From the Archives: The 1976 Chowchilla bus kidnapping

July 17, 1976: Alameda County Sheriff Tom Houchins briefs the news media at the Livermore quarry where the Chowchilla children were buried. They escaped through the shaft lower right in this photo.
(Boris Yaro / Los Angeles Times)

On July 15, 1976, three gunmen kidnapped 26 children and their driver off a Chowchilla, Calif., school bus. The kidnappers buried the victims inside a truck trailer at a Livermore, Calif., quarry.

Then ransom was demanded.

In an April 3, 2011, Los Angeles Times article, Diana Marcum reported:

Reporting from Chowchilla, Calif. — 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.

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

July 16, 1976: Police and parents inspect the Dairyland Union school bus after it was found near Chowchilla with all 26 students and driver missing. The man facing the camera is Denver Williams, whose daughter Lisa, 12, was among the missing.
(Associated Press)
July 17, 1976: Bob, left, and Carol Marshall talk to a reporter while waiting at command post for return of their son Mike and other kidnap victims. Boys on right were not identified.
(Rick Meyer / Los Angeles Times)

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….

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 ..."

July 23, 1976: Interior of moving van where Chowchilla kidnap victims were held.
(Rick Meyer / Los Angeles Times)

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…


For more, check out bus driver Ed Ray's 2012 Los Angeles Times obituary: Frank Edward Ray dies at 91; hero in Chowchilla school bus hijacking.

Richard Schoenfeld was paroled in 2012. James Schoenfeld was paroled in 2015. Frederick Woods is still incarcerated.

This post was originally published on July 14, 2014.

July 20, 1976: Moving van trailer in which the Chowchilla victims were imprisoned after being dug up by police at the Livermore quarry.
(Boris Yaro / Los Angeles Times)
July 17, 1976: Rock quarry in Livermore, Calif., where kidnapped children and their bus driver were held prisoner. The circle in upper left locates the area where the captives were buried in a trailer.
(Boris Yaro / Los Angeles Times)
July 17, 1976: Officers escort chidren from Greyhound bus upon their return to Chowchilla at 4 a.m.
(Rick Meyer / Los Angeles Times)
July 17, 1976: Kidnap victims Judy Reynolds, 13, and her sister Rebecca, 9, left photo, at home. At center is an unidentified parent with rescued victim. At right, Mr. and Mrs. Bill Parker with daughter Barbara at home.
(Fitzgerald Whitney (left and right photos) and Rick Meyer (center) / Los Angeles Times)
July 17, 1976: Sandy Zylstra, 7, third from right, was the last child to get off the school bus before kidnappers seized 26 Chowchilla children. She and Sunday school classmates sing at church during a celebration of the rescue.
(Art Rogers / Los Angeles Times)
Oct. 19, 1976: Chowchilla bus kidnapping suspects from left, James Schoenfeld, Fred N. Woods and Richard Schoenfeld arrive for court session in Madera, Calif.
(Joe Kennedy / Los Angeles Times Archive / UCLA)
Aug. 22, 1976: Bus driver Ed Ray is surrounded by some of the children he is credited with rescuing as Chowchilla celebrates "Ed Ray and Children Day," with parade, speeches and barbecue.
(Art Rogers / Los Angeles Times)
Aug. 22, 1976: Chowchilla kidnapping bus driver Ed Ray and children at a parade held in his honor. Over 4,000 people attended "Ed Ray and Children's Day" celebrations in Chowchilla.
(Art Rogers / Los Angeles Times Archive / UCLA)
Jan. 6, 1983: Bus driver Ed Ray in front of the bus he drove the day of the Chowchilla kidnapping.
(Jose Galvez / Los Angeles Times)

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