CHOWCHILLA (AP) — One of three men who kidnapped a busload of California school children has been released from prison after more than 35 years behind bars.
State prison officials said Thursday that Richard Allen Schoenfeld was released on parole to an undisclosed location late Wednesday. He will be monitored 24 hours a day with a GPS device.
An appeals court ordered his release earlier this year, ruling that the Board of Parole Hearings unfairly set his parole date for 2021 even though it concluded he wasn’t a threat to society.
Schoenfeld and two others were convicted in the 1976 kidnapping. Their captives — students from Chowchilla and their bus driver — managed to escape when the kidnappers decided to take a nap before calling in their ransom demand.
The cases of Schoenfeld and his accomplices — his brother John Schoenfeld and their friend Fred Woods — has become something of a cause celebre among lawyers, judges and others lobbying for reforms in the California parole system they view as too harsh. All three have good prison records and became eligible for release years ago, which has been opposed by many of the victims and some residents of Chowchilla.
John Schoenfeld and Woods have parole hearings later this year.
“After some 36 years, Richard Schoenfeld’s parole release is long, long overdue,” said Gary Dubcoff, John Schoenfeld’s attorney. “He worked extremely hard to rehabilitate himself, and my great hope is that his two codefendants, his older brother James Schoenfeld and Fred Woods, will soon follow him as they have worked equally hard and are equally worthy.”
Schoenfeld and his brother John Schoenfeld, who grew up as the sons of a podiatrist in the tony San Francisco suburb of Atherton, along with friend Fred Woods hatched their kidnap-for-ransom plan in 1976 after falling into debt because of a real estate deal gone sour. They spent 18 months working on the plan.
On July 16, 1976, they pretended their van had engine problems along Avenue 21 about 35 miles north of Fresno, prompting bus driver Ed Ray to pull over and park his bus of 26 summer school students.
The trio, who were wearing pantyhose on their heads, forced the victims into two vans and hid the bus in a creek bed. They drove about 100 miles to a Livermore quarry owned by Woods’ father and sealed the children and Ray in a trailer buried underground. They then left to make their $5 million ransom demand.
The Chowchilla Police Department was swamped with so many calls that the kidnappers couldn’t get through so they decided to take a nap before calling in their demand.
When they awoke, Ray and the two oldest children had managed to stack mattresses high enough to escape through the roof. Eventually, all the abductees staggered to safety.
Richard Schoenfeld turned himself in eight days later. His brother and Woods were arrested the next week.
The case was turned into a 1993 made-for-television movie titled “They’ve Taken Our Children: The Chowchilla Kidnapping,” starring Karl Malden as Ray.
Ray, 91, died last month.