July 1976, the summer school in the small town of Chowchilla, California (a form of school-running organized by universities in the summer, which started in 1871 at Harvard University) In full swing, school bus driver Ed Ray drives 26 kids home. Out of nowhere, three men block the bus and commit one of the largest kidnappings in American history.
As if locking the kids up on the school bus wasn’t enough to make them feel safe, the three male kidnappers ended up putting their 27 targets back in the windowless van , and was thrown into a simple underground prison without enough food and water. Fortunately, Ed Ray was determined to protect them, and finally managed to help the children escape with the help of a student.
Although the story has a seemingly happy ending, the effects of the prolonged captivity on the children, as well as the senseless reasoning behind the events, continue to haunt the survivors and the town itself.
When the school bus was hijacked, the driver Ed Ray was driving a group of children home
On July 15, 1976, Ed Ray drove his school bus with 26 students aged 5 to 14 child, follow his normal route. The kids played in the pool all day, and then started the journey home with the driver. Upon reaching a white van parked in the middle of the road, Ray tried to go around it but was stopped by a gunman with pantyhose over his head. “Can you open the door?” was all the gangster said, and Ray complied.
As soon as the car door opened, two more gunmen got into the car, their faces also covered by stockings. One of them got into the driver’s seat while the other two got back into their white van and headed to the next location. At this time, the time is about three thirty to four in the afternoon.
The gunman loaded the children into the van and the bus was abandoned
The hijacked bus and white van pulled up about a mile from the original crime scene and two men began removing the children from the vehicle and driving them away. Get into a white van and a green van. During this period, children were forced to jump from the bus to the windowless van, trying to avoid leaving footprints for the police to follow.
Soon, they threw the school bus into the bushes and drove away quickly with the children and Ray. The drive to the third location took about 12 hours, during which time the children and Ray were left in the back of two vans without food, water or any accommodation.
The hostages were forced into a crumbling underground bunker
Two vans, and kidnapped The final destination of the men was a quarry in Livermore, California, more than 100 miles from Chowchilla. Once there, Ray and the boys were brought down again and herded into a truck trailer 12 feet below the quarry floor. In this makeshift cell, there are dirty mattresses, water, toilets and food, but not enough air circulation for the already suffering children.
The kidnappers also forced each child to provide their name and a piece of clothing to satisfy the ransom demand the three planned to make. After locking up their target, the trio shoveled more earth onto the already covered trailer to bury it, causing the roof to buckle and the children to panic.
After the children disappeared for 15 minutes, the town noticed that they were missing
Ray was such a reliable school bus driver that parents started asking where their kids were within 15 minutes of not being able to get home. Police were also notified, local television stations picked up the news, and hordes of parents immediately began searching for their missing children.
At about 6:30 that night, the police dispatched an aircraft to search for the missing school bus, which was found by an officer two hours later. No clues have been found on the abandoned school bus, and even President Ford and California Governor Brown have given agencies carte blanche to do whatever it takes to find the children. Later, even the FBI joined the search at Chowchilla’s hotel.
Ray can keep the kids calm when the ceiling is collapsing and the food runs out
Although the kidnappers provided some food for Lei and the children under his care,food and water, but not enough for the nearly 12 hours they spent in the makeshift prison. To make matters worse, the ceiling seemed to be buckling under the weight of the floor.
They need to act, and fast. So they started piling mattresses together and trying to climb into the hole in the roof of the car, while the water became their cooling device. Throughout, Ray had the kids sing to keep their spirits up and did his best to keep them calm, and planned to escape by climbing into the hole in the roof of the car with the two older kids.
His quick thinking and leadership skills played a vital role in keeping the children safe.
After 16 hours underground, hostages escape and help is found
Ray and 14-year-old Michael Marshall piled mattresses into the hole in the roof of their car and took turns pushing the manhole cover that blocked their escape. And to do that, here they had to remove the wooden bars from the box springs and pour water on themselves to avoid exhaustion, moving not only the cover but also the two tractor batteries on it.
The manhole cover was finally removed and Michael began digging his way through the 12 feet of dirt. Ray then led the children out one by one, and his presence at the quarry soon caught the attention of a nearby worker who gave them some Pepsi and called the authorities. Afterwards, another bus was dispatched to take Ray and the children to Santa Rosa Correctional Facility, where they were given necessities and checked by a doctor before returning to Chowchilla.
The incident caught the attention of hundreds of journalists and became international news
As Law enforcement officers converged on Chowchilla, and television crews converged on Chowchilla. Not all the attention was positive, as Ray’s family recalled a reporter questioning his integrity and suggesting he might have been involved in the children’s disappearance.
Chowchilla Sheriff’s Office received numerous reports due to local and national news media attention. The reports weren’t helpful in themselves, but they did keep the phone lines busy, preventing the kidnappers from calling the city to demand a ransom. In the end, it also made it impossible for the kidnappers to demand a ransom from the government, which indirectly thwarted their plan.
Law enforcement agencies found the suspect in just two weeks
While the kidnapping quickly became the focus of the media, one benefit of the focus of so many different investigative agencies on the incident was that they quickly located the three culprits. The three are 24-year-old Frederick Newhall Woods, 24-year-old James Schoenfeld and 22-year-old Richard Schoenfeld. After the media attention and the escape of their hostages, Woods and James head to Reno to hide, then to Canada, while Richard returns home to confess to his father.
The quarry where Ray and the children were held belonged to Woods’ father, and witnesses saw three men digging there a few months before the incident. Richard eventually turned himself in to police, while Woods and James remain at large. With the attention of the global media and the participation of several agencies, Woods and James were finally brought to justice.
All three were from wealthy families
Woods, James and Richard were presumably influenced by Inspired by the movie “Dirty Harry,” they wanted access to a $5 million surplus fund held by the state of California, so they made the plan a year and a half before that day in July. Oddly enough, they don’t need money. All three live in expensive San Francisco suburbs and come from well-to-do families. Woods’ father owned a quarry where they ended up imprisoning the kids and the driver, and James and Richard’s family were able to hire very expensive lawyers to defend them.
Nonetheless, the trio planned to hijack the school bus and demand a $5 million ransom from the state of California to ensure the safe return of the children. However, when the trio tried to call to demand the ransom, the Chowchilla County Sheriff’s Office’s phone line was busy, and it was the opportunity that allowed Ray and the boys to escape from their makeshift prison.
All three men were ultimately convicted and sentenced to life in prison, though the Schoenfeld brothers have been released on parole. Woods will be officially granted parole in August 2022 after being previously denied 17 times.
While the children were unharmed, some became claustrophobic as a result of the incident
After escaping and being rescued, the children were informed of their health status apart from exhaustion and hungergood. However, the long-term torment affects them including fear of the dark, claustrophobia, and other ailments.
When interviewed as adults, some victims said they still had nightmares about that day. A woman who experienced this incident as a child, Jennifer Brown Hyde, shared:
Until recently, I slept with the night light on. I get anxious when I’m in a confined space.
Ray became a local hero, a movie about the incident also features him
In 1993, he was even featured in a film adaptation of that tragic day in July 1976. The ABC telefilm, Vanishing Without a Trace, which stars Karl Malden as Ray, attempts to recreate the kidnapping.