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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

One of the kidnappers was Fred Woods, son of Frederick Woods III, who owned the quarry as well as a 100-acre Portola Valley estate. The others were Richard and James Schoenfeld, sons of a wealthy Menlo Park podiatrist. All three were captured within weeks, convicted of kidnapping with bodily harm and sentenced to life without parole.

Invariably described as "clean-cut," they had never before been in trouble with the law. In high school, Woods wore Hush Puppy loafers and button-down shirts at a time when other teenagers were wearing bell bottoms and love beads. Both Schoenfeld brothers were Eagle Scouts.

In their early 20s, the three tinkered with cars, dabbled in real estate and dreamed of becoming movie moguls. Their scheme started as an idea for a screenplay about the perfect crime — a big ransom, victims released unharmed and everything wrapped up in 24 hours.

After they lost $30,000 on a housing deal, they started plotting the kidnapping for real, hoping to make some easy money.

After they imprisoned Ray and the children, they left to call in a $5-million ransom demand to the Chowchilla Police Department. The phone lines were busy. They took naps and awoke to the news that the children had escaped.

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, stomach upset 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.

Since then, each has been denied parole dozens of times. Supporters say their continued imprisonment makes a mockery of the idea of rehabilitation. Minier, now a retired judge, favors parole for all three kidnappers.

"Quite frankly, I am simply amazed that Richard Schoenfeld, given his record as a model prisoner, was not paroled years ago," Minier wrote the parole board in 2006.

At the Feb. 23 news conference in San Francisco, Dale Fore, one of the lead investigators in the case, said: "They were just dumb rich kids, and they paid a hell of a price for what they did."

After retiring from the Madera County Sheriff's Department, Fore worked as a private investigator for the Woods family's attorneys, tracking down kidnapping victims to see if any would write letters of support for parole. None has.

"I might not be the most popular guy when I get back home," Fore said. "But right is right. How much time do you want out of these guys?"

******

Jennifer Hyde, who left town years ago, was shocked when those who worked so hard to put the trio in prison lobbied for their release.

"It feels like a slap in the face," said Hyde, who was 10-year-old Jennifer Brown when she was kidnapped. "Many years ago, I decided that it wasn't my mission to make sure they burned in hell. I found peace. But to have the very people who were our heroes, our protectors, switch sides. I feel betrayed."

Hyde has never stopped sleeping with a night light and seldom lets her two children out of her sight. She said she is again replaying the captivity that had her waking up screaming well into her 20s.

"I keep thinking about how, in that van, I could see them up there in the air conditioning, popping sodas. There was an open crack between us. I screamed, kicked, begged, pleaded. They could hear us — after a while, smell us. They just banged on the side and told us to shut up."

Retired Court of Appeal Justice William Newsom was a member of the panel that overturned the original sentence, and for decades he has written letters supporting parole. "It's a matter of justice," he said.

"I don't believe in punishment for punishment's sake. They've been model prisoners. They've served their time. It was awful, but it was more of a mad prank than a vicious crime. There was no bodily harm. To keep them in prison at this time is histrionics to me."

*****

The school bus is still in Chowchilla. The school district gave it to Ray, and when he and his wife Odessa moved from their farm into town, they sold it to neighbor Arthur Bright.

Bright, 88, keeps it in a warehouse/museum on the grounds of his nursery. The yellow bus is a spot of color amid a jumble of older things, including the world's second-oldest tractor as verified by the Smithsonian Institution. (Queen Elizabeth II has the oldest.)

Bright and his wife were in Sweden visiting a former foreign exchange student when the kidnapping happened. They watched it on TV in the days before CNN.

"Me in Sweden watching Chowchilla. Couldn't hardly believe it," he said. "The whole world was waiting, not understanding how a bus and all those kids could just disappear."

Bright takes his time weighing in on the idea of parole for Woods and the Schoenfeld brothers. He's eating an ice cream bar, and he finishes the chocolate coating before answering.

"It's been a real long time. But I never did figure out what was wrong with those boys to do such a thing," he said. "They're not suffering any bodily harm. I think they ought to best stay right where they are."

Marcum is a Times special correspondent.

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