Parole board grants release date for man convicted in 1976 Chowchilla kidnapping
California’s parole board Tuesday upheld an earlier decision that deemed one of three men responsible for kidnapping 26 Chowchilla schoolchildren and their school bus driver in 1976 suitable for parole.
But Richard Schoenfeld, now 56, would not be scheduled for release until 2021, and his parole would have to clear several more hurdles, including a review by the governor, said Luis Patino, a spokesman for the parole board.
Any sitting governor between now and 2021 could ask the board to reconsider its decision to set a release date for Schoenfeld, Patino said.
Schoenfeld, his brother James and Fred Woods, who were all from wealthy families, were in their early 20s when they committed the crime, which would become the largest kidnapping-for-ransom case in U.S. history. The three started plotting the kidnapping after they lost $30,000 on a housing deal.
In July 1976, the three armed men commandeered the big yellow school bus from Dairyland Unified and drove it into a dry canal bottom. The children -– who ranged in age from 5 to 14 –- and the bus driver were herded into two vans and driven to a Livermore quarry.
They were then made to climb down into a moving van buried in the quarry 100 miles from Chowchilla. After imprisoning their hostages, the three defendants left to call in a $5-million ransom demand to the Chowchilla Police Department. But the phone lines were busy. They took naps and awoke to the news that the children had escaped.
The three young men were arrested and convicted.
A key issue at sentencing was whether they had kidnapped with bodily harm -- a circumstance warranting life in prison with no parole. Prosecutor David Minier convinced Superior Court Judge Leo Deegan that the nosebleeds, upset stomach and fainting suffered by three of the girls constituted injury. But an appeals court ruled in 1980 that there was no bodily harm, and the kidnappers were eligible for parole.
Recently, judges, prosecutors and investigators in the case have called for the kidnappers to be granted parole.
In 2010, a two-person parole board panel deemed Schoenfeld “suitable for parole,” but that decision was later rescinded. The parole board scheduled Tuesday’s hearing to reconsider that decision. The other two kidnappers have yet to be found suitable for parole.
-- Robert J. Lopez and Diana Marcum
Photo: Police and parents inspect the empty school bus found near Chowchilla in the largest kidnapping for ransom in U.S. history. Credit: Associated Press