Opinion: Lest we forget — Chowchilla, 1976
I know that this will make you feel uncomfortable, but I’d like you to join me in an exercise. Pretend that your child has been kidnapped by three young men, placed in a moving van, and then buried alive in a rock quarry. The kidnappers have been captured, tried and found guilty in court, and sentenced to prison. How long should their prison sentences be?
As a father, I have a hard time trying to imagine the degree of horror I would have experienced if my child had been abducted and subjected to those conditions. However, the families of twenty-six children, as well as an untold number of other loved ones, had to deal with that situation in 1976 in Chowchilla. Now their memories have been rekindled by an action taken by the California Board of Parole Hearings. Here’s a brief summary of the story.
Three young San Francisco men — Frederick Woods, James Schoenfeld, and his brother Richard Schoenfeld — were feeling deprived. At one of his parole hearings, James Schoenfeld told members of the Board that he was envious of friends who had “his-and-hers Ferraris.” At a different hearing, Frederick Woods said that he just “got greedy.” So, he masterminded a scheme to kidnap a large number of children and demand a $5 million ransom (about $27 million in 2022 dollars).
The three felons chose a Dairyland Elementary School bus that was transporting 26 children home from a summer-class trip. The children and their driver, “Ed” Ray, were placed in two vans, driven around for about 11 hours, and then taken to a quarry in Livermore that was owned by Frederick Woods’ father. There, they were forced to descend a ladder into a moving van that had been set below ground level. It had been fitted with a ventilation device that was designed by James Schoenfeld. The moving van was then buried.
The children, between 5- and 14-years-of-age, were trapped in the van for 16 hours with a small amount of food and water before they followed their bus driver and clawed their way to freedom. After he was captured, James Schoenfeld said that, despite coming from wealthy families, the three kidnappers were deeply in debt. “We needed multiple victims to get multiple millions, and we picked children because children are precious.”
All three were found guilty of kidnapping and inflicting bodily harm. Each received a sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of parole. However, in 1980, an appellate court found that cuts and bruises did not meet the standard for “bodily harm,” and the felons were re-sentenced to life with the possibility of parole. One of the judges who sat on a 1980 panel to review the case was William Newsom, the father of California’s present governor, Gavin Newsom, who has the power to approve the parole of Frederick Woods.
In 2015, James Schoenfeld cleared the final hurdle for parole, and the decision was left to then-Governor Jerry Brown. At the time, the Board of Parole Hearings found that James had met the conditions of a new law that requires parole commissioners to give greater weight to freeing prisoners who were youthful offenders when they committed their crimes. (The ages of the kidnappers ranged from 22 to 24.) The Board also believed that James was contrite.
Linda Carrejo-Labendeira, one of the victims, told People magazine, “Just two years ago at the last hearing, James, who designed the contraption where we were held, said he spent years designing a better one. Does that sound like someone who is remorseful?”
Moreover, a study found that the kidnapped children suffered from many years of psychological damage. They experienced panic attacks, nightmares involving kidnappings and death, personality changes, and fear of “hippies.”
Richard Schoenfeld was paroled in 2012 at age 57, and James Schoenfeld was paroled in 2015 at age 63. Meanwhile, Frederick Woods inherited a fortune worth more than $120 million. He has spent his time in prison getting richer day by day. He has been directing several businesses from behind bars. They include Ambria Acres Christmas Tree Farm, Little Bear Creek gold mine near Lake Tahoe, and a used-car business. He has also purchased a mansion in Nipomo, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and he has been married three times while in prison.
In 2016, the 25 surviving kidnapped children settled a lawsuit that they’d filed against their kidnappers. The money that they received came from Frederick Woods’ trust fund. The amount of money has never been revealed, but one of the survivors said that they each received “enough to pay for some serious therapy — but not enough for a house.”
This year, the 70-year-old Woods has been recommended for parole by a panel of two commissioners, and that recommendation is now in the hands of Governor Newsom. At this point, let me return to the question with which I challenged you at the top of this column: How long should their prison sentences be?
I made up my mind before I finished writing that introductory paragraph. Now, what’s your opinion?
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Jim Glynn is Professor Emeritus of Sociology. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.