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Decades after school bus kidnapping, strong feelings in Chowchilla

Most people can tell you exactly where they were when the bus and all those children disappeared.

In the way of small towns, the connections to that dark moment are personal.

Lois Rambo, who runs the lunch counter at Pioneer Market Cafe in Chowchilla, says her daughter would have been on that bus if she hadn't stayed home sick from school that day. Jodi Heffington Medrano, who owns a salon on the square, was one of the children who disappeared.

Photos: Chowchilla kidnappings

Even those who weren't born yet can't remember a time when they didn't know the story of the Chowchilla kidnappings.

Thirty-five years ago, three young men from wealthy families kidnapped a bus full of 26 schoolchildren and their driver in this San Joaquin Valley community and entombed them in a rock quarry. It's the largest kidnapping for ransom in U.S. history and one of California's strangest crimes — a legacy seldom forgotten by outsiders who still connect the name "Chowchilla" to it.

So when news broke that some of the men responsible for putting the kidnappers in prison — judges, prosecutors and investigators — were at a San Francisco news conference calling for their parole, the breakfast crowd at the Tommy Hawk cafe on the town's main street erupted.

"People were actually shaking," said waitress Kelli Redding, recalling that day in February. "They weren't just talking separately at their own tables. The whole place was shouting back and forth. They were saying if life in prison doesn't mean life, then they should have buried those guys in a bus."

It's a case where passions run white-hot, but the legal complexities fill a world of gray. Where does justice end and vengeance begin?

"My client was 22 at the time, and the plan was never to hurt anyone," said Scott Handleman, the attorney for Richard Schoenfeld.

In 2008, a two-person parole board panel deemed Schoenfeld "suitable for parole," an initial step on the long road to possible release. A new panel is scheduled to reconsider that decision at a hearing Tuesday. Even if the panel sticks with the earlier finding, Schoenfeld, now 56, would not be scheduled for release until 2021, and his parole would have to clear several more hurdles, including review by the governor. The other two kidnappers have yet to be found suitable for parole.

"No one is condoning the crime, but to have taxpayers keep them in prison at this time is ludicrous," Handleman said. "Vengeance is a luxury California can no longer afford."

*****

The year was 1976. It was July, hot, the next-to-last day of summer school. The big yellow school bus from Dairyland Unified was lumbering down country roads lined with fruit trees, same as they are today.

The bus driver, farmer Ed Ray, was born in Chowchilla. He knew all the kids. Some were the grandchildren of his own classmates. They ranged in age from 5 to 14. The youngest, Monica Ardery, would ask the gunman with the pantyhose over his face, legs hanging alongside his head like ears, if he was the Easter Bunny. The oldest, Mike Marshall, was the son of a rodeo cowboy.

Ray saw a white van stopped in the road. He slowed down to see if it was someone with engine trouble. Three gunmen jumped out, commandeered the bus and drove it into a dry canal bottom, where another van waited.

The children and Ray were herded into the back of the two vans. With no water and no bathroom breaks, they were driven for 11 hours, the smaller kids throwing up from motion sickness, the older kids singing songs to cheer them up: "Boogie Nights," "Love Will Keep Us Together" and "If You're Happy and You Know it Clap Your Hands." They changed the words to "If you're sad and you know it ..."

At 3:30 a.m., they arrived at a Livermore quarry 100 miles from Chowchilla. The kidnappers made each of them give their name and a piece of clothing, then climb down a ladder into a buried moving van. Along one wall were dirty mattresses and containers of water. It was stuffy, with only two air tubes. Above them, the men started throwing dirt over the roof. Children screamed. One fainted. Ray tried to soothe them, but he was crying. He was sure the roof was going to cave in.

Marshall announced that he wasn't going to die without trying to get out. Ray, Marshall and the older boys stacked the mattresses, climbed on top and used wooden slats to dislodge a steel plate on the roof of the van that was covering the hole through which they had entered. Two tractor batteries were holding down the plate.

They poured water over their heads to fight heat exhaustion and kept pushing until they moved the plate.

The children of Chowchilla climbed out — 16 hours after they'd been buried.

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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