In July 1976, 26 children aged five to 14 were aboard a school bus that was returning from a day trip in Chowchilla, a town in central California. The chilling, carefully planned incident unfolded when the children, 19 girls and seven boys, were abducted on a country road on their way back from a swimming trip. The children and their bus driver were taken at gunpoint and herded into two vans, driven around for eleven hours, then finally made their way to their meant-to-be final destination: entombment in a rock quarry in Livermore, California. It is the most people kidnapped in a single incident in U.S. history.
James Schoenfeld, his younger brother Richard, and accomplice Frederick Woods all pleaded guilty for their roles in the crime, which was reenacted in a 1993 made-for-TV movie They’ve Taken Our Children. Richard Schoenfeld was released in 2012, after serving more than 34 years in prison.
On Wednesday, the Los Angeles Times reported, James Schoenfeld, now 63, who has served 37 years behind bars for the crime, won an initial appeal for parole. He has been denied parole nineteen times previously. But he isn’t a free man yet: it could take up to six months to determine if he is to be paroled as a final judgment, according to the California Corrections agency.
The kidnappers, who were all in their 20s at the time, hatched an elaborate scheme to try to obtain five million dollars in ransom money from the children’s parents. They all came from affluent families and needed the money to recoup losses that they had suffered in failed real estate attempts.
After driving the 26 children and their bus driver around at gunpoint for eleven hours, they led them to a van that had been sunken into mud in the quarry, then covered the top with dirt. They then left them for dead. It is unclear if they attempted to actually collect ransom money during this time period.
After sixteen hours of live entombment, the bus driver, Frank Edward Ray, and some of the older children were able to dislodge the top of the van and dig their way out of the ground and to safety. While none of the victims were seriously injured in a physical sense, there’s no doubt that they suffered serious anguish at the hands of the three kidnappers, who apparently planned to let them die where they had been buried.
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[Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images]