentenced to life in prison. Richard Schoenfeld was paroled from prison in 2012 although his brother, James Schoenfeld, currently remains incarcerated at the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo, California. Frederick N Woods is serving his sentence at the Soledad prison also in California.

Remembering The Tragedy

Today the bus kidnapping event is still remembered with strong emotion. A simple 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, 2014, the City of Chowchilla officially renamed and dedicated the City's largest park, and home to many youth activities, Edward "Ed" Ray as a lasting tribute to this local hero.