The children vanished 45 years ago


Wendy Alexander/Madera Tribune File Photo

Former Madera County Sheriff Ed Bates answers questions from students who were investigating the Chowchilla kidnapping in 2019. Bates was sheriff when the kidnapping was committed.

 

Forty-five years ago the children vanished.


On July 15, 1976, the infamous Chowchilla kidnappers committed that horrible crime, which riveted the world’s attention on that small town just north of Madera.


Two of the three abductors have been paroled, but one, Frederick Woods, remains behind bars. I don’t know whether he will ever be released.


I was living in Chowchilla then; in fact, I was on the school board there, so like everyone else, I sure remember the day when he was brought to Chowchilla to face arraignment in Judge Howard Green’s Justice Court.


I remember watching the back entrance to the court and observing Judge Green enter the building with a stack of books under his arm (I presume they were law books). I didn’t see the kidnappers arrive, but I saw the men with rifles positioned on top of the Government Center/Fire House.


That morning I joined the rest of the world to watch as the two Schoenfelds and Woods began their journey through American justice.


Judge Green set their bail at $1,000,000 each and sent them back to Alameda County where they had buried the 26 children they planned to hold for ransom. In a few days they were returned to Madera County.


On Monday, August 23, the Chowchilla kidnapping case moved to the city of Madera where the County Grand Jury took up the kidnapping case. Emerson Bain was the foreman.


On the first day of testimony, the doors to the Superior Courtroom number two in the Madera Government Center were locked and the windows covered with paper. Nineteen jurors filed in at 9 o’clock that Monday morning, and Ed Ray, the children’s school bus driver, arrived at 9:35.


The first witness called was Lee Roy Tatum, superintendent of the Dairyland School. Next to testify was Sheriff’s Deputy Chuck Reiring, who was reportedly the first officer at the scene when the school bus was found in Berenda Slough. Sgt. Bill Cooley, the watch commander during the shift in which the kidnapping took place, followed Reiring. In the late morning and afternoon, Ed Ray and 23 of the 26 children testified.


After three days of testimony, which included some 60 witnesses, including the three defendants and about 150 pieces of evidence, the Madera County Grand Jury voted on Wednesday, August 25, to indict the Chowchilla kidnap suspects on 45 felony counts. September 22 was set by Superior Court Judge Jack L. Hammerberg as the date for receiving pleas from the accused trio. In the meantime, the defendants were returned to jail in Alameda County.


On September 22, the defendants were flown to the Madera airport and transported to Judge Hammerberg’s court, but very little action took place that day. An expected request for a change of venue and the entering of pleas was continued until October 27.


On that date, Herbert W. Yanowitz, counsel for the defense, presented mounds of evidence to support his claim that pre-trial publicity made it impossible for the defendants to obtain a fair trial in Madera County. He began by introducing 174 pieces of print media evidence, including copies of the Madera Tribune, Fresno Bee, San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, and Time Magazine. Yanowitz also called the news directors from KMJ, KFRE, KARM, Channel 24, Channel 30, and Channel 47 to testify.


Madera County’s new district attorney, David Minier, questioned whether or not the coverage of the kidnapping was any less intense in the Valley than in Los Angeles or San Francisco. None of the media representatives would hazard a guess.


Finally, defense attorney Edward Merrill summed up his case for a change of venue by alleging that the citizens of Madera County were too involved emotionally and politically with the 26 school children and their bus driver, Ed Ray, to have an open mind. Judge Hammerberg indicated to counsel that he would decide the venue issue after November 5.


On Friday, November 5, Judge Hammerberg granted a change of venue, and the case finally left Madera County for Alameda County.


The defendants were tried, convicted, and received life sentences. All three remained behind bars until Richard Schoenfeld received a parole in 2012, and James Schoenfeld was granted a parole sometime later.


As I wrote above, I don’t know whether or not Woods will ever be released from prison, and I don’t know if the Schoenfelds should have been. There is, however, one thing I do know. Their inexcusable tyranny over the lives of 26 youngsters and bus driver Ed Ray will remain vivid as long as there is anyone alive who lived in Chowchilla on the day the children vanished.