The Chowchilla Kidnapping: A Chilling Account of Terror and Survival

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On July 15, 1976, a bus carrying 26 children and their bus driver was abducted in Chowchilla, California. Their kidnappers buried them underground in a quarry 100 miles away. Terrified and sure they would die, they managed to dig their way out. A new 48 Hours episode documents the Chowchilla Kidnapping survivors’ account and it will send chills down your spine.

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“It was like looking at death,” said survivor Larry Park. He was just 6 years old that day.

Dairyland Elementary School Students Were Returning Home From a Field Trip When They Were Abducted in Chowchilla

Dairyland Elementary School students ages 5 to 14 had gone on a summer trip to the Chowchilla Fairgrounds swimming pool. Located in Madera County, California, the area sees sweltering hot temperatures in the summer, averaging in the mid to upper 90s. Survivors Jennifer Brown Hyde (then 9) and Jodi Heffington (then 10) recalled how they were “laughing and singing” and “happy” as they journeyed homeward.

Around 4 pm, bus driver Frank Edward (Ed) Ray had just dropped off two children.

“All of a sudden he said, what the heck is this?” Heffington remembered.

A white van was blocking an intersection on a county road and, as Ed tried to drive the bus around it, a man came out. He had a stocking over his face and was holding a gun as he demanded to board the bus. Then another masked man came on with a sawed-off double-barrel shot gun. They told Ed to move to the back and started driving the bus. A third man drove the white van and followed them.

Everyone Was Forced Into Two Vans, Driven Around For 12 Hours

The bus was then brought to a swamp by the Chowchilla River and the 26 children and bus driver were forced into two vans. Everyone was ordered to jump from the bus to the vans so that they didn’t leave footprints.

The abductors drove them around for almost 12 hours. The windows were covered, and they had no idea where they were.

“We’d bang on where the driver’s panel would be,” said Heffington. “Like, ‘let us out, let us out!’ And, they would just say, ‘Shut up!’”

“We drove for what seemed like hours upon hours upon hours,” said Hyde. “We would try to comfort each other.”

“A few of my own little friends that are 5 and 6, they came over and started lying on me and crying. And I told them, ‘Be brave, because everything’s going to be alright.’” The words are a vintage recording of Hyde just after the abduction.

They were eventually brought to a quarry in Livermore, California. Then one by one, everyone was taken out of the vans.

They Were Buried Alive in a Truck Trailer 12 Feet Underground

“They opened up the door and they took Ed Ray out first; they shut the doors back,” said Park.

One by one, the abductors would open the doors and grab whichever child was closest.

“But when they opened the doors, you don’t see them,” said Heffington. “I thought they were basically killing us each, one at a time.”

The abductors — James Schoenfeld, Richard Schoenfeld, and Frederick Newhall Woods IV — weren’t killing them. They were taking down each person’s name and then telling them to climb down a ladder into an underground hole. They’d buried a moving truck trailer and fitted it with a small stockpile of food and water, toilets, mattresses, and a ventilation pipe. The men had spent months setting this up.

The last to enter the underground trailer were 14-year-old Michael Marshall and 5-year-old Monica Ardery, the oldest and youngest of the children. After everyone was together, the abductors threw a roll of toilet paper down, took the ladder away, and said they’d return. They covered the opening with a manhole cover.

“I remembered it just went dark,” Marshall recalled. “And you could hear the material getting thrown on us. We had been buried alive.”

The abductors had buried the truck trailer under 12 feet of earth. After Ed Ray and Michael Marshall failed to find any way out, Ed Ray told the children to “get some rest.”

“It would be silent and then somebody would burst out crying. And then it would just erupt. Everybody crying,” said Marshall.

The Chowchilla Kidnappers Intended on Ransoming Everyone

As the hours went by, parents, police, and FBI agents were frantically searching for the missing children. Phone lines were jammed as the kidnapping had made national news.

The Chowchilla kidnappers had intended on ransoming everyone to the state of California. But they needed to call the police to inform them that they had everyone. With all the phone lines jammed, they failed to get through. Their plan was failing, and everyone was running out of time. The truck was starting to cave in, food and water had run out, and their jail was becoming a tomb.

Ed Ray Helped 14-Year-Old Michael Marshall Dig His Way Out

Then everyone worked together to stack the mattresses as high as possible underneath the manhole cover. Michael Marshall stood on Ed Ray and Jodi Heffington’s shoulders and pushed up against the manhole. The abductors had placed truck batteries and dirt on top and covered it all with a wooden box. Eventually, Marshall was able to push everything aside.

“Edward squeezes me through this half foot hole. I get on top of it and start pounding on this box. I started hitting and pounding, hitting, and pounding.” It’s a recording of Michael Marshall from the 70s, shortly after the kidnapping. “None of knew if when we got out, they were just going to be standing there with shotguns at our head and stuff. So, we were kind of pretty scared.”

“He dug until he was exhausted and then he kept on digging,” said Larry Park. “There was no quit in him… Then suddenly, this ray of sunlight…” He stops to hold back tears. “This ray of sunlight came down into the opening. It was catching the dust and the dust particles looked like a bunch of shooting stars. There was this airflow that came out of the [truck]. And I knew we were free.”

They’d been underground for 16 hours.

All 26 Children and the Bus Driver Made it Out Alive

Once they got out, the children and Ed Ray sought out quarry workers, who immediately called the authorities. They were all taken to a local jail as it was the nearest place big enough to accommodate them.

“An Alameda County jail bus came, and it was like, yeah, they put us back on a bus,” Heffington recalled.

Exhausted, terrified, and traumatized, everyone was given soda and apples while calls home were made. They were finally reunited with their families.

Frederick Woods, James Shoenfield, and Richard Schoenfield Were Apprehended

All three perpetrators fled, and their ransom note and plan of action were discovered. Richard Schoenfield then turned himself in 8 days after.

Frederick Woods’ father owned the quarry. Immediately a subject of the investigation, a warrant was issued, and Frederick was caught in Vancouver, British Columbia two weeks later. That same day, James Schoenfield was captured in Menlo Park, California.

The Chowchilla kidnappers eventually pleaded guilty to 27 counts of ransom and robbery. Because they didn’t plead guilty to bodily harm, they were given life sentences that allowed for the possibility of parole.

Over the years, many of the victims attended the kidnappers’ parole hearings. Distraught, forever traumatized, the idea of these men being released was a nightmare in itself.

“I felt like I had been betrayed by the justice system,” said Park.

“It just seems like every three years I’d go [to the parole hearings]. And I go three times, every time,” said Heffington. “It’s excruciating and the aftermath is never good.”

All Three Chowchilla Kidnappers Were Paroled

But the Chowchilla kidnappers were eventually all let out. Richard Shoenfield was paroled at age 57 in 2012. James Schoenfield was paroled at age 63 in 2015. And Frederick Newhall Woods IV, the last to be let out, was paroled at age 70 in August of 2022.

“To listen to him [Fred Woods] talk about his poor childhood. I don’t know if I want to laugh, cry, cuss him, or what. Because um, where did my childhood go?” It was a recording of Jodi Heffington at Fred Woods’ 15th parole hearing, taken by 48 Hours in 2018.

“Like I told him. ‘Mr. Woods, you’re not a kidnapper, you’re a thief. You’re a thief of lives. Not just the kids that were in the bus. But they stole our families’ lives. And what we all had before that,’” said Heffington.

Jodi Heffington passed away in January 2021 at the age of 55. A year and a half later, Fred Woods was released.

48 Hours: Remembering the Chowchilla Kidnapping is available for streaming on Paramount+. It can also be viewed on CBS at this link.

READ MORE: How the Lindbergh Kidnapping Became The “Trial Of The Century”

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