Taken: the day the children vanished

Hearkening back to a phrase used by President Franklin Roosevelt on December 7, 1941, Ed King, editor of the Madera Tribune, began the paper’s lead story by writing “July 15 will be a day of infamy [that] no one in Madera County will ever forget.” Across the top of the page, headlines screamed, “Madera County Horror Story — 26 Children and Their Driver are Missing.”


It was a bone-chilling fact and tragically true. It was as if the earth had opened and all 27 precious souls had been swallowed. The grim facts shook, not only Madera and Madera County, but the whole world as well. It all started at about 4 p.m. on Thursday, July 15,1976.


Ed Ray, a school bus driver for the Dairyland School District was delivering his charges to their rural homes.


He had dropped off the fifth student, Suzan Zylstra, age 7, at her home on Road 16.


About an hour later, the Chowchilla police received a phone call from an anxious parent who reported that her child had not been dropped off. By 6 p.m., numerous frantic parents of children on the normally cheerful school bus had notified police that their precious “cargo” was also missing. At that time, Madera County sheriff’s deputies began an intensive search for the missing school bus.


An aerosquadron plane from the sheriff’s reserve went airborne, and four hours after, the busload of children was reported missing, the vehicle was found — minus the kids and the bus driver.


Guided by the airplane, lawmen made their way to the bus, which had been hidden in a slough and then backed into the thick foliage. The precise location was eight miles southwest of Chowchilla. The ignition on the bus was locked, and the key was gone.


Madera County Sheriff Ed Bates, who took command of the search and rescue effort, had the area roped off, and a barn-to-barn and house-to-house search commenced. Nothing was found.


An eerie atmosphere during the night settled around the “command post,” which had been set up in the Chowchilla fire and police department building.


A rare July storm sent thunder rocketing throughout the area and frightening streaks of lightening illuminated the ominous, cloudy sky. They added to the foreboding feeling everybody had about the bizarre case.


By the morning of July 16, more than 70 lawmen searched the area for clues to the disappearance. Citizen band radio owners volunteered by the droves.


Big rig truck drivers heard about the search, and many left State Route 99 to journey to the Chowchilla police station to lend their assistance. They searched all day Friday and on into the night.


The FBI sent Robert E. Gebhardt to Chowchilla to “take personal charge” of the case. In Washington, President Gerald Ford said he was “very concerned” and ordered the FBI to keep him informed. What the world didn’t know was that the 26 children and their bus driver Ed Ray had been imprisoned in a buried truck trailer near Livermore, California.


On Thursday, the day of their abduction, the kidnap victims had been happy and carefree until driver Ed Ray spotted a white van stopped in the middle of the road ahead of him on Avenue 21. It had its door open.


When he tried to go around the van, a man with a shotgun jumped out and ordered Ray out of the bus. The suspect was wearing a nylon stocking mask and was joined by two accomplices, each of whom were wearing similar masks.


One of the suspects got into the bus and drove it into the dry Berenda Slough, while each of the other two kidnappers followed with vans — one white and one black. When the bus reached the slough, the children were transferred to the vans, which had boards over the windows.


The kidnappers drove Ray and the children around for 11 hours. Finally, about 3:30 Friday morning, the vans reached their destination, an old, abandoned quarry outside Livermore. The kidnappers made the victims crawl down into the buried trailer and then covered the access hole with heavy truck batteries.


The young captives and their driver found their makeshift prison stocked with water, potato chips, cheerios, and a couple of loaves of bread. Ray did his best to rally the spirits of the kids while searching for an escape.


About 8 p.m. on Friday, Ray and two of the older boys, Mike Marshall, age 14, and Roberto Gonzales, stacked up several of the mattresses that had been left for them by the abductors and were able to reach the top of the trailer. Working in shifts the trio were somehow able to move the steel plate and the large, heavy batteries, which kept them entombed. Shortly after that the victims climbed out of their prison and went in search of help.


Authorities in Chowchilla didn’t learn that the victims had worked their way free until after 9 o’clock, when a news bulletin informed them of the escape. Alameda County officials had tried to keep the information confidential in hopes that the kidnappers would return to the scene, but the news leaked out, and soon the whole world knew.


After escaping from the buried truck trailer, Ray and the children walked to a gravel pit about 200 feet away from where they had been entombed. There, they found a man who alerted authorities. In a short time, the victims were being examined by medical personnel at the Santa Rita Rehabilitation Center for Alameda County.


Sometime after midnight, Ray and the children were put on a Greyhound bus and at 3:50 Saturday morning, were led into the crowded Chowchilla Government Center.


A crowd of several hundred relatives, friends, and media persons greeted Ray and the kids with cheers and applause. They were wearing the gowns given to them at the Rehabilitation Center. Although some of the older children smiled as they walked off the bus, many of the younger kids were carried by deputies and nurses who had ridden with them. Most of the children were then carried out to cars by their parents, who avoided the assembled reporters and cameras.