One of the men responsible for the 1976 Chowchilla Bus Kidnapping could be set free. The First District Court of Appeals says Richard Schoenfeld's time is up.
Schoenfeld was the youngest of the three kidnappers—17 at the time. He's spent 36 years in prison and he’s been denied parole 19 times; but this week in a 3 to 0 ruling, the appeals court says he’s served his time for what is considered the biggest kidnapping in US history.
“It really tore the town apart when it happened,” says Steve McDowell whose family owned land next to where the school bus was buried.
The crime that took place over 30 years ago won’t be forgotten. “A lot of the kids are adults and they have psychological problems. It’s still there; the trauma is still there,” says McDowell.
The three kidnappers Richard Schoenfeld, James Schoenfeld and Frederick Woods have been up for parole dozens of times—every time denied. Now, after 36 years behind bars one may be walking free. “I don't think he should get out,” says McDowell.
The First District Court of Appeals says its time.
In 2008, a parole board deemed Schoenfeld suitable for parole but it didn’t set him free. Instead it recalculated his sentence, tacking on additional years for each of the kidnapping victims. But the First District Court of Appeals in San Fransico over ruled the added years in a unanimous ruling on Tuesday; it found the parole board's decision violated its own rules—which could mean immediate release for Schoenfeld.
It’s a decision that has many in Chowchilla on edge, except one investigator who worked the case. Dale Fore says, “They paid the price; I think 36 years is enough.” It's an unpopular opinion; some even saying it's betrayal to the victims. But Fore says just because Schoenfeld gets parole doesn't mean he'll have it easy. “I imagine the public will be very critical of them.”
If the Appeals Court ruling is made final, Schoenfeld could be out in the coming weeks. If it's challenged, it will go to the California Supreme Court.
Richard Schoenfeld along with his brother James and friend Frederick Woods were arrested in 1976. They kidnapped a bus of 26 children at gun point and buried them alive. Underground 16 hours, Edward Ray the bus driver and a couple of kids dug a way out—everyone survived. “The town has a lot of hard feelings about it which I can understand,” says Fore.
If released, Schoenfeld will have lifetime supervision.
The other two kidnappers—James Schoenfeld and Frederick Woods—are both eligible for another parole hearing this year.
Christina Lusby Reporting.