buskidnap.jpgSupporters of three men found guilty of kidnapping a bus full of children in Madera County 35 years ago gathered at San Francisco’s Civic Center Wednesday to call for their release.

Fred Woods and brothers Richard and Jim Schoenfeld hijacked bus driver Ed Ray and 26 children ages 5 to 14 at gunpoint on a country road in Chowchilla in July 1976 as they were returning home from a swim outing.

The three men drove north to Livermore, where they hid their victims in a moving van they’d buried in a rock quarry. They had apparently planned to demand a $5 million ransom.

After 16 hours underground, the victims dug themselves out and escaped with only a few minor injuries before any ransom demands had been made.

Richard Schoenfeld, who was 22 at the time of the kidnapping, surrendered voluntarily to police in Oakland the following week.

By the end of July, Woods, then 24, had been arrested in Vancouver, and Jim Schoenfeld, also 24 at the time of the kidnapping, was arrested in Menlo Park.

The trial was moved from Madera County to Alameda County, and all three men pleaded guilty to 27 counts of kidnapping on July 25, 1977.

Richard Schoenfeld became eligible for parole six months after his incarceration began because he surrendered to police, which led to a reduced prison sentence, but he has been denied parole 19 times.

The parole board found him suitable for parole in 2008 but changed its mind, and is now trying to rescind that finding, Schoenfeld’s attorney, Scott Handleman, said.

Jim Schoenfeld and Fred Woods became eligible for parole after seven years of incarceration, according to their lawyers. Woods has been denied parole 12 times, and Jim Schoenfeld has been denied 16 times.

“The parole board is acting like they’ve been sentenced to die in prison,” Handleman said.

Judges and law enforcement officers joined one of the case’s lead investigators and the case’s prosecutor at today’s rally for the prisoners’ release.

“The court is dead wrong,” retired California Appellate Court Justice William Newsom said. He called the men’s continued incarceration “a gross injustice to all three.”

Supporters argued that their release is in the taxpayers’ best interest, with their imprisonment costing the state more than $150,000 a year.

“Vengeance is a luxury California can no longer afford,” Handleman said.

Dale Fore, one of the lead investigators in the case and the former Madera County Sheriff’s Office chief of detectives, said he believes it’s time for everyone to move on.

“In my opinion, these were just dumb rich kids that tried to rip off the city,” Fore said.
The prison system should rehabilitate prisoners, he said.

“If 35 years later they haven’t been rehabilitated, they have a hell of a problem,” Fore said.

John Schoenfeld, Jim and Richard Schoenfeld’s older brother, blamed their actions on youthful stupidity.

“They had no idea what they were doing–how many kids it would affect, how many families it would affect,” he said. “They certainly do now.”

Photo: Richard Schoenfeld, 1976

Erika Heidecker, Bay City News

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