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Decades after school bus kidnapping, strong feelings in Chowchilla

Thirty-five years ago in Chowchilla, Calif., three young men from upscale families kidnapped a bus full of children and their driver and buried them in a quarry. Some of the officials who put the culprits in prison are calling for their parole — a sore point for many residents.

April 03, 2011|By Diana Marcum, Los Angeles Times
  • Officials retrieve a moving van buried at a rock quarry in Livermore, Calif., in which 26 Chowchilla schoolchildren and their bus driver were held captive in the mid-'70s. The three men who kidnapped the busload of of children, ages 5 to 14, and entombed them in the quarry are up for parole again, and this time, they have the support of the judge, prosecutors and investigators who handled their notorious case. Read the story: Decades after school bus kidnapping, strong feelings in Chowchilla
Officials retrieve a moving van buried at a rock quarry in Livermore, Calif.,… (Associated Press )

Reporting from Chowchilla, Calif. — Most people can tell you exactly where they were when the bus and all those children disappeared.

In the way of small towns, the connections to that dark moment are personal.

Lois Rambo, who runs the lunch counter at Pioneer Market Cafe in Chowchilla, says her daughter would have been on that bus if she hadn't stayed home sick from school that day. Jodi Heffington Medrano, who owns a salon on the square, was one of the children who disappeared.

Photos: Chowchilla kidnappings

Even those who weren't born yet can't remember a time when they didn't know the story of the Chowchilla kidnappings.

Thirty-five years ago, three young men from wealthy families kidnapped a bus full of 26 schoolchildren and their driver in this San Joaquin Valley community and entombed them in a rock quarry. It's the largest kidnapping for ransom in U.S. history and one of California's strangest crimes — a legacy seldom forgotten by outsiders who still connect the name "Chowchilla" to it.

So when news broke that some of the men responsible for putting the kidnappers in prison — judges, prosecutors and investigators — were at a San Francisco news conference calling for their parole, the breakfast crowd at the Tommy Hawk cafe on the town's main street erupted.

"People were actually shaking," said waitress Kelli Redding, recalling that day in February. "They weren't just talking separately at their own tables. The whole place was shouting back and forth. They were saying if life in prison doesn't mean life, then they should have buried those guys in a bus."

It's a case where passions run white-hot, but the legal complexities fill a world of gray. Where does justice end and vengeance begin?

"My client was 22 at the time, and the plan was never to hurt anyone," said Scott Handleman, the attorney for Richard Schoenfeld.

In 2008, a two-person parole board panel deemed Schoenfeld "suitable for parole," an initial step on the long road to possible release. A new panel is scheduled to reconsider that decision at a hearing Tuesday. Even if the panel sticks with the earlier finding, Schoenfeld, now 56, would not be scheduled for release until 2021, and his parole would have to clear several more hurdles, including review by the governor. The other two kidnappers have yet to be found suitable for parole.

"No one is condoning the crime, but to have taxpayers keep them in prison at this time is ludicrous," Handleman said. "Vengeance is a luxury California can no longer afford."

*****

The year was 1976. It was July, hot, the next-to-last day of summer school. The big yellow school bus from Dairyland Unified was lumbering down country roads lined with fruit trees, same as they are today.

The bus driver, farmer Ed Ray, was born in Chowchilla. He knew all the kids. Some were the grandchildren of his own classmates. They ranged in age from 5 to 14. The youngest, Monica Ardery, would ask the gunman with the pantyhose over his face, legs hanging alongside his head like ears, if he was the Easter Bunny. The oldest, Mike Marshall, was the son of a rodeo cowboy.

Ray saw a white van stopped in the road. He slowed down to see if it was someone with engine trouble. Three gunmen jumped out, commandeered the bus and drove it into a dry canal bottom, where another van waited.

The children and Ray were herded into the back of the two vans. With no water and no bathroom breaks, they were driven for 11 hours, the smaller kids throwing up from motion sickness, the older kids singing songs to cheer them up: "Boogie Nights," "Love Will Keep Us Together" and "If You're Happy and You Know it Clap Your Hands." They changed the words to "If you're sad and you know it ..."

At 3:30 a.m., they arrived at a Livermore quarry 100 miles from Chowchilla. The kidnappers made each of them give their name and a piece of clothing, then climb down a ladder into a buried moving van. Along one wall were dirty mattresses and containers of water. It was stuffy, with only two air tubes. Above them, the men started throwing dirt over the roof. Children screamed. One fainted. Ray tried to soothe them, but he was crying. He was sure the roof was going to cave in.

Marshall announced that he wasn't going to die without trying to get out. Ray, Marshall and the older boys stacked the mattresses, climbed on top and used wooden slats to dislodge a steel plate on the roof of the van that was covering the hole through which they had entered. Two tractor batteries were holding down the plate.

They poured water over their heads to fight heat exhaustion and kept pushing until they moved the plate.

The children of Chowchilla climbed out — 16 hours after they'd been buried.

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