Guest Author - Donna Johnson
Once the Chowchilla abductees escaped, kidnappers Fred Woods and Jim and Rick Schoenfeld saw their plans for a large payday via ransom destroyed. Fearing capture, Jim and Fred fled town, while Rick stayed behind and told his and Jim’s parents what the trio had done.
However, Rick’s confession, while an admittedly ill-advised move of an amateur criminal, did not lead to the downfall of the abductors. The location of the moving van used to hold the children and Ed Ray pointed directly to Fred, as his family owned the quarry. Further, Fred did not bother to use an alias when buying the moving van, instead giving his true name, and a police search of his home turned up a handwritten note detailing the planned abduction. Then, too, was the fact that Fred had suddenly gone missing as had Jim. Police kept a constant watch on Rick to see if he might lead them to the missing men.
Although Fred made his escape to Canada, Jim was unsuccessful in his attempts to cross the border. Six days after Fred left the country, the news broke that Rick had turned himself in. Upon hearing this, Jim returned to the Bay Area and was quickly recognized and arrested. Fred was captured after writing to a friend and including his return address, a post office box in Vancouver. After a short stakeout of the post office, local police apprehended Fred and sent him back to California.
All three men faced more than 40 felony counts related to the kidnapping and all pleaded not guilty at first. On July 25, 1977, the trio finally pleaded guilty to a reduced number of 27 counts of kidnapping without inflicting injury. However, the judge found that bodily harm had occurred and sentenced the men to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Four years after their conviction, the trio’s sentence was reduced to life with the possibility of parole. Since then, Fred Woods has been eligible for parole 12 times, and denied at each hearing. His next hearing is set for November 2012. Jim Schoenfeld has been refused release a total of 16 times, most recently in 2010. His brother Rick was released from prison in June 2012.
Many of the children suffer ill effects relating to their ordeal to this day. Nightmares are common and some of those who are now parents will not allow their children to ride a school bus. Even a simple childhood song can bring back memories of the time they spent underground, singing to the younger children to calm them.
Bus driver Ed Ray, who was honored with a parade and citation from Jerry Brown, California’s Governor at the time of the kidnappings, developed cirrhosis of the liver. He passed away on May 17, 2012 at the age of 91. Upon hearing of his failing health, many of the children who were on his bus that day paid their hero a final visit.